Note: The Tang minister Fang Xuan-ling begins the record of his conversation with Chen Hsi-wei about the latter’s poem known as “The War in the South” with a few comments of his own. It is hardly surprising that a minister of the new dynasty should have certain opinions concerning the recently ended one, the briefest in all of China’s long history.
Hsi-wei does not willingly talk about politics and yet his poems are replete with veiled or indirect political statements, most often criticisms of the wealthy from the standpoint of the poor. One senses the poet’s conflict: the peasant in him feels the unnecessary suffering of the people while the educated man has an understanding of the authorities. Hsi-wei believes Emperor Wen was a good man and a good ruler; one might even say he cherishes a romantic concept of the first Sui emperor. To Hsi-wei, Wen’s mistakes were due to pride and ambition, never greed or malice. In his view, the Emperor’s faults had their origin in his virtues, his failures in his triumphs. On the other hand, he is quite willing to attribute the worst motives to Wen’s son, the late Emperor Yangdi. Dislike for the son seems to have reinforced Master Hsi-wei’s sympathy for the father. Indeed, he sometimes speaks of Emperor Wen as if he knew him, would have liked to encourage the Son of Heaven when he did the good and to correct him when he chose foolishly. Now everybody knows Wen’s errors which were made obvious by his son’s augmenting them. Though Yangdi was a poet of some repute, Hsi-wei never mentions this; he sees Yangdi as a wicked and licentious man and was is inclined to believe the rumor that he assassinated his father.
Everyone agrees it was their grandiose building projects and disastrous wars, costing millions of lives and emptying the treasury, that doomed the Sui. Yet it was by war that Wen reunited the North and the South, by war that he drove back the Turks. As for their colossal engineering projects, who would now dispense with the Grand Canal? Emperor Wen contributed a great deal: he reformed the currency, re-instituted the Confucian examinations and so raised the quality of the civil service. He was also the first emperor to promote Buddhism. Though Master Hsi-wei admits to being powerfully attracted by their teachings, he does not count himself among the Buddhists. Nevertheless, he told me that, for him, the high point of Emperor Wen’s rule was his Buddha Edict which he called this “the noblest sentence every uttered by any emperor.”
All the people within the four seas may, without exception,
develop enlightenment and together cultivate fortunate karma,
bringing it to pass that present existences will lead to happy future
lives, that the sustained creation of good causation will carry us
one and all up to wondrous enlightenment.
Barely a year after issuing this declaration, this prayer for universal happiness, Emperor Wen launched his invasion of the south. Of this Hsi-wei spoke mordantly.
“Why trouble people who never threatened us?” he asked. “Only because centuries ago they were under our thumb? I blame the Emperor’s victories in the west. They made him over-confident.”
“In your opinion he overreached?”
Hsi-wei glanced skyward. “My Lord, victory is a stimulant; therefore it’s intoxicating, and therefore often a poison.”
“A poison?” I asked.
“It wasn’t just the victories over the Turks. Those just inspired rashness. It was actually the army’s victories in the south that led to their defeat.”
I had an idea. “Ah. Is that the theme of your poem—the one called ‘The War in the South’?”
The Master shrugged. “I suppose so,” he muttered.
“That’s a letter-poem, isn’t it?”
“True. That was its form.”
“And, if my memory is good, it’s addressed to a person mentioned only at the end. Forgive me, Master, but I can’t recall his name.”
“Who was this Yuan? A friend?”
“A friend? Yes, in a way. Or a classmate—also in a way. For a time we were both pupils under Master Shen Kuo.”
“Oh, the stern Master Shen.”
Hsi-wei could not help smiling as he always did when recalling his teacher. “There was no other Master Shen but the stern one.”
I asked if Hsi-wei could tell me something of Yuan Boling. This he was more than willing to do; he spoke at length. It seemed to me that in telling me about his old schoolmate the Master was feeling that peculiar pleasure one sometimes gets from recollected pain.
“The Yuans were a military family. Boling’s father served the Emperor with loyalty and distinction in his earliest battles to take the throne and unite North and South. When I knew his son, General Yuan occupied the post of commander of all the troops in Lungyu and Chiennan, those charged with guarding the border with Tibet. Though his headquarters were in Ch’engtu, Boling said his father was so diligent, and so fond of hardship, that he was always in the field.”
“A good commander, then?”
“Oh, yes. There was no trouble from the Tibetans while he was there. However, the General didn’t want a military career for his only son. He forced Boling to be a scholar, to prepare for the examinations so he could enter the civil service, to practice the arts of peace, and become a minister.”
“A noble aim.”
“Boling was a good fellow, one of the few pupils of Master Shen who didn’t treat me—the upstart interloper, the filthy peasant—with disdain. He wasn’t in the least haughty. Perhaps it was because he’d spent his childhood in garrisons. In fact, Boling made me his confidant. He told me he didn’t care for his studies—which, to tell the truth, was obvious to everyone. No, he said that he yearned for was to emulate his father; he wanted to become an officer, dreamed of being a commander. He excelled at horsemanship, fighting with staves, at all military exercises. He neglected his scrolls and brushes to practice with the gong and qiang. Master Shen upbraided him ceaselessly, though he didn’t dare beat the boy. It wouldn’t have made any difference if he had. Boling was stubborn and, in the end, the General gave in. When we said farewell, Boling was so filled with elation he forgot himself and embraced me.”
“Did you hear from him again?”
Master Hsi-wei was quiet for a bit before resuming.
“One day, about twenty years ago, I decided to see the river with which I share a name and made my way to Kwangsi. I had not gone south since I carried the message to General Fu, put off less by the memory of my dangers than the sultry climate. This was about a year into the southern campaign. As so many of the Kwangsi men had been conscripted, the war was the talk of the province. At first I heard only of victories—how quickly the army had taken Tong Binh and all its surrounding tributary kingdoms. The old men and the women spoke with joy and relief of how their sons and husbands would be home in a month, two at the most, returning in triumph, back in time for planting.
“But then I came to a village where the mood was just the opposite. The bad news was brought back by the few who had survived the ruinous thrust into Champa and it spread quickly. These stragglers also spoke of victories, and proudly, as soldiers will. In a village by the Hsi River I myself met one of these men. Though he couldn’t pay I made him a pair of straw sandals and told him it was to honor his service to the Emperor. He was only about nineteen, terribly thin and weak, and struggled to bear himself upright like the veteran he was. It was he who told me how they had defeated the war elephants and then pursued the enemy deep into the pestilential forests. ‘We were invincible,’ he insisted harshly, as if I had denied it. ‘Our officers were smart, the archers sharp as nails, morale high as Heaven’s gates. Until,’ he said, ‘the sickness began, the terrible fevers.’
“I asked this man if he had ever heard of an officer named Yuan.
“‘Captain Yuan? I never met the man but he was known to everybody,’ he said sadly. ‘He was one of our best officers, trusted by the commanders. His men must have loved him because they mourned him for a whole day. Not long, you’ll say, but by then all of them were either sick or dying.’”
We were quiet for a time, watching the sun go down. “And the letter-poem?” I asked.
“Written to my friend whose father wanted him to become a minister.”
Not knowing how to respond, I said I was sorry.
Hsi-wei sighed. “Only a year later the Emperor died, or was killed by a son who lacked his father’s vision and decency but had all his worst impulses in abundance—who launched still bigger projects and even more disastrous wars.”
“I believe our new dynasty will fare better and last longer,” I said confidently. “With fewer wars.”
Hsi-wei smiled wearily. “So I hope too, and with better poems.”
With that my host humbly begged my pardon, saying he was drowsy and needed to sleep.
Thanking Master Hsi-wei for his hospitality and openness, I quickly took my leave and returned to Chingling.
The War in the South
Were you ready for them? People say you weren’t warned.
What a shock it must have been after the easy triumphs,
the delicious exotic food I picture you wolfing down
as you lounged in the abandoned palaces of Tong Binh.
Was the food as good as they say? Are the women of
Linyi really slim as willow branches, shy as fawns?
Champa must have beckoned like a crimson pomegranate
hanging so low you only needed to raise your hand, tug,
and drop it in the basket of the Emperor’s swelling glory.
But how terrifying they must have been, the war elephants,
their tusks and exultation, the thick trunks rearing back
like giant pythons seeking prey, the cracking of their
rush through the forest. The biggest trees would
be nothing to them, mere twigs and splinters.
Many must have been crushed, broken, shouldered aside.
But you officers, steady men and crafty, didn’t panic, not you.
You passed the order to feign retreat, found soft earth and
arrayed the ranks of crossbowmen, set the men to digging.
Elephants are no fools. I imagine only the first stumbled into
the traps; the others wheeled slowly and fled, harried by bolts,
stamping on the infantry of Champa. What a paean the
men must have raised, seeing war’s fortune turn.
They say many victories drew you deeper into the poisonous
southern forests. First a few fell ill, crying pitiably for
water. Then more and yet more until the whole army was
wasted by fevers. The news has come home but few of you.
Old men and boys, mothers and young girls, weep as they plant
this year’s rice and till brown fields, missing your strength.
They say that in Daxing the Emperor has met with his ministers.
I know we parted six years ago. Only in dreams do
we still drink under the new moon, joking, reciting verses;
yet to me also the world feels like a forsaken field.
Yuan Boling, you triumphed over the enormous but fell to
the invisible. Surely there must be some lesson in that.
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.