Hsi-Wei and The Twin Disasters

  The following is drawn from the Tang Minister Fang Xuan-ling’s account of his extensive conversations with the peasant/poet Chen Hsi-wei, whom he visited in his retirement at his cottage near Chiangling. Minister Fang customarily relates Hsi-wei’s stories about the sources of his poems.  In this instance, however, he questioned Hsi-wei about a particular poem, not one celebrated at court, though it is said to have been popular with peasants.  As Fang does not include the poem itself in his manuscript, it has been interpolated following his opening remarks.
The conclusion of Hsi-wei’s poem called “Between Flood and Drought,” a minor piece, has always puzzled me. I resolved to find out what was behind it.
It happens now and then that rain pours like
a judgment on Shannan Tung.  Then Yangtze
laughs at its banks as if the greedy
dragon meant to seize all the land, anything
that’s dry in the Empire, for its own.
It happens from time to time that rain sits tight
in heaven, enthralled by some celestial
tale or stunned by the heat of the sun, and
refuses to leave the clouds.  Then crops
wither and gusts blow away the soil like smoke.
If the river wishes, it can overwhelms even
the biggest oxen, turns wide fields to lakes,
and drowns those who bend their backs to plant. 
If the rains won’t fall, the brown land sprouts
only the dusty graves of hopeless harvesters.
Like rope-walkers in a gale, peasants stagger
between flood and drought.  No matter
how careful of their balance or what pains
they take, they may be blown left or right.
No matter, as ruin lies on either side.
Think how patient a weaver Fortune is,
 how two cradles can yield three fates. 
Out of too much water came salvation
and from too little a shining act
that, in a dark time, lit up the land.
I arrived at the Master’s cottage earlier than usual, well before noon. Hsi-wei welcomed me with fresh tea and a dish of pickled radishes.  As we made ourselves comfortable on his little terrace the Master remarked on how fine the weather had been.  I seized on this to ask him about his floods and drought poem.
“It’s straightforward,” I said, “and does what your work does better than anyone’s; I mean to remind those who read it of the peasants’ harsh lives.  But the last stanza, if you can recall it, is obscure.  It makes me think there must be some story behind it.”
“Which stanza, My Lord?” he asked politely.  “You must pardon my memory. These days it often gets up from the table rudely, without excusing itself.”
Think how two cradles can yield three fates?” I prompted.
“Oh yes.”  The Master slapped his thigh and broke into a smile.  “I was young when I wrote that.  It was shortly after I left the capital.  For no particular reason, I’d decided to head for Shannan Tung province.  Yes, I remember now.  How could I ever forget that dreadful time?  The summer was relentless and the sky almost cloudless.  The great river had fallen so low that in many places a ten-year-old could wade across.  The tributaries were dusty gullies, memories of brooks.  All the ditches and canals were bone-dry.  The result was famine.  Pitiless hunger.  No customers for straw sandals; in fact, there was a surplus, so many pairs left behind by their owners.  As always, the children and the old bore the brunt.  I passed through harrowing scenes.  Even some large towns were abandoned.  Empty lanes and shallow graves.  Though neither too young nor too old, I was soon in serious straits myself.  Then I came to a district where, though water was strictly rationed, the cisterns and wells closely guarded, everyone was well fed.  I passed through four such villages, the largest of which was Haidong where I stayed for a couple of days.
“I remember that everything there was unusually neat and clean.  This was because there was no point in going to the fields so the people kept busy painting houses, fixing fences, sweeping the sand and dust from the lanes, seeing to their surviving chickens and pigs.  I had several customers in Haidong and I asked one how it happened that the people of the region had managed to feed themselves while all around people were starving.
“‘Wang Ling-jiang!’ answered the man at once.  ‘Our landlord, may Shennong
bless him and us all.  He’s the one who’s been feeding us—and not only out of his storehouses either. He’s paid Heaven knows how much to bring in supplies from the north.  When this drought took hold, he made a vow right here in the market that no one on his land will go wanting.’
“I was astonished.  Elsewhere, the rich landlords had not opened their stores but kept them locked and guarded.  As for the poor landlords, they were as badly off as their tenants.  Naturally, I was eager to meet this Wang Ling-jiang.
“‘I will introduce you myself, stranger,’ said the friendly fellow.  ‘Don’t worry about your rough clothes.  Mr. Wang won’t mind; he’s a friend to all travelers.  And he visits us every day to see how we’re faring.’
“Here the man pointed to a low hill to the west. At the top sprawled a red-painted, old-fashioned, one-floor house, squat and sturdy, and several outbuildings.”
“Did you get to meet this marvelous landlord?”
“I did indeed and that very day, too.  As promised, he came to the marketplace.  I watched him walk down from the villa accompanied by one servant.  Wang carried a pouch and I saw take from it treats for the children who ran to greet him.”
“What did the man look like?”
“He was humbly dressed, not like the proud landlords in high hats I’d seen elsewhere.  He was of medium height and as sturdily built as his villa.  To tell the truth, he looked like a peasant.  He had one of those broad faces that are common in the region; his eyes disappeared when he smiled.  And he smiled easily, a cheerful man.  When he came to the market where I was offering straw sandals, my friendly customer, true to his word, accosted him and brought him to me.
“‘Welcome, stranger,’ he said, and with almost the same breath asked, ‘Are you in need?’
“I told him I wouldn’t refuse some water and perhaps a little food, because it was the truth.  No use pretending otherwise.
“‘Then you shall have both,’ said Wang Ling-jiang and ordered his servant to go the guard at the well and fetch me back a cup of water, also two dumplings and a bowl of rice from the nearest home.
“I ate and drank greedily.  Wang watched me with evident pleasure.  And, after I’d refreshed myself, he inquired about me. I gave him a brief account of myself.”
“Did you tell him about your poems?”
“No, I omitted any mention of them.”
“Was that out of modesty?”
“Rather doubt of my ability. It was a long time before I felt entitled to call myself a poet.  Even now, it makes me uncomfortable.  But what I did say so interested him that he asked me to come to his villa at nightfall so we could talk more.  ‘We get little news here, and what we get is all bad.  I’d like to hear about what you’ve seen on your travels and especially about the capital.’
“Of course I agreed.”
“You were, I imagine, as eager to hear his story as he was to hear yours.”
“I was.  But I would have agreed to anything this virtuous man asked of me.”
“You were poor, half his age, and a vagabond.  How did he greet you?”
“Most graciously.  He met me at the door himself.  The interior of the villa was as old-fashioned as the outside.  All the seats and cushions, the carved wood and couches were well cared for, though they must have dated from long before Emperor Wen’s time.
“We shared a modest meal, rice and vegetables, no meat, served by the same man who’d accompanied Wang to the market. After we’d set the dishes aside I described Daxing and the Emperor’s innovations after which I related the horrors I had seen in the province.  I made special mention of how the gentry had locked themselves away and shared nothing with the peasants.  Then I ventured to ask my host about his extraordinary generosity; for it was clear the good man was denying himself for the sake of his tenants, that, in fact, he was ruining himself.
Wang Ling-jiang was about to speak when two women came into the room.  One was my host’s age and she was assisting the other, an aged lady dressed in faded silk, who moved painfully with a cane.  They had apparently come to wish Wang a good night but perhaps also to see with whom he was conversing.  The younger woman had Wang’s round face and cheerful eyes.  As I learned later, she was Wang’s twin sister, Jiao-jiang, and she greeted me courteously.  The other he introduced as their mother, Lady Wang Mingzhu.  Her face was narrow and her eyes cold.  She scowled, said good night to Wang but nothing to me.  Then she turned to Jiao-jiang and said curtly, ‘Take me to my bed.’”
“So, then you heard a story?”
“Yes, indeed. Wang told me a marvelous story about him and his sister, about his two fathers and two mothers.  Later, in the village, I picked up more details.”
“I’m all attention, Master.”
Hsi-wei paused, got to his feet and stretched.  “Yesterday I bought some dried fish and a friend brought some newly-picked bok choy.  Will you stay for lunch? I think I might be able to finish telling Wang’s tale by then.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Master,” I replied, enticed less by dried fish and white vegetables than the promise of a tale to explain the ending of the Master’s poem.
Hsi-wei resumed his seat, and settled himself.
“Wang and his sister,” he began, “were not the offspring of the rich landlord Wang Honghui and his proud wife Mingzhu.  They were born to a desperately poor ferryman and his sickly wife, the Jiangs.  Ling and his sister didn’t learn this for years, not until Wang Honghui told them on his deathbed.  Here’s what happened.
“As you well know, the Yangtze has its bad moods, like any great dragon.  At times it crouches low, as during that dreadful drought; but at others it rears up and behaves in the contrary fashion.”
I nodded and quoted Hsi-wei’s poem.  “Laughs at its banks.”
Hsi-wei was pleased that I remembered the phrase.  “Wang’s story started with a flood as terrible for the people as the drought I witnessed.  Worse yet, the flood came without warning.  Not much rain had fallen on Haidong, but upstream a great deal had.  As a result, people weren’t prepared and the river rose so swiftly, during a single afternoon and night, that everyone was overwhelmed and many were lost.  The water rushed through the villages and grew so deep that even the Wang house up on the hill was threatened.
“As it happened, two weeks earlier Mingzhu had given birth to twins and, on the same day, so did Mrs. Jiang.  The peasants considered this wonderful coincidence must be a sign from the gods, but couldn’t say of what.
“When the water rose through the town Wang and his wife grabbed as much money as they could, and put the infants into a double cradle, a gift from Mingzhu’s wealthy uncle.  It was a fancy affair, that cradle, made of sandalwood decorated with heavy silver and inlaid jade.  Wang took the cradle and the children’s nurse and, over Mingzhu’s objections, they fled toward, rather than away from, the river.
“The Jiangs had neither money nor sandalwood cradles.  But they did have an old crate discarded by fishermen and into this they placed their swaddled babies.  Then they made their way to the place where Jiang had moored his small ferry, rushing to get to the boat before it should be swept away.  Just as they reached the boat, the Wangs arrived too.  Honghui was desperate to get hold of anything that would hold his family and float.  He offered Jiang a huge sum for his ferry.  But the craft was small.  Jiang pointed out that it couldn’t hold all five adults and the infants too.  If they all got in, the boat it was sure to be swamped.  Honghui doubled his offer.  Jiang, the poor man, was tempted.  Perhaps he and his wife could survive without the boat?  He agreed to take the money and give up his ferry but on one condition.  The Wangs must take their children aboard.  ‘There’s enough room for them and your nurse too. We’ll take our chances,’ said Jiang, ‘but you must promise that, if my wife and I die, you’ll raise our children as if they were your very own.  If you want my boat, you must swear this by the gods.’
“By then water was already surging around their waists.  So Wang took the oath, pressed the money into Jiang’s hand, and hastened his wife into the boat, also the nurse, holding the cradle high. With her tears adding to the flood, Mrs. Jiang leaned into the ferry and gently placed the rough box holding her twins at the nurse’s feet.  Then she and her husband waded back towards the darkened town and were never seen again.
“The darkness grew nearly total as little craft bobbed and yawed in the flood.  The wind was blew hard and Wang was not skilled in using the oar.  The women screamed as the ferry rose and fell.  Then the bow struck an uprooted tree.  They were lifted high then boat crashed down on its side and nearly capsized.  The cradle was pitched into the water and so was the fisherman’s crate.  With a cry, the faithful nurse leaned halfway out of the boat to retrieve the sandalwood cradle with its jade and silver fittings, but it sank like a block of iron.  The wooden box, however, floated long enough for her to grab hold of it.  Then Honghui grabbed her sash and hauled her back into the boat.
“The Wangs were devastated.  In her grief, Mingzhu tried to throw the two peasant twins overboard.  ‘Why should these insects live!’ she cried.  Honghui and the nurse had to struggle to restrain her.
“They rode out the flood; the night passed; the river calmed and withdrew to its course.  The Wangs returned to their villa, and Honghui began the repairs on the old house.  The village below, though, was ruined and many had perished.  Honghui decided he must bear his misfortune and keep his vow.  He adopted Ling and Jiao, gave them his name, hired tutors for them, dressed them well, and in every way treated them as he would his own lost twins.  His wife, however, became even haughtier and far more bitter.  The villagers assured me that was why she was never again able to conceive and that she was never kind to the twins, though both were good children who served her obediently and honored her as their mother.  And they believed she really was their mother because Honghui ordered that Ling and Jiao should be kept ignorant of their true history.  And so they were until, as he lay dying, Honghui told them all.
“Ling inherited his adopted father’s wealth, lands, buildings, and all his goods.  He never replaced a single stick of furniture but maintained everything as it had been.  As for Jiao, she had many suitors not only because she was modest and good-looking, but because it was known that her brother would offer a large dowry.  Yet Jiao declined all offers, saying that it was her duty to care for Mingzhu.  That’s the sort of woman she was.
“Ling, raised to be the greatest man in the district, the one to whom all must kowtow, thought long and hard about who he really was and how he ought to live.  The peasants told me that it was then that he added the jiang to his and his sister’s names, to honor their father and mother and as a token of their divided identity.”
Here Hsi-wei stopped speaking.
“So that’s why he took so much care for the peasants,” I said.  “Of course!  Two cradles and three fates.”
“I see now.  Out of too much water came salvation.  Wang Ling-jiang was spared from the flood and saved his tenants from the drought.  From too little a shining act.”
Hsi-wei nodded and sat back quietly for a while, looking into the distance, then he spoke in a soft voice.  “I was young when I made my way through Shannan Tung.  The horrors of the drought impressed me, but this tale moved me even more.  Like Ling-jiang, I’m a peasant myself, one with a little education.  I felt I had to write his story down in some way.  I think many poems are written because poets can’t help it.”
Then the Master slapped his thigh, got to his feet, and said loudly, “But now let’s see about that dried fish and bok choy.”

Robert Wexelblatt

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg’s Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.