Hsi-wei was making ready to split some logs he bought from his neighbor when a courier rode up, dismounted, then looked at him uncertainly. Hsi-wei lay the hatchet down and asked the man if he might be of any help.
“Are you Chen Hsi-wei, the poet?”
“And the sandal maker, yes.”
Relieved, the man squared his shoulders and delivered his message.
“Master Hsi-wei, the Lady Bao wishes to know if there is any reason she cannot visit you tomorrow.”
“None at all,” said Hsi-wei surprised by the message and amused by this roundabout way of putting it. “I will be honored to receive the lady.”
“Good. Then you can expect her around midday. She will bring provisions.”
“I will always be honored to receive Lady Bao, but did she perhaps say anything about the purpose of her visit?”
“Something about a poem she wants to discuss with you.”
“Ah. And did she say which poem?”
For more than three decades, Chen Hsi-wei led an itinerant life, traveling on foot throughout the empire united by Emperor Wen of Sui after centuries of division and warfare. He left behind him straw sandals and verses. Hsi-wei’s poems were memorized, repeated, then copied. Gradually, the only peasant/poet in China earned a measure of fame not only among the common people but with many of the high-born as well. Among the latter was the wife of Bao Rui-heng, Governor of Chiangling. Hsi-wei believed he had the governor to thank for the gift of his first and last home, a two-room cottage three li outside the city. It was only after the governor’s death that he learned he owed his refuge in retirement not to the governor but to his wife. He found this out from the man’s widow, Lady Bao herself, a formidable, intelligent, and haughty woman born into a powerful southern family. Her marriage to the future Governor Bao was a political one, arranged to cement a family alliance.
When the official period of mourning ended, Lady Bao paid Hsi-wei a visit. It was, in part, an inspection tour. She was outraged by the meanness of his tiny, rundown cottage, with its broken tiles and warped wood. This, she said indignantly, was nothing like the five-room villa and spacious garden her philistine of a husband had promised. Her visit had a second purpose. In addition to a feast prepared in the kitchen at Chiangling, she also brought a large bronze casket, the kind used to store documents. She asked Hsi-wei to borrow the manuscripts of his poems so she could have them copied and complete her collection. Hsi-wei gladly handed over all the scrolls he had, again expressing his gratitude for the cottage with which, he assured her, he was more than content.
Lady Bao and Hsi-wei spent hours together in conversation that day. They got to know one another, and each was pleased by the company of the other. The visit was a high point in Hsi-wei’s quiet life. Two weeks later, his scrolls were returned by six men who also brought new furniture and roof tiles. They made repairs to the roof, repaved his patio, and painted the cottage outside and in. Hsi-wei thanked the men and begged them to convey his gratitude to their mistress. For several months, he had heard nothing further from his benefactress.
Lady Bao’s carriage arrived around noon with two mounted men in addition to the coachman. Hsi-wei took note that, as on her first visit, she was not accompanied by any females, which was unusual for a woman of her status. Hsi-wei took it as a mark of the independence and liberation from court conventions she had spoken of relishing on her first visit.
The poet had spent the morning preparing for his guest by cleaning his cottage and sprucing up the little patio he called his courtyard, sweeping and setting out some peonies he cut from his little garden. When Lady Bao arrived, Hsi-wei hastened to greet her and helped her down from the carriage.
“I am so pleased deeply honored by your visit,” he said, bowing low. This was not empty courtesy on his part; though always courteous, Hsi-wei was never obsequious. His pleasure was sincere. He not only was indebted to Lady Bao; he genuinely liked the woman, and not merely because she thought well of his verses.
The lady, who was sparing with her smiles, seemed impatient. She nodded a perfunctory greeting to Hsi-wei then quickly turned her attention to the cottage, taking in the fresh paint—green for the walls, red for the doorway—and inspecting the newly tiled roof.
“I don’t know how to thank you enough my Lady, for the repairs and for the cottage itself. It’s more than I deserve.”
Lady Bao waved away Hsi-wei’s gratitude. “Enough of that, Master His-wei. I’ve brought baked carp, pork dumplings, rice, pickled daikon, boy choy and mushrooms in oyster sauce, also a jar of that yellow wine of which I’m told you’re fond. If I was misinformed, there’s also jasmine tea. Chu and Cai will prepare the food. I have something to discuss with you.”
“An old poem, I was told.”
“I don’t know how old it is and I was annoyed that it wasn’t among the ones you loaned me.”
“I haven’t kept copies of all my poems, my Lady, especially not the ones I wrote when I was young.”
“Well, I received a copy of this one with a letter from my friend in Luoyang, Lady Shu. She also likes your poems and wanted my opinion of this one.”
Hsi-wei bowed and invited his guest to be seated in the good chair with two pillows that he had set out for her on the patio once he was sure the weather would be fair. He took a stool and, when they were settled, said, “I may have forgotten the poem. If I had a copy of it, I would have given it to you. If I ever had one, I must have lost it.”
Lady Bao took a small scroll from the sleeve of her white linen gown. “Well,” she said, “here it is. Read it and let’s see what you remember.”
This was not the first time Hsi-wei had read a poem he had forgotten. It always gave him a contradictory feeling, that the poem was his but, at the same time, somebody else’s. The more it seemed like someone else’s, the better he liked it.
Lady Bao, who had a strong voice, called to her attendants to make haste with the food. The trip had given her an appetite. Then she turned her attention to Hsi-wei, who was still holding the scroll.
“Do you remember it now?”
“Good. What I want to know is how you came to write a poem on the theme of marital fidelity. So far as I know, you never married. Is that so?”
Hsi-wei recalled, as he never did without pain, the young widow Miao. He had loved her but, for her sake, left her behind in Daxing to marry a merchant who could provide for her better than he could ever hope to do. That difficult choice was both agonizing and consequential. It had set him on his vagabond life.
“That’s so,” he said. “I never married.”
“That’s why—apart from being intrigued by the verses themselves—I’m curious to know where they came from. I’m aware that your poems took their start from something that occurred on your travels, am I wrong?”
“No, My Lady. That’s true too.”
“Well, unlike you, I was married and not happily. Fidelity is not, for me, an abstraction. Mine was not a love match. It was about duty and endurance. I was just fifteen when I was made to marry Bao but not entirely naïve. I had a model in the late Empress Dugu. Do you know the story of the oath sworn by her husband?”
“I’ve heard the story; in fact, I’ve heard two versions.”
“In one, the future emperor swore to take no second wife and no concubines. In the second, the oath was to have no children except by Dugu.”
“That’s interesting. The first is romantic, the second smacks of politics. She was even younger than I was, only fourteen. He was all of seventeen. Theirs was a love match but also, as things turned out, an alliance of political skill, wise planning, cunning, but and moral principles. As I expect you know, Dugu was no passive consort.”
“I know about her intelligence, her leading role in certain of Wendi’s reforms. Like her husband, she favored the spread of Buddhism, but did you mean something more specific by moral principles?”
“Most specific. I observed the principles of each clearly during our years in the capital. These principles were almost obsessions. In Wendi’s case, it was thrift. The man wouldn’t wear silk. He had his cotton gowns laundered and mended; he favored simple food and rejoiced in any kind of frugality. He built storehouses all over the empire and kept them well stocked. The one in Daxing, I was told, held enough to feed the city for twenty years. Wendi lived as if he were always on campaign. With himself he was stingy, though he was always generous with his ministers and officers—the successful ones, that is.”
“And the Empress?”
“Her principle was monogamy to which she as a single-mindedly devoted as her husband was to thrift. She conducted a lifelong campaign against polygamy. I believe she would have liked your poem.”
“Yet I was told that Wendi took two concubines. Far fewer than any other ruler; but still, there were the two.”
“You’re half-informed, Master Hsi-wei. He took Cai and Chen only after Dugu’s death. He fathered children with neither. The rumor was that he didn’t even sleep with them.”
“One gets so little court gossip on the road, and it’s third-hand at best.”
“Gossip! It’s a good deal more than that where the highest are concerned,” said Lady Bao severely.
Hsi-wei acknowledged his error with a little bow.
“I’ll tell you more. Wendi and Dugu removed the title of Crown Prince from their first-born son, Yuwen Yun, because the spoiled brat was a spendthrift, which displeased his father, and he took a swarm of concubines, which angered his mother. The second son, our current ruler Yangdi, pretended to be frugal and faithful. But as the Emperor lay ill, he assaulted one of his concubines. When the girl ran to the Emperor to report this, Wendi began making preparations to restore Yuwen Yun. Then he died suddenly. You can imagine how and why.”
Hsi-wei was among those who believed Wendi had been assassinated by his unpopular successor. “I have,” he said.
“Well, this is dangerous talk,” said Lady Bao who was clearly enjoying it. “But I see that we are in agreement, and I like to be frank.” She looked toward the shaded side of the cottage where her attendants were having their lunch. “Still, it’s just as well no one can hear us.”
They spent the pleasant afternoon, speaking of where they had gone and what they had seen, eating the excellent Chiangling food and washing it down with yellow wine. The jasmine tea went undrunk.
“Now,” said Lady Bao putting down her chopsticks, “it’s time you told me the story behind your poem. Have you remembered?”
“I have and, in view of all you’ve told me, I think the story may be of some interest.”
“A promising start. Go on.”
“I was traveling far to the west and stopped in a town close to the frontier. It was a garrison town where troops were stationed to guard against incursions from Tuyuhun. I stayed in the town’s one inn where I met a captain named, if I remember correctly, Zhang Yin-chen. This Zhang was with a group of soldiers celebrating his promotion. They invited me to join them and, late in the evening, when we went outside to clear or heads, Zhang told me the story of his life. He told it in reverse, starting with how he won his promotion.
“Before the sun was up that very morning, he had saved the life of his commander. During the night a band of Turks had infiltrated, and they attacked the barracks an hour before dawn. Two of them slit the throats of the men guarding the commander’s tent and slipped inside. Zhang, who had gone to the latrine, saw by the faint moonlight what was about to happen. He grabbed his short sword, and shouting the alarm, ran straight into the tent. He dispatched the two attackers at the foot of his terrified commander’s bed.”
“An exciting story, but nothing to do with marital fidelity, or ducks.”
“That was the end of the story. This is the beginning. Zhang was the second son of a noble family, big landowners. He was given a decent education and the best military training. He excelled and was appointed an officer in the imperial guard. So, he was stationed in the capital with all its allurements. Because he had been raised leniently and had family money, he was used to indulging himself. What you said of the Crown Prince was true of Zhang as well. Had admitted that he spent recklessly, drank heavily, and took no less than four concubines, despite having married the decent young woman his father chose for him. When reports of his wasteful and unfaithful behavior reached the Empress, she advised her husband to punish the man, and Wendi did so. He had Zhang broken in rank and sent off to the most dangerous of posts.”
“Without the concubines, I presume?”
“Indeed. But his wife, though she was given the choice to stay in the capital or return to her family, pleaded to be allowed to accompany her husband, despite hardships and how poorly he had treated her. Zhang told me this moved him deeply. He too knew the story of the Emperor’s oath and swore the same to his wife. I believe her name was Huizhong,”
“It would be fitting as it means loyal. If her name wasn’t Huizhong, it ought to have been. So, that’s how you came to write about ducks, is it?”
The afternoon progressed. The sun headed west, like Zhang. The two spoke less but more freely. Hsi-wei told of some of his adventures and Lady Bao spoke of the late Governor.
“My husband,” said Lady Bao, “was a sycophant. He was often cruel, always vain, and, in most matters, a fool. He chewed with his mouth open, forgot anything he might have learned from his education. He kept half a dozen concubines, and I lost count of his affairs. His infidelities I ignored, though I drew the line at my own servants. But he was still my husband. Of course, there were illegitimate offspring, but, out of respect for me, or more likely fear, he had them all sent away. Oh, not to worry, Master. I made sure they were all provided for. Where money was concerned, Bao was the opposite of Wendi, spending freely on himself but stingy with others. Fortunately, I have resources of my own.”
“And you have spent some of them on me. Again, I don’t know how I can thank you.”
Lady Bao laughed, something of which His-wei wasn’t sure she was capable. “You can thank me by always speaking as candidly, as we’ve done today, also by sending me any new poems you might write, and by helping me finish off this yellow wine.”
Here are the verses that brought Lady Bao to Hsi-wei’s cottage that afternoon. As usual, the poet his poem no title, but the people did. They called it simply “Yuan-yang.”
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.