by Robert Wexelblatt
In the west of the Kingdom of Ch’in was a poor village called Rich-in-Stones. True enough, the land was hard to farm, the climate harsh, water scarce. Yet, as peasants always do, the people of Rich-in-Stones complained only among themselves while, to outsiders, they extolled the virtues of their village. Here Pu’i Chu-wo was born. Because he was the only boy, his four sisters served him, his grandparents indulged him, and his parents placed all their hopes in him. Nevertheless, Chu-wo was not spoiled. For one thing, his family was too poor to afford silk robes, carved jade, or even wooden toys; for another, Chu-wo was embarrassed by his exalted position in the family, particularly by the dutiful attitude of his sisters; he thought they ought to resent him. When he reached the age of ten, however, he did make use of his status by insisting that he be spared some hours of work in the fields each day and permitted to study instead. His father grew angry and was against this idea, but his mother and grandmother argued for the boy. “Ambition is good if it is matched with ability,” said the grandmother, who spoke in proverbs. So it was that the sole luxuries in the family were Chu-wo’s books, paper, ink, brushes, and, for most of a year, the board and salary of an itinerant scholar who tutored the boy.
“He is a good lad and intelligent enough,” said the tutor on the day he took up his staff to depart. “Let’s hope he will also be wise.”
When he was of age, Chu-wo, weighed down by the expectations of his family and, indeed, the entire village, left Rich-in-Stones for the capital, where he hoped to obtain some minor position in the service of King Tan.
The day before Chu-wo arrived at the castle, a clerk who had worked on the tax rosters was fatally struck on the head by a loose roof tile and, because of this misfortune, Chu-wo was, after formally pledging his allegiance to King Tan, taken on as a replacement.
The boy proved diligent and dependable, intelligent, chaste, and polite. He turned down a bribe that was offered to test him, then a much larger one as well. With delicacy, he rebuffed an offer from one of the Assistant Chamberlain’s lesser concubines, which was not a test but did much for his reputation. Thus Chu-wo was promoted until he was brought to the notice of King Tan himself, who had him summoned.
Chu-wo pressed his forehead into the floor.
The King was in a jovial mood that day. “Your superiors say you are intelligent,” he said to Chu-wo. “Tell me, then, what is it that everybody does at the same time, kings and peasants, great lords, sows, and even granite boulders?”
“Grow older, Most High.”
Everyone laughed which pleased King Tan, who then asked the young man where he was born and how he had come to the capital. Chu-wo explained his background.
“Your village has an amusing name. Here are some rich stones,” laughed the King who handed his Chamberlain three silver coins to give Chu-wo before dismissing him.
These coins, and all the money Chu-wo was able to save, he sent back to his family in Rich-in-Stones.
Two months later King Tan was distressed by a report that the people of Ku’an had driven off his tax collectors. The most remote and backward province of Ch’in, Ku’an was on the northern frontier with the barbarians and was itself deemed in the capital to be only half-civilized. The people there were just as poor as those in Rich-in-Stones. Chancellor Feng suggested to King Tan that he send the clerk Chu-wo to Ku’an.
“Surely he is too young and inexperienced. Besides, it will be dangerous,” objected the King.
“The young man has distinguished himself, Most High. He is looked on with favor by his superiors and has quickly achieved preferment. Tax collection is the business of his department. Moreover, the fellow is low-born and from the provinces himself. He may know how to deal with the louts of Ku’an.”
Feng, who had been keeping an eye on Chu-wo even before the incident of the riddle, did not mean to do him good in this business; quite the contrary. Mean as were Chu-wo’s origins, Feng saw in him a potential rival and, as he did with all such men, he intended to arrange that he should lose favor. If the young man failed in his commission, or if the people in Ku’an did away with him, so much the better. If, in the improbable event that he somehow succeeded in extracting their taxes, then half the credit would go to Feng.
King Tan called Chu-wo to him. Again Chu-wo pressed his forehead into the floor of the audience chamber. King Tan gave him his commission.
“You will have a retinue of six warriors. They are all I can spare. See that you bring back to me something of real value.”
“As you wish, Most High.”
The journey to Ku’an was difficult, the weather contrary. It took Chu-wo and his small retinue most of a month to get there. The warriors were anxious the whole way, but Chu-wo calmed them by each night telling them one of the tales he had heard from his grandmother. He chose only those stories in which brave soldiers are rewarded with treasure and peasant girls become queens and live in pavilions with names like Willow Branch Colonnade and Chamber of the Celestial Iris.
In Ku’an the peasants were silent and looked at the seven men resentfully as they rode by. When Chu-wo arrived in Wu, the capital of Ku’an, he installed himself at the Inn of the Two Medlar Trees and had his warriors put on a display of their martial skills in the market square. When they had finished he said sternly to the crowd that King Tan could, if he chose, send ten thousand such men to Ku’an. He then sent couriers to summon all the chief men of the province to meet with him in the square in three days’ time.
While he waited, Chu-wo walked about the town and spoke to the people in the common way he knew from his childhood in Rich-in-Stones. He chatted about this and that—weather, crops, the dishonesty of the last governor, whether the King’s taxes were too high, and what was going on among the barbarians across the frontier. These were the topics he chose with the men, but he spoke with women as well. He asked these who the local beauties were and they all bragged about an unfortunate girl named Mei-lei, whose father had recently died. Even by the standards of Ku’an, she was so destitute that, notwithstanding her surpassing beauty, no man would marry her.
On the third day, most of the men he summoned had gathered, grumbling and looking sour. Chu-wo, dressed in the stiff silk gown and sash of a court official, stood above them on a daïs he had ordered to be built for the purpose. He sternly looked over the men then asked one of his warriors to hand him the tax roster for the province. He looked to another of his retinue and snapped his fingers. The warrior, perplexed, came to his side. Chu-wo whispered into the man’s ear and pointed across the square to where a dumpling-seller had set up his booth. Perplexed and somewhat reluctantly, the man went to the dumpling-seller’s brazier and returned with a burning brand from the fire beneath it. Chu-wo had the scroll unrolled by two of his men then lit it in three places. In shocked silence everybody watched the tax roster go up in flames.
“The King will cut out your tongue; he’ll slice off your hands and then lop off your head,” hissed one of his men. Chu-wo ignored him and addressed the crowd.
“I will return to the capital without your taxes. I have burnt this year’s roster at King Tan’s direction because he feels in his heart how hard things have been for his people here in Ku’an.”
There were cries of amazement; blessings were heaped on good King Tan.
“But,” said Chu-wo, “there is one thing of great value from Ku’an that, with your consent, I would like to take back to our King. That is the girl Mei-lei, with whose widowed mother I will leave five jin of gold.”
The chief men of Ku’an thought this an excellent bargain.
On Chu-wo’s return to the capital, Chamberlain Feng was quick to denounce his failure to carry out the King’s commission. He looked forward to Chu-wo’s humiliation, to seeing how harshly King Tan would deal with the upstart. Would it be banishment, torture, or instant execution? Feng would have to apologize to the King for his warm heart that led him to trust too readily in the good reports he had received of Chu-wo.
The audience chamber was full. Nobody liked to miss the chance to witness another’s humiliation.
“Explain yourself,” demanded King Tan.
Chu-wo, forehead flat against the floor, did so.
“Most High, Ku’an is even poorer than people say. There was a flood in the spring and then drought all through the summer. They have also suffered from raids by the northern barbarians. Even if you sent an army to strip the land, the tax roster of Ku’an still would not be satisfied by half. However, you asked me to bring back something of value. I have brought you two.”
Feng scoffed at Chu-wo’s being taken in by the excuses of the people of Ku’an and at his unheard-of arrogance. The rest of the court followed suit.
“What things?” thundered the King.
“The first is the loyalty of the people of Ku’an. I told them that King Tan had remitted their taxes for one year out of compassion for the hard times they have suffered. They were grateful beyond measure, Most High, and, unless I am mistaken, this good will shall prove its value before long. The peasants of Ku’an say that the barbarians are making preparations invade Ch’in. Before we left, the warriors and I gave the people some advice on that matter.”
The King, though intrigued, was not yet mollified. “And what is the second thing of value you’ve brought me from Ku’an?”
“May I rise, Most High?”
“On your feet.”
Chu-wo backed from the chamber and returned moments later leading the incomparably lovely Mei-lei, whom he had suitably attired for presentation to the King. Though terrified, the girl controlled herself as Chu-wo had instructed her. She looked as serene as a spirit from another world, a vision.
Chu-wo was neither punished nor rewarded. He was sent back to his tax rosters and his status remained uncertain.
Two months later the barbarians did attempt to invade Ch’in. As they passed through a defile in the mountains they were stopped by the people of Ku’an, who rolled huge boulders down on them. Chu-wo and his men had shown the peasants how to use fulcrums to move the rocks and where to place them. Many barbarians perished, and the survivors fled back to the north.
When news of this event reached the capital, King Tan, who delighted in his new concubine, sent rich gifts to the people of Ku’an and elevated Chu-wo to the rank of minister. Half of his handsome new salary he sent to Rich-in-Stones; most of the remainder he dedicated to the establishment of a hospital for the poor.
The crafty Feng was furious at Chu-wo’s success and set in motion a plot against him. He had a rumor put about that Chu-wo had not remitted the taxes in Ku’an but had struck a deal with the richest men of the province to pay a quarter of the sum directly to him. How else could he afford to endow a hospital, let alone to support the poor poets and scholars everybody knew flocked to him? There were those who defended Chu-wo; but, as Chamberlain Feng had influence over King Tan and was notoriously vindictive, people were reluctant to cross him and soon even Chu-wo’s friends fell silent.
Finally, Chu-wo was summoned by the King.
“You deny this report, Chu-wo?”
“I do, Most High.”
“Chamberlain Feng says it is so.”
“Then the Lord Chamberlain is mistaken.”
“He produced two men from Ku’an who swear he is not.”
“I am not worthy to argue in your presence but, with respect, Most High, two men may be persuaded to speak untruths.”
King Tan drew his brows together. “I had one beheaded in front of the other. The other did not change his story.”
“I grieve for them both,” sighed Chu-wo into the floor.
“Mei-lei alone defends you.”
“I am glad.”
“That means nothing,” said the King. “You did her a good turn. She’s naïve, still a child. But for her sake I have chosen to banish you. Leave the castle tonight. If you are not out of my kingdom in three days’ time even Mei-lei’s weeping won’t save you.”
So Chu-wo left Ch’in in disgrace and crossed the border into Shu, the land of Duke Tsien.
Tsien was an intelligent and prudent ruler. He appreciated the proverb that says the mouse must keep a close watch on the elephant. He had spies in Ch’in so the abilities, character, and fate of Chu-wo were known to the Duke. He sent men to seek out the exile and fetch him to his castle.
No longer was Chu-wo sending good things to Rich-in-Stones, supporting poets, or wearing silk gowns; yet once again he found himself pressing his forehead against the floor of an audience chamber.
“Chu-wo,” said the Duke.
“I am here, Lord.”
“Are you able to tell me the meaning of a verse from Laozi?”
“I can only try.”
“Good. The verse is, The scholar wears rough clothing and carries jade inside.”
Chu-wo nearly raised his head.
“What is its meaning?” asked the Duke in a pleasant voice.
“People used to say it was because scholars dressed in woolen coats and carried their manuscripts against their hearts in jade bindings. The true meaning is that the genuine scholar cares little for shows of wealth and much for wisdom and uprightness. Likewise grammar.”
The Duke laughed. “Well, your clothing is certainly rough but I wonder, do you carry jade inside, Chu-wo?”
“I hope to, Most High.”
“On your feet then.”
That very day Chu-wo swore an oath of allegiance to Duke Tsien, who made him one of his ministers. The Duke had reason to be pleased by his act. He received nothing but wise advice from Chu-wo. Every task assigned the man was executed efficiently and with justice. He became popular at court for his good manners, learning, and sound sense, but also with the common people, who petitioned him by scores, saying, “See how he dresses and how he talks? He’s one of us.” Indeed, Duke Tsien allowed his new minister to dress in rough clothing, except on formal occasions, when he sent Chu-wo the finest silk garments and insisted that he wear them.
And so for two years events flowed as smoothly in Shu as the Yangtze in summer. Then a serious crisis arrived. King Tan of Ch’in sent a demand that Duke Tsien of Shu cede Wen, his richest province, or there would be war.
The Duke’s spies had kept him abreast of developments in Ch’in. For instance, they informed him that after Chu-wo’s exile Chamberlain Feng had risen to become First Minister and wielded more influence over King Tan than ever. He also knew that Mei-lei, the lowest of Tan’s concubines, was the one he loved best. The spies had hinted that something seemed to be brewing but failed to caution him, or to discover, that war was imminent.
The Duke called a conference of all the ministers of Shu, also his provincial governors. He informed them of the peril, and solicited their advice.
Everyone was shocked. Relations between Ch’in and Shu had been peaceful for as long as any of them had been alive.
“The population of Ch’in is ten times that of Shu,” said one minister at last, a man who always stated the obvious.
“Most High, you should send all our forces to the border at once,” said the governor of Wen. “Perhaps a pre-emptive attack will make King Tan think again.”
Meanwhile, Chu-wo was troubled. His scrupulous conscience reminded him that he had, after all, sworn allegiance to both Duke Tsien and also to King Tan; exile did not cancel his oath. His mind was also at work. One of his correspondents in Ch’in kept him up to date with court gossip and, combining this information with that of the Duke’s spies, Chu-wo had formed certain suppositions that now seemed substantiated.
“Most High,” he said to the Duke, “I humbly beg to be sent to Ch’in as your special ambassador.”
“A terrible idea!” roared the bellicose governor of Wen. “To send a special ambassador will only confirm our weakness.”
“Our weakness needs no confirmation,” the Duke replied sensibly.
“The King of Ch’in will execute Chu-wo as soon as he shows up in the capital, if he even gets that far. He was banished on pain of death,” pointed out the Minister for Public Works.
“Ambassadors are sacred and immune,” answered the Duke.
“With respect, Most High, can you be sure? King Tan has threatened us without cause. To trust him may be unwise.”
“No more can Chu-wo be trusted,” chimed in the governor of Wen. “Did he not swear allegiance to the King of Ch’in?”
Chu-wo remained silent, surprised that the governor of Wen had thought of the very thing that was so perturbing him.
Duke Tsien looked hard at Chu-wo. “It’s true that you would be risking your life.”
“Certainly,” said Chu-wo in a firm voice. “But my purpose is to prevent a war which would cost the lives of thousands.”
“And what of your two oaths?”
“Most High, to preserve the peace would, in my opinion, serve the great rulers of both Ch’in and Shu, as well as their people.”
In the end, Duke Tsien decided both to fortify his border with Ch’in and, despite his misgivings, to send Chu-wo to King Tan as special ambassador.
When Chu-wo beheld the gray battlements and red tiles of King Tan’s castle towering above the blue spruces and green pines, when he glimpsed the ladies of the court gossiping in the gardens under their scarlet and yellow parasols, the couriers dashing between offices and the clerks deep in conversation as they strolled outside the walls, he was overtaken by an unexpected nostalgia. There were so many people here he missed, including the King.
The passport furnished him by Duke Tsien was a particularly gaudy document that quite cowed the border guards. Chu-wo, himself impressively clothed, and his escort of twelve knights in burnished armor, were not delayed on their way, except by the peasants who gaped at them passing on the road. Those who recognized Chu-wo enthusiastically called out his name.
At the castle gate Chu-wo was separated from his retinue, who were disarmed, their horses led to the royal stables. A flunkey conducted him to the smallest of the guest apartments. Chu-wo, in his most commanding voice, told the fellow to convey the message that he wished to see the King at his earliest convenience. He was kept waiting two hours, but he made good use of the time. He sought out an old friend, one of the castle laundresses, and asked if she would be able to deliver a letter privately to Mei-lei. “You must not show it to anyone else,” he cautioned her.
She was so pleased to see Chu-wo that the old woman couldn’t resist patting his cheek. “Anything for our boy from Rich-in-Stones,” she said, shoving the letter under her skirt. “Oh, how we’ve missed you!”
King Tan received Chu-wo formally with all his court. First Minister Feng stood close by his master’s side. Chu-wo again pressed his forehead into the floor of Tan’s assembly chamber, and the familiar scent conjured up many memories.
“Well, we see the Duke of Tsien means to insult us by sending back one we have sent away,” said the King.
“No, Most High, not to insult, but to forestall an unjust and unnecessary catastrophe for Ch’in and Shu.”
Feng whispered into the King’s ear. “As you know, said Tan, “we demand the province that sits on the untenable border between Ch’in and Shu. If you are here to turn Wen over to us, good; if not, then we will take it.”
Chu-wo then delivered a short oration, studded with erudite quotations, on the miseries of war and the blessings of peace. No one paid much attention to this and Feng made disparaging noises throughout. Then Chu-wo addressed King Tan directly.
“Most High, the Duke of Shu has entrusted me with an important message meant for your ears only. I humbly beg a few minutes alone with you to deliver it.”
Feng called this unheard-of request an outrage. “The thief will murder you!”
With far more calm than he felt, Chu-wo offered to strip and show he concealed no more weapons than he did violent intentions.
King Tan hesitated. Feng objected again and Chu-wo saw the King look furtively at his First Minister with a mixture of fear and suspicion before making up his mind. Then, with an impassive face, he declared, “We will see Tsien’s ambassador alone. Clear the room.”
Only ten minutes later, Chu-wo backed out of the audience chamber and returned to his apartment, where he found food and drink.
Soon after nightfall, Chu-wo, wearing his rough clothing, secretly slipped out of his apartment and stealthily made his way to the women’s quarters. In the empty Chamber of Three Paradises he found King Tan and two huge guards waiting for him.
In silence, the four men then passed behind a peacock screen, squeezed through a tight doorway, and made their way down a narrow interior corridor into a large closet which had been cleared of its contents.
Minutes later they heard a conversation between a man and a woman, the Lady Mei-lei and Minister Feng.
“At last,” said Feng. “How you’ve made me burn!”
“Do you really love me?”
“Since the day you first arrived from that hell-hole Ku’an and with a fire you’ve stoked to a blaze. Who’d have thought a sty like that could produce such a perfect ruby.”
“Lord Feng, I have endangered my life by permitting you to come into this room. What are your prospects? If I consent to your pleadings what will become of me?”
“Ha! So that’s what’s been worrying you, is it? Mei-lei, I am a crafty and ambitious man, the kind of man who always arrives at his destination. Just look at how easily I got rid of that upstart, Chu-wo, and established myself as Tan’s First Minister. And now I’ve arranged this pleasant little war with Shu.”
“In what way?”
“In the way of making you my queen. Listen. King Tan will lead the army to attack Shu. Of course he won’t be in the forefront, at the point of greatest danger; however, he will be on the field where there are always risks. I have an archer in my employ, a most excellent bowman. The fortunes of war are unpredictable and a stray arrow can accomplish wonders. When Tan is dead it will be easy to dispose of his young heir and make myself king—and you, pearl plucked from a midden, will be my queen. And now—”
Together King Tan and Chu-wo pushed down the screen behind which they were concealed. It crashed to the floor. The two guards quickly seized Feng. No torture was required for the former first minister to divulge the identity of the treacherous archer and his other confederates. All were beheaded.
Needless to say, there was a great banquet and no war between Ch’in and Shu.
What had Chu-wo written to Mei-lei? And what did he say in private to King Tan? The former may be guessed but here are Chu-wo’s words:
Honored Lady Mei-lei,
If I am brief I hope you will pardon the discourtesy. Time is short
Unless I am mistaken, you have long been pestered by Minister
Feng. You chastely refused his attentions and prudently concealed them
from our master.
Much depends on what I am going to ask you to do—not just
your precious life and my worthless one, but the lives of thousands in
Shu and Ch’in, and, as I believe, King Tan’s as well. You must be brave.
I want you to arrange an assignation with Feng tonight at the
fourth watch and in your own bedchamber. Beforehand, please open
the door of your large closet, clear it of everything stored there, and
place a screen before it. You need also to see that the lock on the entrance
to the interior corridor is undone. When the First Minister comes you
will ask him if he loves you. He will, I am sure, say that he does.
Then you must ask him about his prospects, his plans for your future
You will not see me, but you will not be alone. I implore you
to think of the people of Ku’an and do as I ask.
Because she had always been grateful to him and because she had pleaded for him with King Tan, Chu-wo had reason to hope that Mei-lei would follow his instructions, but persuading King Tan to do so was more difficult. He made good use of the gossip he had received, his own intelligence, and also the sincerity with which he spoke. As for King Tan, he had missed Chu-wo and had begun to doubt the story of his corruption, which Chu-wo’s successor had been unable to confirm. He was never at ease with the ambitious and jealous Feng and he admitted that the war was Feng’s idea. But the point that convinced the King was one that touched nearer his heart.
“Most High, when I was slandered—by Feng, of course—who was the only person who defended me?”
“We know how vindictive your First Minister is, how little he can endure being opposed. Yet nothing happened to Mei-lei.”
Not only was peace between Ch’in and Shu preserved, it was made durable when, some years later, Chu-wo made the arrangements for Tan’s oldest son to wed Tsien’s second daughter.