Early in the reign of Emperor Yang, the peasant/poet Chen Hsi-wei was making his way through Jizhou. He had no particular destination but thought he might visit the city of Dingxiang. It was a wet November. Hsi-wei was drenched and cold and a long way from the prefectural capital when he found shelter with a peasant family. Like so many families Hsi-wei encountered on his travels, the Huans were missing men, both a father and an uncle. Though he knew what she would say, Hsi-wei felt it proper to give Mrs. Huan a chance to speak about what concerned her most. He asked after her husband.
“The army,” said Mrs. Huan in a tone that might have signified, “in the grave.”
Mei, her younger daughter, a girl of eleven or twelve, took her mother’s hand and disagreed with forced cheerfulness. “They said it could be the canal, the Grand Canal, Mother. They said people come back after a year, two at the most.”
Mrs. Huan scoffed, gave a shrug.
“It must be difficult to manage.”
Bao, the older daughter, who was fifteen or sixteen, spoke sharply and with pride. “We manage as you see. But what I’d like to know is how you manage, sir. I mean, why haven’t they taken you?” Suddenly, her tone changed from accusing to hopeful. “Or did they take you, and you’ve actually returned, is that it? Or have you escaped? I’ve never heard of anyone returning. Is it possible?”
Bao had struck him in a vulnerable spot. Hsi-wei felt embarrassed and pained. “No, I was never taken. It’s probably because I’m always on the move. The Empire likes to do things methodically and, you see, I’m not registered in any prefecture.”
“So you hide from the roving conscription gangs—the ones that aren’t so ‘methodical’?” asked Bao.
Hsi-wei nodded. “I confess that I have, once or twice.”
“Then I say good for you!” Mei exclaimed, clapping her hands. “I wish that’s what Father and Uncle had done.”
Bao was entitled to be proud of how they had managed. Though it was not growing season, Hsi-wei could see that the land had been well tended. The house was in need of some repairs and paint, but it was neat, the floors swept and washed.
When he arrived at their door in the late afternoon, tired and wet, Mrs. Huan looked at Hsi-wei almost fearfully. Her daughters stood behind her, Mei expectant, Bao looking almost put out. Mrs. Huan became less suspicious when he told her their elderly neighbor, Mr. Chen, with whom he happened to share a family name, had directed him to her. “Mr. Chen said he regretted he had nothing suitable for me and suggested you might be able to put me up for the night,” explained the poet. He offered to make Mrs. Huan, Bao, and Mei fine straw sandals if they could spare a corner for him to sleep in, and perhaps a little rice with a vegetable or two, a small cup of tea.
“I think we can do that,” said Mrs. Huan.
Hsi-wei bowed, thanked her, and said he’d noticed a broken barrow by the door. He offered to fix it.
“We’d prefer help with the roof,” said practical Bao, pointing up to a damp spot on the ceiling.
Emperor Wen initiated vast projects, restoring and extending the Great Wall and digging the Grand Canal. He had begun wars to secure and extend the Empire. He raised taxes; the peasants could pay in kind, with labor, or military service. Staggering numbers died at the works and in the wars. The people grumbled and, here and there, rebelled. However, when they considered all the good Wendi had done, for the most part they submitted. And Emperor Wen did accomplish a great deal, beginning with the reunification of the country after three centuries of disorder. He reformed the state’s antiquated and corrupt administration. He simplified the Empire’s political structure and re-allocated land in a way that was more fair and productive. For the first time in memory, the cities had surpluses of food. Wendi brought back the examination system and centralized all government appointments, at once raising the quality of the civil service and freeing people from the system of nepotism under which officials were drawn from the richest, best connected local families. Wendi’s first reform was to replace the system of traditional punishments—which included dismemberment and even the execution of three generations of a criminal’s family—with the humane Kaihuang Code. His second was to standardize the currency by minting new Wu Zhu coins to replace the old private and local currencies.
Emperor Wen was succeeded by his tyrannical, sybaritic, and vicious son, the Emperor Yang who, according to rumor, assassinated his father. In his travels, Hsi-wei observed how conditions worsened under Yangdi. Taxes were further increased and with them conscription. Millions lay under the Great Wall; and more than half the workers sent to the Grand Canal died by drowning, mudslide, exhaustion, hunger, or exposure. The new Emperor’s military ambitions exceeded even his father’s. He sent vast armies to invade Champa in the south and Goguryeo in the north. All these campaigns failed with colossal losses.
Like many others, Hsi-wei missed Emperor Wen.
Bao sent Hsi-wei back to Mr. Chen to fetch straw from his late-wheat harvest. The sun was down when he returned, and Mrs. Huan prepared a dinner of rice with bok choy, mushrooms, and some dried pork. Mei made a pot of tea of which she was quite proud.
The meal ran late because the Huans had so many questions. It seemed to them that the guest who had come from nowhere had been everywhere. Mrs. Huan was amazed that he had lived in the old capital of Chang’an when it was still known as Daxing and had also visited the new one, Luoyang. She wanted to know all about both. How wide were the streets? Had he seen the Rotating Pavilion? What were the Buddhist temples like—simple or very grand? Did all the people in the capital dress in silk? Were the women as haughty as they were said to be? He had trekked through the southern provinces and climbed the Yellow Mountains. He had visited the Grand Canal and had even seen the ocean. Bao refused to believe that he had really been to all these places; yet she had more questions than either her mother or her little sister. Hsi-wei was glad to answer. He described the new temples erected by Wendi and the old Buddhist monastery at which he had stayed. He told them how poverty and wealth pushed up against each other in the cities and how the countryside suffered through ferocious droughts and relentless floods.
Mei wanted to know more about Hsi-wei himself. What adventures had he had? Hsi-wei obliged by telling her a few of his experiences, and Mei, her eyes shining, begged for more stories. He never mentioned his poetry or how the little fame they had won him led to his being well received in this or that province. It delighted him, as it always did, to be among good people who knew nothing of his writing and took him for what he truly was—a vagabond peasant who, as a boy, had learned the craft of sandal-making from an uncle.
It grew late and Mei began to yawn.
Hsi-wei asked Mrs. Huan if it would be possible for him to stay an extra day. “If not,” he said, “I’m sure I could find other lodging nearby. But it will take me two days to make your sandals.”
“And to repair that leak,” Bao reminded him.
“Oh, please let him stay, Mama,” pleaded Mei. Enthralled by his stories, she hoped to hear more.
Mrs. Huan agreed with a smile and told the drowsy child to go to bed.
Bao reminded Hsi-wei about the repair to the roof.
“Tell me,” asked Mei as she got to her feet, “did you ever visit that wonderful village, the one in Liangzhou, the one—” She turned impatiently to her sister. “Oh, Bao, what’s its name? You know the one I mean.”
“Xingyun,” said Bao.
“Yes, Xingyun. Have you seen it?”
Hsi-wei had heard at least a dozen versions of the story of Xingyun. The tale had been circulating for years. It had to date from early in the rule of Emperor Wen since it involved two of his earliest reforms. Hsi-wei had noted that, wherever the story was told, the teller always placed the village of Xingyun in some distant province. As Mei was sure it was in Liangzhou, the people of Liangzhou were just as certain the village was in Ba-Han, while the peasant from whom Hsi-wei had heard the story in Ba-Han situated the village in Henan.
Hsi-wei thought that perhaps there was some truth to the story of Xingyun but, over time, it had become a legend, a folk tale of pluck, peace, hope, and justice, just the kind of story to appeal to children like Mei.
According to all the versions of the story Hsi-wei had heard, the local prefect—whose name could be Fung or Chang or Shui—was one of the old sort, nephew of a local landlord, cruel, biased, quick to demand a bribe. His family had held the position for generations.
When the order came from the capital to begin conscripting peasants and increase their taxes, this Fung or Chang or Shui threw himself into the work, anticipating a rise in graft to match the one in taxes. It was also an excellent opportunity to rid himself of malcontents. Those out of favor or who could not pay were taken away, men and women alike, until many villages in the region were left with only young children and elderly grandparents.
At the same time that Emperor Wen ordered the conscriptions, he began the process of standardizing the Empire’s currency. He had five mints built in various provinces to strike the new Wu Zhu coins. In accord with a schedule worked out in Daxing, armed convoys would be sent out from these mints to distribute the new coins through the Empire and to confiscate the old, privately minted ones. It was estimated the task would take two to three years to complete.
Conditions in the prefecture run by Fung, Chang, or Shui were particularly harsh. Young men stole away before they could be conscripted. Some went to relatives in other jurisdictions; others became bandits.
Some versions of the story include the unlikely exploits of the young bandits. Whether they are kidnapping the prefect’s son and teaching him to despise his father, stealing pigs from the prefect’s family compound, or outsmarting Turkic mercenaries, the outlaws are always presented as clever, down-to-earth, decent heroes who enjoy the sort of camaraderie that is irresistible to children, especially if the heroes are children themselves. In some versions, the bandit gang includes women who are just as brave and clever as the men. The bandits are always young, healthy, witty, and indifferent to the risk of torture and beheading. Hsi-wei recognized all these bandit stories as elaborations, digressions to please the public, but distractions from the story’s proper subject.
The tale really begins when bandits ambush an armed convoy carrying the Emperor’s new Wu Zhu coins. After a short, sharp fight, the outlaws kill the officers and drive off the guards. All this is witnessed by four ragged but fascinated children who are foraging for mushrooms and happen to be at the side of the road. Three of the bandits take hold of the children and warn their leader.
“They’ve seen everything. They can identify us. Maybe we should—”
But their captain cut the man off with a laugh. “There must be forty caskets in this wagon. I say we give one of them to these children.”
Some of the bandits objected and the captain let them speak. But once they were done, he made a short speech.
“These children are just what you would be, if you had been born only a few years later. They’re poor and hungry; they’re without parents and hopeless.” From his horse, with his hand on his hip, he looked over the gang. “Do you withdraw your objections?”
There was silence.
“Good,” said the captain. “Now, the casket’s heavy—make them a litter so they can carry it back to their village.”
In the morning, Mei sat watching Hsi-wei work at the sandals.
“You’ve never been to Xingyun? Really?”
“Never heard of it,” he said. The poet pretended not to know the story so that Mei could have the pleasure of telling it to him.
Mei said her favorite part was when the four children arrived in the village of with the casket full of bright new coins. They shouted, “Good news! Good news!” And everybody came out to see, young and old. The littlest children jumped up and down and clapped their hands.
“But everyone was very thin,” said Mei seriously.
Hsi-wei saw no need to point out that Mei and her sister were hardly fat.
“When they saw the casket full of money, everybody was so happy. They began talking about the wonderful things they could buy. Only one old man looked on with a frown.” Mei also frowned and made her voice as low as she could. ‘Where did you get these coins?’
“So, the children told everything that happened—the looking for mushrooms, the attack on the convoy, the bandits grabbing hold of them and then how their captain gave them the casket of money to bring back to Xingyun.
“The children said, ‘It’s for everyone.’ But the old man shook his head and said there was going to be trouble.”
All versions of the story agree that, when he heard about the casket of coins in Xingyun and how they had come to be there, the prefect ordered a detachment of cavalry to place the children of the village under arrest. And this was done. They were taken to the local capital, put in jail, and would have suffered hunger and cold if the local women had not taken pity and brought food and blankets.
A date was set for the trial. Everybody was sure the prefect, who had been unable to recover the shipment of coins or find the bandits, would impose the most severe punishment on the children.
But then something unexpected happened. In accord with his reform of the civil service, Emperor Wen sent out a new prefect who took over just days before the trial of the children. The deposed prefect was furious but could do nothing except to insist that his successor, who knew so little of the region and its problems, permit him to prosecute the thieves who had stolen the Emperor’s new coins. The new prefect, who had been well informed as to the character of his predecessor, courteously agreed, and the trial went forward as scheduled.
The former prefect turned prosecutor delivered a speech packed with fury, indignation, and innuendo. He asserted without proof that the children—indeed the entire population of Xingyun—had been working hand in glove with the bandits, spying for them, letting them know when the Wu Zhu convoy would be coming through the region, warning them of the authorities’ pursuit. “How else can we explain why the bandits are still at large? My Lord, the guilt of these children is self-evident. We found the casket and the coins in the village. They didn’t even deny where they had come from. Judgment must be swift and severe. We all know how precarious our current stability is. The Emperor needs to deter anyone who would undermine his divine plans or subvert his projects. These children should be sent to work on the Grand Canal. What’s more, the village of Xingyun should be razed and its remaining denizens scattered, exiled to distant provinces.”
Mei’s second favorite part of the story was what happened next.
The new prefect courteously thanked his predecessor for so forcefully presenting the prosecution’s case. He then turned to the four children and, in a tone that was not unkind, asked if they could defend themselves.
The oldest child (in Mei’s version, it was a girl) spoke up in an even, clear voice.
“My Lord, what he just said about finding the coins in the village is true; but other things he said are not true. We have three arguments to offer before we submit ourselves to your judgment, as we have to do.”
“Go on,” said the new prefect with an encouraging smile.
“First, we didn’t have anything to do with the bandits. We didn’t tell them about the coin wagon. We couldn’t have since we knew nothing about it ourselves. We didn’t steal anything. The casket of coins might as well have been found by us beside the road.”
The prefect cocked his head at this last assertion. “Your defense is that you didn’t steal but that you received stolen goods?”
“Stolen, My Lord? Only moved from one place to another, which was exactly what the Emperor is trying to do. In fact, that’s our second argument.”
“It is? Well, let’s hear it.”
“Second, the Emperor’s aim is to spread the new coins over the whole Empire. And to do that, people need the coins to spend, to give one another. For example, the people of Xingyun want to buy six pigs from the people of Haoqin and ten geese from the people of Luangxi and now we can. Isn’t that fulfilling the purpose of the Son of Heaven?”
The prefect smiled. “And the third argument?”
“Third and last. Let’s say that we obtained the coins because of a theft—though we didn’t commit it. Let’s also say that this theft was from the State—even though the State didn’t want to keep the coins but to distribute them as widely as possible. Now, because we accepted a casket of these coins, we’re accused of stealing from the State. But, My Lord, what if we look at the ledger? My aunt told me that a good bookkeeper must have more than a single column.”
“What do you mean?”
The child stood up even straighter and looked bravely at the new prefect, a man who may have seen the Emperor himself, who may even heard his voice, a man of real authority, come from the Imperial capital. “Just this, My Lord: if we have stolen from the State, what has the State stolen from us? What have we children lost because of the Grand Canal and the Great Wall and the war in the south and the ones north? What has the Empire stolen from us, My Lord? Hasn’t it taken our parents, our aunts and uncles, our cousins, our rice, our future, our hope. . . .” The child broke off, overcome.
“Is that all?
“Yes,” said the child in a shaking voice but standing firm. “That’s all we have to say.”
It was the next day when the prefect announced his decision. So many gathered to hear it that the reading of the verdict had to be moved to the marketplace.
“It is our judgment that the village of Xingyun may lawfully spend the Wu Zhu coins which came into their possession by accident rather than theft. In return, the people shall hand over to the government all other abolished currency they may have in their possession. In addition, we declare the village of Xingyun exempt from all taxes and conscriptions for a period of five years.”
“The cheering was loud and it lasted a long time,” declared Mei with satisfaction.
When Hsi-wei was ready to depart, he thanked Mrs. Huan, Bao, and Mei for their hospitality. Bowing before each, he handed them their fine new sandals. Inside one of Mei’s, Hsi-wei had put a small scroll on which he had copied out the verses written over the two nights of his stay. This poem was later banned by Emperor Yang but nonetheless continued to circulate among the people who called it “The Village of Xingyun.”
When a new owner takes over a neglected villa
He wants everything set to rights at once:
The cobwebs cleaned from the corners, the broken tiles
From the courtyard, the scarlet pillars freshly painted, the garden
Planted with peonies for springtime and chrysanthemums for fall.
With light hearts the servants set to work to make
The house spotless and beautiful, with peonies in springtime,
Chrysanthemums in autumn, and rice the whole year through.
A promising start indeed, if only the master didn’t long
For a larger house, for water gardens, and thicker walls.
High in the Yellow Mountains or down in the Yangtze valley,
In the arid air of Jizhou or the humid haze of Yangzhou,
In Mizhou, Liangzhou, or perhaps in Ba-Han,
The village saved by children and a humane prefect, still stands
Under Heaven. There all are safe and fed, awaiting the return
Of loved exiles. Huan Mei, who wouldn’t wish to visit Xingyun?
Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published eight collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; two books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.