Kai Lung's Golden Hours
Part 4 out of 5
"Then out of your own mouth a fitting test is set, which if Kai Lung
can agreeably perform will at once demonstrate a secret and a guilty
confederacy between you both. Proceed, O story-teller, to incriminate
Ming-shu together with yourself!"
"I proceed, High Excellence, but chiefly to the glorification of your
all-discerning mind," replied Kai Lung.
The Story of Yuen Yan, of the Barber Chou-hu, and His Wife Tsae-che
"Do not despair; even Yuen Yan once cast a missile at the Tablets," is
a proverb of encouragement well worn throughout the Empire; but
although it is daily on the lips of some it is doubtful if a single
person could give an intelligent account of the Yuen Yan in question
beyond repeating the outside facts that he was of a humane and
consistent disposition and during the greater part of his life
possessed every desirable attribute of wealth, family and virtuous
esteem. If more closely questioned with reference to the specific
incident alluded to, these persons would not hesitate to assert that
the proverb was not to be understood in so superficial a sense,
protesting, with much indignation, that Yuen Yan was of too courteous
and lofty a nature to be guilty of so unseemly an action, and
contemptuously inquiring what possible reason one who enjoyed every
advantage in this world and every prospect of an unruffled felicity in
The Beyond could have for behaving in so outrageous a manner. This
explanation by no means satisfied the one who now narrates, and after
much research he has brought to light the forgotten story of Yuen
Yan's early life, which may be thus related.
At the period with which this part of the narrative is concerned, Yuen
Yan dwelt with his mother in one of the least attractive of the arches
beneath the city wall. As a youth it had been his intention to take an
exceptionally high place in the public examinations, and, rising at
once to a position of responsible authority, to mark himself out for
continual promotion by the exercise of unfailing discretion and
indomitable zeal. Having saved his country in a moment of acute
national danger, he contemplated accepting a title of unique
distinction and retiring to his native province, where he would build
an adequate palace which he had already planned out down to the most
trivial detail. There he purposed spending the remainder of his life,
receiving frequent tokens of regard from the hand of the gratified
Emperor, marrying an accomplished and refined wife who would doubtless
be one of the princesses of the Imperial House, and conscientiously
regarding The Virtues throughout. The transition from this sumptuously
contrived residence to a damp arch in the city wall, and from the high
destiny indicated to the occupation of leading from place to place a
company of sightless mendicants, had been neither instantaneous nor
painless, but Yuen Yan had never for a moment wavered from the
enlightened maxims which he had adopted as his guiding principles, nor
did he suffer unending trials to lessen his reverence for The Virtues.
"Having set out with the full intention of becoming a wealthy
mandarin, it would have been a small achievement to have reached that
position with unshattered ideals," he frequently remarked; "but having
thus set out it is a matter for more than ordinary congratulation to
have fallen to the position of leading a string of blind beggars about
the city and still to retain unimpaired the ingenuous beliefs and
aspirations of youth."
"Doubtless," replied his aged mother, whenever she chanced to overhear
this honourable reflection, "doubtless the foolish calf who innocently
puts his foot into the jelly finds a like consolation. This person,
however, would gladly exchange the most illimitable moral satisfaction
engendered by acute poverty for a few of the material comforts of a
sordid competence, nor would she hesitate to throw into the balance
all the aspirations and improving sayings to be found within the
"Esteemed mother," protested Yan, "more than three thousand years ago
the royal philosopher Nin-hyo made the observation: 'Better an
earth-lined cave from which the stars are visible than a golden pagoda
roofed over with iniquity,' and the saying has stood the test of
"The remark would have carried a weightier conviction if the
broad-minded sovereign had himself first stood the test of lying for a
few years with enlarged joints and afflicted bones in the abode he so
prudently recommended for others," replied his mother, and without
giving Yuen Yan any opportunity of bringing forward further proof of
their highly-favoured destiny she betook herself to her own straw at
the farthest end of the arch.
Up to this period of his life Yuen Yan's innate reverence and courtesy
of manner had enabled him to maintain an impassive outlook in the face
of every discouragement, but now he was exposed to a fresh series of
trials in addition to the unsympathetic attitude which his mother
never failed to unroll before him. It has already been expressed that
Yuen Yan's occupation and the manner by which he gained his livelihood
consisted in leading a number of blind mendicants about the streets of
the city and into the shops and dwelling-places of those who might
reasonably be willing to pay in order to be relieved of their
presence. In this profession Yan's venerating and custom-regarding
nature compelled him to act as leaders of blind beggars had acted
throughout all historical times and far back into the dim recesses of
legendary epochs and this, in an era when the leisurely habits of the
past were falling into disuse, and when rivals and competitors were
springing up on all sides, tended almost daily to decrease the
proceeds of his labour and to sow an insidious doubt even in his
In particular, among those whom Yan regarded most objectionably was
one named Ho. Although only recently arrived in the city from a
country beyond the Bitter Water, Ho was already known in every quarter
both to the merchants and stallkeepers, who trembled at his
approaching shadow, and to the competing mendicants who now counted
their cash with two fingers where they had before needed both hands.
This distressingly active person made no secret of his methods and
intention; for, upon his arrival, he plainly announced that his object
was to make the foundations of benevolence vibrate like the strings of
a many-toned lute, and he compared his general progress through the
haunts of the charitably disposed to the passage of a highly-charged
firework through an assembly of meditative turtles. He was usually
known, he added, as "the rapidly-moving person," or "the one devoid of
outline," and it soon became apparent that he was also quite destitute
of all dignified restraint. Selecting the place of commerce of some
wealthy merchant, Ho entered without hesitation and thrusting aside
the waiting customers he continued to strike the boards impatiently
until he gained the attention of the chief merchant himself.
"Honourable salutations," he would say, "but do not entreat this
illiterate person to enter the inner room, for he cannot tarry to
discuss the movements of the planets or the sublime Emperor's health.
Behold, for half-a-tael of silver you may purchase immunity from his
discreditable persistence for seven days; here is the acknowledgement
duly made out and attested. Let the payment be made in pieces of metal
and not in paper obligations." Unless immediate compliance followed Ho
at once began noisily to cast down the articles of commerce, to roll
bodily upon the more fragile objects, to become demoniacally possessed
on the floor, and to resort to a variety of expedients until all the
customers were driven forth in panic.
In the case of an excessively stubborn merchant he had not hesitated
to draw a formidable knife and to gash himself in a superficial but
very imposing manner; then he had rushed out uttering cries of terror,
and sinking down by the door had remained there for the greater part
of the day, warning those who would have entered to be upon their
guard against being enticed in and murdered, at the same time groaning
aloud and displaying his own wounds. Even this seeming disregard of
time was well considered, for when the tidings spread about the city
other merchants did not wait for Ho to enter and greet them, but
standing at their doors money in hand they pressed it upon him the
moment he appeared and besought him to remove his distinguished
presence from their plague-infected street. To the ordinary mendicants
of the city this stress of competition was disastrous, but to Yuen Yan
it was overwhelming. Thoroughly imbued with the deferential systems of
antiquity, he led his band from place to place with a fitting regard
for the requirements of ceremonial etiquette and a due observance of
leisurely unconcern. Those to whom he addressed himself he approached
with obsequious tact, and in the face of refusal to contribute to his
store his most violent expedient did not go beyond marshalling his
company of suppliants in an orderly group upon the shop floor, where
they sang in unison a composed chant extolling the fruits of
munificence and setting forth the evil plight which would certainly
attend the flinty-stomached in the Upper Air. In this way Yuen Yan had
been content to devote several hours to a single shop in the hope of
receiving finally a few pieces of brass money; but now his
persecutions were so mild that the merchants and vendors rather
welcomed him by comparison with the intolerable Ho, and would on no
account pay to be relieved of the infliction of his presence. "Have we
not disbursed in one day to the piratical Ho thrice the sum which we
had set by to serve its purpose for a hand-count of moons; and do we
possess the Great Secret?" they cried. "Nevertheless, dispose your
engaging band of mendicants about the place freely until it suits your
refined convenience to proceed elsewhere, O meritorious Yuen Yan, for
your unassuming qualities have won our consistent regard; but an
insatiable sponge has already been laid upon the well-spring of our
benevolence and the tenacity of our closed hand is inflexible."
Even the passive mendicants began to murmur against his leadership,
urging him that he should adopt some of the simpler methods of the
gifted Ho and thereby save them all from an otherwise inevitable
starvation. The Emperor Kai-tsing, said the one who led their voices
(referring in his malignant bitterness to a sovereign of the previous
dynasty), was dead, although the fact had doubtless escaped Yuen Yan's
deliberate perception. The methods of four thousand years ago were
becoming obsolete in the face of a strenuous competition, and unless
Yuen Yan was disposed to assume a more highly-coiled appearance they
must certainly address themselves to another leader.
It was on this occasion that the incident took place which has passed
down in the form of an inspiriting proverb. Yuen Yan had
conscientiously delivered at the door of his abode the last of his
company and was turning his footsteps towards his own arch when he
encountered the contumelious Ho, who was likewise returning at the
close of a day's mendicancy--but with this distinction: that, whereas
Ho was followed by two stalwart attendants carrying between them a
sack full of money, Yan's share of his band's enterprise consisted
solely of one base coin of a kind which the charitable set aside for
bestowing upon the blind and quite useless for all ordinary purposes
of exchange. A few paces farther on Yan reached the Temple of the
Unseen Forces and paused for a moment, as his custom was, to cast his
eyes up to the tablets engraved with The Virtues, before which some
devout person nightly hung a lantern. Goaded by a sudden impulse, Yan
looked each way about the deserted street, and perceiving that he was
alone he deliberately extended his out-thrust tongue towards the
inspired precepts. Then taking from an inner sleeve the base coin he
flung it at the inscribed characters and observed with satisfaction
that it struck the verse beginning, "The Rewards of a Quiescent and
Mentally-introspective Life are Unbounded--"
When Yan entered his arch some hours later his mother could not fail
to perceive that a subtle change had come over his manner of behaving.
Much of the leisurely dignity had melted out of his footsteps, and he
wore his hat and outer garments at an angle which plainly testified
that he was a person who might be supposed to have a marked objection
to returning home before the early hours of the morning. Furthermore,
as he entered he was chanting certain melodious words by which he
endeavoured to convey the misleading impression that his chief
amusement consisted in defying the official watchers of the town, and
he continually reiterated a claim to be regarded as "one of the
beardless goats." Thus expressing himself, Yan sank down in his
appointed corner and would doubtlessly soon have been floating
peacefully in the Middle Distance had not the door been again thrown
open and a stranger named Chou-hu entered.
"Prosperity!" said Chou-hu courteously, addressing himself to Yan's
mother. "Have you eaten your rice? Behold, I come to lay before you a
very attractive proposal regarding your son."
"The flower attracts the bee, but when he departs it is to his lips
that the honey clings," replied the woman cautiously; for after Yan's
boastful words on entering she had a fear lest haply this person might
be one on behalf of some guardian of the night whom her son had flung
across the street (as he had specifically declared his habitual
treatment of them to be) come to take him by stratagem.
"Does the pacific lamb become a wolf by night?" said Chou-hu,
displaying himself reassuringly. "Wrap your ears well round my words,
for they may prove very remunerative. It cannot be a matter outside
your knowledge that the profession of conducting an assembly of blind
mendicants from place to place no longer yields the wage of even a
frugal existence in this city. In the future, for all the sympathy
that he will arouse, Yan might as well go begging with a silver bowl.
In consequence of his speechless condition he will be unable to
support either you or himself by any other form of labour, and your
line will thereupon become extinct and your standing in the Upper Air
be rendered intolerable."
"It is a remote contingency, but, as the proverb says, 'The wise hen
is never too old to dread the Spring,'" replied Yan's mother, with
commendable prudence. "By what means, then, may this calamity be
"The person before you," continued Chou-hu, "is a barber and
embellisher of pig-tails from the street leading to the Three-tiered
Pagoda of Eggs. He has long observed the restraint and moderation of
Yan's demeanour and now being in need of one to assist him his
earliest thought turns to him. The affliction which would be an
insuperable barrier in all ordinary cases may here be used to
advantage, for being unable to converse with those seated before him,
or to hear their salutations, Yan will be absolved from the necessity
of engaging in diffuse and refined conversation, and in consequence he
will submit at least twice the number of persons to his dexterous
energies. In that way he will secure a higher reward than this person
could otherwise afford and many additional comforts will doubtless
fall into the sleeve of his engaging mother."
At this point the woman began to understand that the sense in which
Chou-hu had referred to Yan's speechless condition was not that which
she had at the time deemed it to be. It may here be made clear that it
was Yuen Yan's custom to wear suspended about his neck an inscribed
board bearing the words, "Speechless, and devoid of the faculty of
hearing," but this originated out of his courteous and deferential
nature (for to his self-obliterative mind it did not seem respectful
that he should appear to be better endowed than those whom he led),
nor could it be asserted that he wilfully deceived even the passing
stranger, for he would freely enter into conversation with anyone whom
he encountered. Nevertheless an impression had thus been formed in
Chou-hu's mind and the woman forbore to correct it, thinking that it
would be scarcely polite to assert herself better informed on any
subject than he was, especially as he had spoken of Yan thereby
receiving a higher wage. Yan himself would certainly have revealed
something had he not been otherwise employed. Hearing the conversation
turn towards his afflictions, he at once began to search very
industriously among the straw upon which he lay for the inscribed
board in question; for to his somewhat confused imagination it seemed
at the time that only by displaying it openly could he prove to
Chou-hu that he was in no way deficient. As the board was found on the
following morning nailed to the great outer door of the Hall of Public
Justice (where it remained for many days owing to the official
impression that so bold and undeniable a pronouncement must have
received the direct authority of the sublime Emperor), Yan was not
unnaturally engaged for a considerable time, and in the meanwhile his
mother contrived to impress upon him by an unmistakable sign that he
should reveal nothing, but leave the matter in her hands.
Then said Yan's mother: "Truly the proposal is not altogether wanting
in alluring colours, but in what manner will Yan interpret the
commands of those who place themselves before him, when he has
attained sufficient proficiency to be entrusted with the knife and the
"The objection is a superficial one," replied Chou-hu. "When a person
seats himself upon the operating stool he either throws back his head,
fixing his eyes upon the upper room with a set and resolute air, or
inclines it slightly forward as in a reverent tranquillity. In the
former case he requires his uneven surfaces to be made smooth; in the
latter he is desirous that his pig-tail should be drawn out and
trimmed. Do not doubt Yan's capability to conduct himself in a
discreet and becoming manner, but communicate to him, by the usual
means which you adopt, the offer thus laid out, and unless he should
be incredibly obtuse or unfilial to a criminal degree he will present
himself at the Sign of the Gilt Thunderbolt at an early hour
There is a prudent caution expressed in the proverb, "The hand that
feeds the ox grasps the knife when it is fattened: crawl backwards
from the presence of a munificent official." Chou-hu, in spite of his
plausible pretext, would have experienced no difficulty in obtaining
the services of one better equipped to assist him than was Yuen Yan,
so that in order to discover his real object it becomes necessary to
look underneath his words. He was indeed, as he had stated, a barber
and an embellisher of pig-tails, and for many years he had grown rich
and round-bodied on the reputation of being one of the most skilful
within his quarter of the city. In an evil moment, however, he had
abandoned the moderation of his past life and surrounded himself with
an atmosphere of opium smoke and existed continually in the
mind-dimming effects of rice-spirit. From this cause his custom began
to languish; his hand no longer swept in the graceful and unhesitating
curves which had once been the admiration of all beholders, but
displayed on the contrary a very disconcerting irregularity of
movement, and on the day of his visit he had shorn away the venerable
moustaches of the baker Heng-cho under a mistaken impression as to the
reality of things and a wavering vision of their exact position. Now
the baker had been inordinately proud of his long white moustaches and
valued them above all his possessions, so that, invoking the spirits
of his ancestors to behold his degradation and to support him in his
resolve, and calling in all the passers-by to bear witness to his
oath, he had solemnly bound himself either to cut down Chou-hu
fatally, or, should that prove too difficult an accomplishment, to
commit suicide within his shop. This twofold danger thoroughly
stupefied Chou-hu and made him incapable of taking any action beyond
consuming further and more unstinted portions of rice-spirit and
rending article after article of his apparel until his wife Tsae-che
modestly dismissed such persons as loitered, and barred the outer
"Open your eyes upon the facts by which you are surrounded, O
contemptible Chou-hu," she said, returning to his side and standing
over him. "Already your degraded instincts have brought us within
measurable distance of poverty, and if you neglect your business to
avoid Heng-cho, actual want will soon beset us. If you remain openly
within his sight you will certainly be removed forcibly to the Upper
Air, leaving this inoffensive person destitute and abandoned, and if
by the exercise of unfailing vigilance you escape both these dangers,
you will be reserved to an even worse plight, for Heng-cho in
desperation will inevitably carry out the latter part of his threat,
dedicating his spirit to the duty of continually haunting you and
frustrating your ambitions here on earth and calling to his assistance
myriads of ancestors and relations to torment you in the Upper Air."
"How attractively and in what brilliantly-coloured outlines do you
present the various facts of existence!" exclaimed Chou-hu, with
inelegant resentment. "Do not neglect to add that, to-morrow being the
occasion of the Moon Festival, the inexorable person who owns this
residence will present himself to collect his dues, that, in
consequence of the rebellion in the south, the sagacious viceroy has
doubled the price of opium, that some irredeemable outcast has carried
away this person's blue silk umbrella, and then doubtless the alluring
picture of internal felicity around the Ancestral Altar of the Gilt
Thunderbolt will be complete."
"Light words are easily spoken behind barred doors," said his wife
scornfully. "Let my lord, then, recline indolently upon the floor of
his inner chamber while this person sumptuously lulls him into
oblivion with the music of her voice, regardless of the morrow and of
the fate in which his apathy involves us both."
"By no means!" exclaimed Chou-hu, rising hastily and tearing away much
of his elaborately arranged pigtail in his uncontrollable rage; "there
is yet a more pleasurable alternative than that and one which will
ensure to this person a period of otherwise unattainable domestic calm
and at the same time involve a detestable enemy in confusion.
Anticipating the dull-witted Heng-cho /this/ one will now proceed
across the street and, committing suicide within /his/ door, will
henceforth enjoy the honourable satisfaction of haunting /his/
footsteps and rending his bakehouses and ovens untenable." With this
assurance Chou-hu seized one of his most formidable business weapons
and caused it to revolve around his head with great rapidity, but at
the same time with extreme carefulness.
"There is a ready saying: 'The new-born lamb does not fear a tiger,
but before he becomes a sheep he will flee from a wolf,'" said
Tsae-che without in any way deeming it necessary to arrest Chou-hu's
hand. "Full confidently will you set out, O Chou-hu, but to reach the
shop of Heng-cho it is necessary to pass the stall of the dealer in
abandoned articles, and next to it are enticingly spread out the wares
of Kong, the merchant in distilled spirits. Put aside your reliable
scraping iron while you still have it, and this not ill-disposed
person will lay before you a plan by which you may even yet avoid all
inconveniences and at the same time regain your failing commerce."
"It is also said: 'The advice of a wise woman will ruin a walled
city,'" replied Chou-hu, somewhat annoyed at his wife so opportunely
comparing him to a sheep, but still more concerned to hear by what
possible expedient she could successfully avert all the contending
dangers of his position. "Nevertheless, proceed."
"In one of the least reputable quarters of the city there dwells a
person called Yuen Yan," said the woman. "He is the leader of a band
of sightless mendicants and in this position he has frequently passed
your open door, though--probably being warned by the benevolent--he
has never yet entered. Now this Yuen Yan, save for one or two
unimportant details, is the reflected personification of your own
exalted image, nor would those most intimate with your form and
outline be able to pronounce definitely unless you stood side by side
before them. Furthermore, he is by nature unable to hear any remark
addressed to him, and is incapable of expressing himself in spoken
words. Doubtless by these indications my lord's locust-like
intelligence will already have leapt to an inspired understanding of
the full project?"
"Assuredly," replied Chou-hu, caressing himself approvingly. "The
essential details of the scheme are built about the ease with which
this person could present himself at the abode of Yuen Yan in his
absence and, gathering together that one's store of wealth
unquestioned, retire with it to a distant and unknown spot and thereby
elude the implacable Heng-cho's vengeance."
"Leaving your menial one in the 'walled city' referred to, to share
its fate, and, in particular, to undertake the distressing obligation
of gathering up the atrocious Heng-cho after he has carried his final
threat into effect? Truly must the crystal stream of your usually
undimmed intelligence have become vaporized. Listen well. Disguising
your external features slightly so that the resemblance may pass
without remark, present yourself openly at the residence of the Yuen
Yan in question--"
"First learning where it is situated?" interposed Chou-hu, with a
desire to grasp the details competently.
"Unless a person of your retrospective taste would prefer to leave so
trivial a point until afterwards," replied his wife in a tone of
concentrated no-sincerity. "In either case, however, having arrived
there, bargain with the one who has authority over Yuen Yan's
movements, praising his demeanour and offering to accept him into the
honours and profits of your craft. The words of acquiescence should
spring to meet your own, for the various branches of mendicancy are
languishing, and Yuen Yan can have no secret store of wealth. Do not
hesitate to offer a higher wage than you would as an affair of
ordinary commerce, for your safety depends upon it. Having secured
Yan, teach him quickly the unpolished outlines of your business and
then clothing him in robes similar to your own let him take his stand
within the shop and withdraw yourself to the inner chamber. None will
suspect the artifice, and Yuen Yan is manifestly incapable of
betraying it. Heng-cho, seeing him display himself openly, will not
deem it necessary to commit suicide yet, and, should he cut down Yan
fatally, the officials of the street will seize him and your own
safety will be assured. Finally, if nothing particular happens, at
least your prosperity will be increased, for Yuen Yan will prove
/industrious/, /frugal/, /not addicted to excesses/ and in every way
/reliable/, and towards the shop of so exceptional a barber customers
will turn in an unending stream."
"Alas!" exclaimed Chou-hu, "when you boasted of an inspired scheme
this person for a moment foolishly allowed his mind to contemplate the
possibility of your having accidentally stumbled upon such an
expedient haply, but your suggestion is only comparable with a company
of ducks attempting to cross an ice-bound stream--an excessive outlay
of action but no beneficial progress. Should Yuen Yan freely present
himself here on the morrow, pleading destitution and craving to be
employed, this person will consider the petition with an open head,
but it is beneath his dignity to wait upon so low-class an object."
Affecting to recollect an arranged meeting of some importance, Chou-hu
then clad himself in other robes, altered the appearance of his face,
and set out to act in the manner already described, confident that the
exact happening would never reach his lesser one's ears.
On the following day Yuen Yan presented himself at the door of the
Gilt Thunderbolt, and quickly perfecting himself in the simpler
methods of smoothing surfaces and adorning pig-tails he took his stand
within the shop and operated upon all who came to submit themselves to
his embellishment. To those who addressed him with salutations he
replied by a gesture, tactfully bestowing an agreeable welcome yet at
the same time conveying the impression that he was desirous of
remaining undisturbed in the philosophical reflection upon which he
was engaged. In spite of this it was impossible to lead his mind
astray from any weighty detail, and those who, presuming upon his
absorbed attitude, endeavoured to evade a just payment on any pretext
whatever invariably found themselves firmly but courteously pressed to
the wall by the neck, while a highly polished smoothing blade was
flashed to and fro before their eyes with an action of unmistakable
significance. The number of customers increased almost daily, for Yan
quickly proved himself to be expert above all comparison, while others
came from every quarter of the city to test with their own eyes and
ears the report that had reached them, to the effect that in the
street leading to the Three-tiered Pagoda of Eggs there dwelt a barber
who made no pretence of elegant and refined conversation and who did
not even press upon those lying helpless in his power miraculous
ointments and infallible charm-waters. Thus Chou-hu prospered greatly,
but Yan still obeyed his mother's warning and raised a mask before his
face so that Chou-hu and his wife never doubted the reality of his
infirmities. From this cause they did not refrain from conversing
together freely before him on subjects of the most poignant detail,
whereby Yan learned much of their past lives and conduct while
maintaining an attitude of impassive unconcern.
Upon a certain evening in the month when the grass-blades are
transformed into silk-worms Yan was alone in the shop, improving the
edge and reflecting brilliance of some of his implements, when he head
the woman exclaim from the inner room: "Truly the air from the desert
is as hot and devoid of relief as the breath of the Great Dragon. Let
us repose for the time in the outer chamber." Whereupon they entered
the shop and seating themselves upon a couch resumed their
occupations, the barber fanning himself while he smoked, his wife
gumming her hair and coiling it into the semblance of a bird with
"The necessity for the elaborate caution of the past no longer
exists," remarked Chou-hu presently. "The baker Heng-cho is desirous
of becoming one of those who select the paving-stones and regulate the
number of hanging lanterns for the district lying around the
Three-tiered Pagoda. In this ambition he is opposed by Kong, the
distilled-spirit vendor, who claims to be a more competent judge of
paving-stones and hanging lanterns and one who will exercise a
lynx-eyed vigilance upon the public outlay and especially devote
himself to curbing the avarice of those bread-makers who habitually
mix powdered white earth with their flour. Heng-cho is therefore very
concerned that many should bear honourable testimony of his engaging
qualities when the day of trial arrives, and thus positioned he has
inscribed and sent to this person a written message offering a
dignified reconciliation and adding that he is convinced of the
necessity of an enactment compelling all persons to wear a smooth face
and a neatly braided pig-tail."
"It is a creditable solution of the matter," said Tsae-che, speaking
between the ivory pins which she held in her mouth. "Henceforth, then,
you will take up your accustomed stand as in the past?"
"Undoubtedly," replied Chou-hu. "Yuen Yan is painstaking, and has
perhaps done as well as could be expected of one of his shallow
intellect, but the absence of suave and high-minded conversation
cannot fail to be alienating the custom of the more polished. Plainly
it is a short-sighted policy for a person to try and evade his destiny.
Yan seems to have been born for the express purpose of leading blind
beggars about the streets of the city and to that profession he must
"O distressingly superficial Chou-hu!" exclaimed his wife, "do men
turn willingly from wine to partake of vinegar, or having been clothed
in silk do they accept sackcloth without a struggle? Indeed, your
eyes, which are large to regard your own deeds and comforts, grow
small when they are turned towards the attainments of another. In no
case will Yan return to his mendicants, for his band is by this time
scattered and dispersed. His sleeve being now well lined and his hand
proficient in every detail of his craft, he will erect a stall,
perchance even directly opposite or next to ourselves, and by
subtlety, low charges and diligence he will draw away the greater part
of your custom."
"Alas!" cried Chou-hu, turning an exceedingly inferior yellow, "there
is a deeper wisdom in the proverb, 'Do not seek to escape from a flood
by clinging to a tiger's tail,' than appears at a casual glance. Now
that this person is contemplating gathering again into his own hands
the execution of his business, he cannot reasonably afford to employ
another, yet it is an intolerable thought that Yan should make use of
his experience to set up a sign opposed to the Gilt Thunderbolt.
Obviously the only really safe course out of an unpleasant dilemma
will be to slay Yan with as little delay as possible. After receiving
continuous marks of our approval for so long it is certainly very
thoughtless of him to put us to so unpardonable an inconvenience."
"It is not an alluring alternative," confessed Tsae-che, crossing the
room to where Yan was seated in order to survey her hair to greater
advantage in a hanging mirror of three sides composed of burnished
copper; "but there seems nothing else to be done in the difficult
"The street is opportunely empty and there is little likelihood of
anyone approaching at this hour," suggested Chou-hu. "What better
scheme could be devised than that I should indicate to Yan by signs
that I would honour him, and at the same time instruct him further in
the correct pose of some of the recognized attitudes, by making smooth
the surface of his face? Then during the operation I might perchance
slip upon an overripe whampee lying unperceived upon the floor; my
"Ah-/ah/!" cried Tsae-che aloud, pressing her symmetrical fingers
against her gracefully-proportioned ears; "do not, thou dragon-headed
one, lead the conversation to such an extremity of detail, still less
carry the resolution into effect before the very eyes of this
delicately-susceptible person. Now to-morrow, after the midday meal,
she will be journeying as far as the street of the venders of woven
fabrics in order to procure a piece of silk similar to the pearl-grey
robe which she is wearing. The opportunity will be a favourable one,
for to-morrow is the weekly occasion on which you raise the shutters
and deny customers at an earlier hour; and it is really more modest
that one of my impressionable refinement should be away from the house
altogether and not merely in the inner chamber when that which is now
here passes out."
"The suggestion is well timed," replied Chou-hu. "No interruption will
then be possible."
"Furthermore," continued his wife, sprinkling upon her hair a perfumed
powder of gold which made it sparkle as it engaged the light at every
point with a most entrancing lustre, "would it not be desirable to use
a weapon less identified with your own hand? In the corner nearest to
Yan there stands a massive and heavily knotted club which could
afterwards be burned. It would be an easy matter to call the simple
Yan's attention to some object upon the floor and then as he bent down
suffer him to Pass Beyond."
"Assuredly," agreed Chou-hu, at once perceiving the wisdom of the
change; "also, in that case, there would be less--"
"/Ah/!" again cried the woman, shaking her upraised finger reprovingly
at Chou-hu (for so daintily endowed was her mind that she shrank from
any of the grosser realities of the act unless they were clothed in
the very gilded flowers of speech). "Desist, O crimson-minded
barbarian! Let us now walk side by side along the river bank and drink
in the soul-stirring melody of the musicians who at this hour will be
making the spot doubly attractive with the concord of stringed woods
and instruments of brass struck with harmonious unison."
The scheme for freeing Chou-hu from the embarrassment of Yan's position
was not really badly arranged, nor would it have failed in most cases,
but the barber was not sufficiently broad-witted to see that many of
the inspired sayings which he used as arguments could be taken in
another light and conveyed a decisive warning to himself. A pleasantly
devised proverb has been aptly compared to a precious jewel, and as
the one has a hundred light-reflecting surfaces, so has the other a
diversity of applications, until it is not infrequently beyond the
comprehension of an ordinary person to know upon which side wisdom and
prudence lie. On the following afternoon Yan was seated in his
accustomed corner when Chou-hu entered the shop with uneven feet. The
barriers against the street had been raised and the outer door was
barred so that none might intrude, while Chou-hu had already carefully
examined the walls to ensure that no crevices remained unsealed. As he
entered he was seeking, somewhat incoherently, to justify himself by
assuring the deities that he had almost changed his mind until he
remembered the many impious acts on Yan's part in the past, to avenge
which he felt himself to be their duly appointed instrument.
Furthermore, to convince them of the excellence of his motive (and
also to protect himself against the influence of evil spirits) he
advanced repeating the words of an invocation which in his youth he
had been accustomed to say daily in the temple, and thereupon Yan knew
that the moment was at hand.
"Behold, master!" he exclaimed suddenly, in clearly expressed words,
"something lies at your feet."
Chou-hu looked down to the floor and lying before him was a piece of
silver. To his dull and confused faculties it sounded an inaccurate
detail of his pre-arranged plan that Yan should have addressed him,
and the remark itself seemed dimly to remind him of something that he
had intended to say, but he was too involved with himself to be able
to attach any logical significance to the facts and he at once stooped
greedily to possess the coin. Then Yan, who had an unfaltering grasp
upon the necessities of each passing second, sprang agilely forward,
swung the staff, and brought it so proficiently down upon Chou-hu's
lowered head that the barber dropped lifeless to the ground and the
weapon itself was shattered by the blow. Without a pause Yan clothed
himself with his master's robes and ornaments, wrapped his own garment
about Chou-hu instead, and opening a stone door let into the ground
rolled the body through so that it dropped down into the cave beneath.
He next altered the binding of his hair a little, cut his lips deeply
for a set purpose, and then reposing upon the couch of the inner
chamber he took up one of Chou-hu's pipes and awaited Tsae-che's
"It is unendurable that they of the silk market should be so
ill-equipped," remarked Tsae-che discontentedly as she entered. "This
pitiable one has worn away the heels of her sandals in a vain
endeavour to procure a suitable embroidery, and has turned over the
contents of every stall to no material end. How have the events of the
day progressed with you, my lord?"
"To the fulfilling of a written destiny. Yet in a measure darkly, for
a light has gone out," replied Yuen Yan.
"There was no unanticipated divergence?" inquired the woman with
interest and a marked approval of this delicate way of expressing the
operation of an unpleasant necessity.
"From detail to detail it was as this person desired and contrived,"
"And, of a surety, this one also?" claimed Tsae-che, with an internal
emotion that something was insidiously changed in which she had no
"The language may be fully expressed in six styles of writing, but who
shall read the mind of a woman?" replied Yan evasively. "Nevertheless,
in explicit words, the overhanging shadow has departed and the future
"It is well," said Tsae-che. "Yet how altered is your voice, and for
what reason do you hold a cloth before your mouth?"
"The staff broke and a splinter flying upwards pierced my lips," said
Yan, lowering the cloth. "You speak truly, for the pain attending each
word is by no means slight, and scarcely can this person recognize his
"Oh, incomparable Chou-hu, how valiantly do you bear your sufferings!"
exclaimed Tsae-che remorsefully. "And while this heedless one has been
passing the time pleasantly in handling rich brocades you have been
lying here in anguish. Behold now, without delay she will prepare food
to divert your mind, and to mark the occasion she had already
purchased a little jar of gold-fish gills, two eggs branded with the
assurance that they have been earth-buried for eleven years, and a
small serpent preserved in oil."
When they had eaten for some time in silence Yuen Yan again spoke.
"Attend closely to my words," he said, "and if you perceive any
disconcerting oversight in the scheme which I am about to lay before
you do not hesitate to declare it. The threat which Heng-cho the baker
swore he swore openly, and many reputable witnesses could be gathered
together who would confirm his words, while the written message of
reconciliation which he sent will be known to none. Let us therefore
take that which lies in the cave beneath and clothing it in my robes
bear it unperceived as soon as the night has descended and leave it in
the courtyard of Heng-cho's house. Now Heng-cho has a fig plantation
outside the city, so that when he rises early, as his custom is, and
finds the body, he will carry it away to bury it secretly there,
remembering his impetuous words and well knowing the net of entangling
circumstances which must otherwise close around him. At that moment
you will appear before him, searching for your husband, and suspecting
his burden raise an outcry that may draw the neighbours to your side
if necessary. On this point, however, be discreetly observant, for if
the tumult calls down the official watch it will go evilly with
Heng-cho, but we shall profit little. The greater likelihood is that
as soon as you lift up your voice the baker will implore you to
accompany him back to his house so that he may make a full and
honourable compensation. This you will do, and hastening the
negotiation as much as is consistent with a seemly regard for your
overwhelming grief, you will accept not less than five hundred taels
and an undertaking that a suitable funeral will be provided."
"O thrice-versatile Chou-hu!" exclaimed Tsae-che, whose eyes had
reflected an ever-increasing sparkle of admiration as Yan unfolded the
details of his scheme, "how insignificant are the minds of others
compared with yours! Assuredly you have been drinking at some magic
well in this one's absence, for never before was your intellect so
keen and lustreful. Let us at once carry your noble stratagem into
effect, for this person's toes vibrate to bear her on a project of
such remunerative ingenuity."
Accordingly they descended into the cave beneath and taking up Chou-hu
they again dressed him in his own robes. In his inner sleeve Yan
placed some parchments of slight importance; he returned the jade
bracelet to his wrist and by other signs he made his identity
unmistakable; then lifting him between them, when the night was well
advanced, they carried him through unfrequented ways and left him
unperceived within Heng-cho's gate.
"There is yet another precaution which will ensure to you the
sympathetic voices of all if it should become necessary to appeal
openly," said Yuen Yan when they had returned. "I will make out a deed
of final intention conferring all I possess upon Yuen Yan as a mark of
esteem for his conscientious services, and this you can produce if
necessary in order to crush the niggard baker in the wine-press of
your necessitous destitution." Thereupon Yan drew up such a document
as he had described, signing it with Chou-hu's name and sealing it
with his ring, while Tsae-che also added her sign and attestation. He
then sent her to lurk upon the roof, strictly commanding her to keep
an undeviating watch upon Heng-cho's movements.
It was about the hour before dawn when Heng-cho appeared, bearing
across his back a well-filled sack and carrying in his right hand a
spade. His steps were turned towards the fig orchard of which Yan had
spoken, so that he must pass Chou-hu's house, but before he reached it
Tsae-che had glided out and with loosened hair and trailing robes she
sped along the street. Presently there came to Yuen Yan's waiting ear
a long-drawn cry and the sounds of many shutters being flung open and
the tread of hurrying feet. The moments hung about him like the wings
of a dragon-dream, but a prudent restraint chained him to the inner
It was fully light when Tsae-che returned, accompanied by one whom she
dismissed before she entered. "Felicity," she explained, placing
before Yan a heavy bag of silver. "Your word has been accomplished."
"It is sufficient," replied Yan in a tone from which every tender
modulation was absent, as he laid the silver by the side of the
parchment which he had drawn up. "For what reason is the outer door
now barred and they who drink tea with us prevented from entering to
wish Yuen Yan prosperity?"
"Strange are my lord's words, and the touch of his breath is cold to
his menial one," said the woman in doubting reproach.
"It will scarcely warm even the roots of Heng-cho's fig-trees,"
replied Yuen Yan with unveiled contempt. "Stretch across your hand."
In trembling wonder Tsae-che laid her hand upon the ebony table which
stood between them and slowly advanced it until Yan seized it and held
it firmly in his own. For a moment he held it, compelling the woman to
gaze with a soul-crushing dread into his face, then his features
relaxed somewhat from the effort by which he had controlled them, and
at the sight Tsae-che tore away her hand and with a scream which
caused those outside to forget the memory of every other cry they had
ever heard, she cast herself from the house and was seen in the city
These are the pages of the forgotten incident in the life of Yuen Yan
which this narrator has sought out and discovered. Elsewhere, in the
lesser Classics, it may be read that the person in question afterwards
lived to a venerable age and finally Passed Above surrounded by every
luxury, after leading an existence consistently benevolent and marked
by an even exceptional adherence to the principles and requirements of
The Incredible Obtuseness of Those who had Opposed the Virtuous Kai Lung
IT was later than the appointed hour that same day when Kai Lung and
Hwa-mei met about the shutter, for the Mandarin's importunity had
disturbed the harmonious balance of their fixed arrangement. As the
story-teller left the inner chamber a message of understanding, veiled
from those who stood around, had passed between their eyes, and so
complete was the sympathy that now directed them that without a spoken
word their plans were understood. Li-loe's acquiescence had been
secured by the bestowal of a flask of wine (provided already by
Hwa-mei against such an emergency), and though the door-keeper had
indicated reproach by a variety of sounds, he forbore from speaking
openly of any vaster store.
"Let the bitterness of this one's message be that which is first
spoken, so that the later and more enduring words of our remembrance
may be devoid of sting. A star has shone across my mediocre path which
now an envious cloud has conspired to obscure. This meeting will
doubtless be our last."
Then replied Kai Lung from the darkness of the space above, his voice
unhurried as its wont:
"If this is indeed the end, then to the spirits of the destinies I
prostrate myself in thanks for those golden hours that have gone
before, and had there been no others to recall then would I equally
account myself repaid in life and death by this."
"My words ascend with yours in a pale spiral to the bosom of the
universal mother," Hwa-mei made response. "I likewise am content,
having tasted this felicity."
"There is yet one other thing, esteemed, if such a presumption is to
be endured," Kai Lung ventured to request. "Each day a stone has been
displaced from off the wall and these now lie about your gentle feet.
If you should inconvenience yourself to the extent of standing upon
the mound thus raised, and would stretch up your hand, I, leaning
forth, could touch it with my finger-tips."
"This also will I dare to do and feel it no reproach," replied
Hwa-mei; thus for the first time their fingers met.
"Let me now continue the ignoble message that my unworthy lips must
bear," resumed the maiden, with a gesture of refined despair.
"Ming-shu and Shan Tien, recognizing a mutual need in each, have
agreed to forego their wordy strife and have entered upon a common
cause. To mark this reconciliation the Mandarin to-morrow night will
make a feast of wine and song in honour of Ming-shu and into this
assembly you will be led, bound and wearing the wooden cang, to
contribute to their offensive mirth. To this end you will not be
arraigned to-morrow, but on the following morning at a special court
swift sentence will be passed and carried out, neither will Shan Tien
suffer any interruption nor raise an arresting hand."
The darkness by this time encompassed them so that neither could see
the other's face, but across the scent-laden air Hwa-mei was conscious
of a subtle change, as of a poise or the tightening of a responsive
"This is the end?" she whispered up, unable to sustain. "Ah, is it not
"In the high wall of destiny that bounds our lives there is ever a
hidden gap to which the Pure Ones may guide our unconscious steps
perchance, if they see fit to intervene. . . . So that to-morrow,
being the eleventh of the Moon of Gathering-in, is to be celebrated by
the noble Mandarin with song and wine? Truly the nimble-witted
Ming-shu must have slumbered by the way!"
"Assuredly he has but now returned from a long journey."
"Haply he may start upon a longer. Have the musicians been commanded
"Even now one goes to inform the leader of their voices and to bid him
hold his band in readiness."
"Let it be your continual aim that nothing bars their progress. Where
does that just official dwell of whom you lately spoke?"
"The Censor K'o-yih, he who rebuked Shan Tien's ambitions and made him
mend his questionable life? His yamen is about the Three-eyed Gate of
Tai, a half-day's journey to the south."
"The lines converge and the issues of Shan Tien, Ming-shu and we who
linger here will presently be brought to a very decisive point where
each must play a clear-cut part. To that end is your purpose firm?"
"Lay your commands," replied Hwa-mei steadfastly, "and measure not the
burden of their weight."
"It is well," agreed Kai Lung. "Let Shan Tien give the feast and the
time of acquiescence will have passed. . . . The foothold of to-morrow
looms insecure, yet a very pressing message must meanwhile reach your
"At the feast?"
"Thus: about the door of the inner hall are two great jars of shining
brass, one on either side, and at their approach a step. Being led, at
that step I shall stumble. . . . the message you will thereafter find
in the jar from which I seek support."
"It shall be to me as your spoken word. Alas! the moment of recall is
"Doubt not; we stand on the edge of an era that is immeasurable. For
that emergency I now go to consult the spirits who have so far guided
On the following day at an evening hour Kai Lung received an imperious
summons to accompany one who led him to the inner courts. Yet neither
the cords about his arms nor the pillory around his neck could contain
the gladness of his heart. From within came the sounds of instruments
of wood and string with the measured beating of a drum; nothing had
fallen short, for on that forbidden day, incredibly blind to the
depths of his impiety, the ill-starred Mandarin Shan Tien was having
"Gall of a misprocured she-mule!" exclaimed the unsympathetic voice of
the one who had charge of him, and the rope was jerked to quicken his
loitering feet. In an effort to comply Kai Lung missed the step that
crossed his path and stumbling blindly forward would have fallen had
he not struck heavily against a massive jar of lacquered brass, one of
two that flanked the door.
"Thy province is to tell a tale rather than to dance a grotesque, as I
understand the matter," said the attendant, mollified by the
amusement. "In any case, restrain thy admitted ardour for a while;
the call is not yet for us."
From a group that stood apart some distance from the door one moved
forth and leisurely crossed the hall. Kai Lung's wounded head ceased
to pain him.
"What slave is this," she demanded of the other in a slow and level
tone, "and wherefore do the two of you intrude on this occasion?"
"The exalted lord commands that this one of the prisoners should
attend here thus, to divert them with his fancies, he having a certain
wit of the more foolish kind. Kai Lung, the dog's name is."
"Approach yet nearer to the inner door," enjoined the maiden,
indicating the direction; "so that when the message comes there shall
be no inept delay." As they moved off to obey she stood in languid
unconcern, leaning across the opening of a tall brass vase, one hand
swinging idly in its depths, until they reached their station. Kai
Lung did not need his eyes to know.
Presently the music ceased, and summoned to appear in turn, Kai Lung
stood forth among the guests. On the right hand of the Mandarin
reclined the base Ming-shu, his mind already vapoury with the fumes of
wine, the secret malice of his envious mind now boldly leaping from
"The overrated person now about to try your refined patience to its
limit is one who calls himself Kai Lung," declared Ming-shu
offensively. "From an early age he has combined minstrelsy with other
and more lucrative forms of crime. It is the boast of this
contumacious mendicant that he can recite a story to fit any set of
circumstances, this, indeed, being the only merit claimed for his
feeble entertainment. The test selected for your tolerant amusement on
this very second-rate occasion is that he relates the story of a
presuming youth who fixes his covetous hopes upon one so far above his
degraded state that she and all who behold his uncouth efforts are
consumed by helpless laughter. Ultimately he is to be delivered to a
severe but well-earned death by a conscientious official whose
leisurely purpose is to possess the maiden for himself. Although
occasionally bordering on the funereal, the details of the narrative
are to be of a light and gravity-removing nature on the whole.
The story-teller made obeisance towards the Mandarin, whose face
meanwhile revealed a complete absence of every variety of emotion.
"Have I your genial permission to comply, nobility?" he asked.
"The word is spoken," replied Shan Tien unwillingly. "Let the vaunt be
"I obey, High Excellence. This involves the story of Hien and the
The Story of Hien and the Chief Examiner
In the reign of the Emperor K'ong there lived at Ho Chow an official
named Thang-li, whose degree was that of Chief Examiner of Literary
Competitions for the district. He had an only daughter, Fa Fei, whose
mind was so liberally stored with graceful accomplishments as to give
rise to the saying that to be in her presence was more refreshing than
to sit in a garden of perfumes listening to the wisdom of seven
elderly philosophers, while her glossy floating hair, skin of crystal
lustre, crescent nails and feet smaller and more symmetrical than an
opening lotus made her the most beautiful creature in all Ho Chow.
Possessing no son, and maintaining an open contempt towards all his
nearer relations, it had become a habit for Thang-li to converse with
his daughter almost on terms of equality, so that she was not
surprised on one occasion, when, calling her into his presence, he
graciously commanded her to express herself freely on whatever subject
seemed most important in her mind.
"The Great Middle Kingdom in which we live is not only inhabited by
the most enlightened, humane and courteous-minded race, but is itself
fittingly the central and most desirable point of the Universe,
surrounded by other less favoured countries peopled by races of
pig-tailless men and large-footed women, all destitute of refined
intelligence," replied Fa Fei modestly. "The sublime Emperor is of all
persons the wisest, purest and--"
"Undoubtedly," interrupted Thang-li. "These truths are of gem-like
brilliance, and the ears of a patriotic subject can never be closed to
the beauty and music of their ceaseless repetition. Yet between father
and daughter in the security of an inner chamber there not unnaturally
arise topics of more engrossing interest. For example, now that you
are of a marriageable age, have your eyes turned in the direction of
any particular suitor?"
"Oh, thrice-venerated sire!" exclaimed Fa Fei, looking vainly round
for some attainable object behind which to conceal her honourable
confusion, "should the thoughts of a maiden dwell definitely on a
matter of such delicate consequence?"
"They should not," replied her father; "but as they invariably do, the
speculation is one outside our immediate concern. Nor, as it is your
wonted custom to ascend upon the outside roof at a certain hour of the
morning, is it reasonable to assume that you are ignorant of the
movements of the two young men who daily contrive to linger before
this in no way attractive residence without any justifiable pretext."
"My father is all-seeing," replied Fa Fei in a commendable spirit of
dutiful acquiescence, and also because it seemed useless to deny the
"It is unnecessary," said Thang-li. "Surrounded, as he is, by a
retinue of eleven female attendants, it is enough to be all-hearing.
But which of the two has impressed you in the more favourable light?"
"How can the inclinations of an obedient daughter affect the matter?"
said Fa Fei evasively. "Unless, O most indulgent, it is your amiable
intention to permit me to follow the inspiration of my own unfettered
"Assuredly," replied the benevolent Thang-li. "Provided, of course,
that the choice referred to should by no evil mischance run in a
contrary direction to my own maturer judgment."
"Yet if such an eventuality did haply arise?" persisted Fa Fei.
"None but the irredeemably foolish spend their time in discussing the
probable sensation of being struck by a thunderbolt," said Thang-li
more coldly. "From this day forth, also, be doubly guarded in the
undeviating balance of your attitude. Restrain the swallow-like
flights of your admittedly brilliant eyes, and control the movements
of your expressive fan within the narrowest bounds of necessity. This
person's position between the two is one of exceptional delicacy and
he has by no means yet decided which to favour.
"In such a case," inquired Fa Fei, caressing his pig-tail
persuasively, "how does a wise man act, and by what manner of omens is
he influenced in his decision?"
"In such a case," replied Thang-li, "a very wise man does not act; but
maintaining an impassive countenance, he awaits the unrolling of
events until he sees what must inevitably take place. It is thus that
his reputation for wisdom is built up."
"Furthermore," said Fa Fei hopefully, "the ultimate pronouncement
rests with the guarding deities?"
"Unquestionably," agreed Thang-li. "Yet, by a venerable custom, the
esteem of the maiden's parents is the detail to which the suitors
usually apply themselves with the greatest diligence."
Of the two persons thus referred to by Thang-li, one, Tsin Lung, lived
beneath the sign of the Righteous Ink Brush. By hereditary right Tsin
Lung followed the profession of copying out the more difficult
Classics in minute characters upon parchments so small that an entire
library could be concealed among the folds of a garment, in this
painstaking way enabling many persons who might otherwise have failed
at the public examination, and been driven to spend an idle and
perhaps even dissolute life, to pass with honourable distinction to
themselves and widespread credit to his resourceful system. One
gratified candidate, indeed, had compared his triumphal passage
through the many grades of the competition to the luxurious ease of
being carried in a sedan-chair, and from that time Tsin Lung was
jestingly referred to as a "sedan-chair."
It might reasonably be thought that a person enjoying this enviable
position would maintain a loyal pride in the venerable traditions of
his house and suffer the requirements of his craft to become the four
walls of his ambition. Alas! Tsin Lung must certainly have been born
under the influence of a very evil planet, for the literary quality of
his profession did not entice his imagination at all, and his sole and
frequently-expressed desire was to become a pirate. Nothing but the
necessity of obtaining a large sum of money with which to purchase a
formidable junk and to procure the services of a band of capable and
bloodthirsty outlaws bound him to Ho Chow, unless, perchance, it might
be the presence there of Fa Fei after he had once cast his piratical
eye upon her overwhelming beauty.
The other of the two persons was Hien, a youth of studious desires and
unassuming manner. His father had been the chief tax-collector of the
Chunling mountains, beyond the town, and although the exact nature of
the tax and the reason for its extortion had become forgotten in the
process of interminable ages, he himself never admitted any doubt of
his duty to collect it from all who passed over the mountains, even
though the disturbed state of the country made it impossible for him
to transmit the proceeds to the capital. To those who uncharitably
extended the envenomed tongue of suspicion towards the very existence
of any Imperial tax, the father of Hien replied with unshaken loyalty
that in such a case the sublime Emperor had been very treacherously
served by his advisers, as the difficulty of the paths and the
intricate nature of the passes rendered the spot peculiarly suitable
for the purpose, and as he was accompanied by a well-armed and
somewhat impetuous band of followers, his arguments were inevitably
successful. When he Passed Beyond, Hien accepted the leadership, but
solely out of a conscientious respect for his father's memory, for his
heart was never really in the occupation. His time was almost wholly
taken up in reading the higher Classics, and even before he had seen
Fa Fei his determination had been taken that when once he had
succeeded in passing the examination for the second degree and thereby
become entitled to an inferior mandarinship he would abandon his
former life forever. From this resolution the entreaties of his
devoted followers could not shake him, and presently they ceased to
argue, being reassured by the fact that although Hien presented
himself unfailingly for every examination his name appeared at the
foot of each successive list with unvarying frequency. It was at this
period that he first came under the ennobling spell of Fa Fei's
influence and from that time forth he redoubled his virtuous efforts.
After conversing with her father, as already related, Fa Fei spent the
day in an unusually thoughtful spirit. As soon as it was dark she
stepped out from the house and veiling her purpose under the pretext
of gathering some herbs to complete a charm she presently entered a
grove of overhanging cedars where Hien had long been awaiting her
"Rainbow of my prosaic existence!" he exclaimed, shaking hands with
himself courteously, "have you yet carried out your bold suggestion?"
and so acute was his anxiety for her reply that he continued to hold
his hand unconsciously until Fa Fei turned away her face in very
"Alas, O my dragon-hearted one," she replied at length, "I have indeed
dared to read the scroll, but how shall this person's inelegant lips
utter so detestable a truth?"
"It is already revealed," said Hien, striving to conceal from her his
bitterness. "When the list of competitors at the late examination is
publicly proclaimed to-morrow at the four gates of the city, the last
name to be announced will again, and for the eleventh time, be that of
the degraded Hien."
"Beloved," exclaimed Fa Fei, resolved that as she could not honourably
deny that her Hien's name was again indeed the last one to appear she
would endeavour to lead his mind subtly away to the contemplation of
more pleasurable thoughts, "it is as you have said, but although your
name is the last, it is by far the most dignified and
romantic-sounding of all, nor is there another throughout the list
which can be compared to it for the ornamental grace of its flowing
"Nevertheless," replied Hien, in a violent access of self-contempt,
"it is a name of abandoned omen and is destined only to reach the ears
of posterity to embellish the proverb of scorn, 'The lame duck should
avoid the ploughed field.' Can there--can there by no chance have been
some hope-inspiring error?"
"Thus were the names inscribed on the parchment which after the public
announcement will be affixed to the Hall of Ten Thousand Lustres,"
replied Fa Fei. "With her own unworthy eyes this incapable person
"The name 'Hien' is in no way striking or profound," continued the one
in question, endeavouring to speak as though the subject referred to
some person standing at a considerable distance away. "Furthermore, so
commonplace and devoid of character are its written outlines that it
has very much the same appearance whichever way up it is looked
at. . . . The possibility that in your graceful confusion you held the
list in such a position that what appeared to be the end was in
reality the beginning is remote in the extreme, yet--"
In spite of an absorbing affection Fa Fei could not disguise from
herself that her feelings would have been more pleasantly arranged if
her lover had been inspired to accept his position unquestioningly.
"There is a detail, hitherto unrevealed, which disposes of all such
amiable suggestions," she replied. "After the name referred to,
someone in authority had inscribed the undeniable comment 'As usual.'"
"The omen is a most encouraging one," exclaimed Hien, throwing aside
all his dejection. "Hitherto this person's untiring efforts had met
with no official recognition whatever. It is now obvious that far from
being lost in the crowd he is becoming an object of honourable
interest to the examiners."
"One frequently hears it said, 'After being struck on the head with an
axe it is a positive pleasure to be beaten about the body with a
wooden club,'" said Fa Fei, "and the meaning of the formerly elusive
proverb is now explained. Would it not be prudent to avail yourself at
length of the admittedly outrageous Tsin Lung's services, so that this
period of unworthy trial may be brought to a distinguished close?"
"It is said, 'Do not eat the fruit of the stricken branch,'" replied
Hien, "and this person will never owe his success to one who is so
detestable in his life and morals that with every facility for a
scholarly and contemplative existence he freely announces his
barbarous intention of becoming a pirate. Truly the Dragon of Justice
does but sleep for a little time, and when he awakens all that will be
left of the mercenary Tsin Lung and those who associate with him will
scarcely be enough to fill an orange skin."
"Doubtless it will be so," agreed Fa Fei, regretting, however, that
Hien had not been content to prophesy a more limited act of vengeance,
until, at least, her father had come to a definite decision regarding
her own future. "Alas, though, the Book of Dynasties expressly says,
'The one-legged never stumble,' and Tsin Lung is so morally
ill-balanced that the proverb may even apply to him."
"Do not fear," said Hien. "It is elsewhere written, 'Love and leprosy
few escape,' and the spirit of Tsin Lung's destiny is perhaps even at
this moment lurking unsuspected behind some secret place."
"If," exclaimed a familiar voice, "the secret place alluded to should
chance to be a hollow cedar-tree of inadequate girth, the unfortunate
spirit in question will have my concentrated sympathy."
"Just and magnanimous father!" exclaimed Fa Fei, thinking it more
prudent not to recognize that he had learned of their meeting-place
and concealing himself there had awaited their coming, "when your
absence was discovered a heaven-sent inspiration led me to this spot.
Have I indeed been permitted here to find you?"
"Assuredly you have," replied Thang-li, who was equally desirous of
concealing the real circumstances, although the difficulty of the
position into which he had hastily and incautiously thrust his body on
their approach compelled him to reveal himself. "The same inspiration
led me to lose myself in this secluded spot, as being the one which
you would inevitably search."
"Yet by what incredible perversity does it arise, venerable Thang-li,
that a leisurely and philosophical stroll should result in a person of
your dignified proportions occupying so unattractive a position?" said
Hien, who appeared to be too ingenuous to suspect Thang-li's craft, in
spite of a warning glance from Fa Fei's expressive eyes.
"The remark is a natural one, O estimable youth," replied Thang-li,
doubtless smiling benevolently, although nothing of his person could
be actually seen by Hien or Fa Fei, "but the recital is not devoid of
humiliation. While peacefully studying the position of the heavens
this person happened to glance into the upper branches of a tree and
among them he beheld a bird's nest of unusual size and richness--one
that would promise to yield a dish of the rarest flavour. Lured on by
the anticipation of so sumptuous a course, he rashly trusted his body
to an unworthy branch, and the next moment, notwithstanding his
unceasing protests to the protecting Powers, he was impetuously
deposited within this hollow trunk."
"Not unreasonably is it said, 'A bird in the soup is better than an
eagle's nest in the desert,'" exclaimed Hien. "The pursuit of a fair
and lofty object is set about with hidden pitfalls to others beyond
you, O noble Chief Examiner! By what nimble-witted act of adroitness
is it now your enlightened purpose to extricate yourself?"
At this admittedly polite but in no way inspiring question a silence
of a very acute intensity seemed to fall on that part of the forest.
The mild and inscrutable expression of Hien's face did not vary, but
into Fa Fei's eyes there came an unexpected but not altogether
disapproving radiance, while, without actually altering, the
appearance of the tree encircling Thang-li's form undoubtedly conveyed
the impression that the benevolent smile which might hitherto have
been reasonably assumed to exist within had been abruptly withdrawn.
"Your meaning is perhaps well-intentioned, gracious Hien," said
Thang-li at length, "but as an offer of disinterested assistance your
words lack the gong-like clash of spontaneous enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, if you will inconvenience yourself to the extent of
climbing this not really difficult tree for a short distance you will
be able to grasp some outlying portion of this one's body without any
"Mandarin," replied Hien, "to touch even the extremity of your
incomparable pig-tail would be an honour repaying all earthly
"Do not hesitate to seize it, then," said Thang-li, as Hien paused.
"Yet, if this person may without ostentation continue the analogy, to
grasp him firmly by the shoulders must confer a higher distinction and
would be even more agreeable to his own feelings."
"The proposal is a flattering one," continued Hien, "but my hands are
bound down by the decree of the High Powers, for among the most
inviolable of the edicts is it not written: 'Do the lame offer to
carry the footsore; the blind to protect the one-eyed? Distrust the
threadbare person who from an upper back room invites you to join him
in an infallible process of enrichment; turn aside from the one devoid
of pig-tail who says, "Behold, a few drops daily at the hour of the
morning sacrifice and your virtuous head shall be again like a
well-sown rice-field at the time of harvest"; and towards the passing
stranger who offers you that mark of confidence which your friends
withhold close and yet again open a different eye. So shall you grow
obese in wisdom'?"
"Alas!" exclaimed Thang-li, "the inconveniences of living in an Empire
where a person has to regulate the affairs of his everyday life by the
sacred but antiquated proverbial wisdom of his remote ancestors are by
no means trivial. Cannot this possibly mythical obstacle be
flattened-out by the amiable acceptance of a jar of sea snails or some
other seasonable delicacy, honourable Hien?"
"Nothing but a really well-grounded encouragement as regards Fa Fei
can persuade this person to regard himself as anything but a solitary
outcast," replied Hien, "and one paralysed in every useful impulse.
Rather than abandon the opportunity of coming to such an arrangement
he would almost be prepared to give up all idea of ever passing the
examination for the second degree."
"By no means," exclaimed Thang-li hastily. "The sacrifice would be too
excessive. Do not relinquish your sleuth-hound-like persistence, and
success will inevitably reward your ultimate end."
"Can it really be," said Hien incredulously, "that my contemptible
efforts are a matter of sympathetic interest to one so high up in
every way as the renowned Chief Examiner?"
"They are indeed," replied Thang-li, with that ingratiating candour
that marked his whole existence. "Doubtless so prosaic a detail as the
system of remuneration has never occupied your refined thoughts, but
when it is understood that those in the position of this person are
rewarded according to the success of the candidates you will begin to
grasp the attitude."
"In that case," remarked Hien, with conscious humiliation, "nothing
but a really sublime tolerance can have restrained you from upbraiding
this obscure competitor as a thoroughly corrupt egg."
"On the contrary," replied Thang-li reassuringly, "I have long
regarded you as the auriferous fowl itself. It is necessary to
explain, perhaps, that the payment by result alluded to is not based
on the number of successful candidates, but--much more reasonably as
all those have to be provided with lucrative appointments by the
authorities--on the economy effected to the State by those whom I can
conscientiously reject. Owing to the malignant Tsin Lung's sinister
dexterity these form an ever-decreasing band, so that you may now be
fittingly deemed the chief prop of a virtuous but poverty-afflicted
line. When you reflect that for the past eleven years you have thus
really had the honour of providing the engaging Fa Fei with all the
necessities of her very ornamental existence you will see that you
already possess practically all the advantages of matrimony.
Nevertheless, if you will now bring our agreeable conversation to an
end by releasing this inauspicious person he will consider the matter
with the most indulgent sympathies."
"Withhold!" exclaimed a harsh voice before Hien could reply, and from
behind a tree where he had heard Thang-li's impolite reference to
himself Tsin Lung stood forth. "How does it chance, O two-complexioned
Chief Examiner, that after weighing this one's definite
proposals--even to the extent of demanding a certain proportion in
advance--you are now engaged in holding out the same alluring hope to
another? Assuredly, if your existence is so critically imperilled this
person and none other will release you and claim the reward."
"Turn your face backwards, imperious Tsin Lung," cried Hien. "These
incapable hands alone shall have the overwhelming distinction of
drawing forth the illustrious Thang-li."
"Do not get entangled among my advancing footsteps, immature one,"
contemptuously replied Tsin Lung, shaking the massive armour in which
he was encased from head to foot. "It is inept for pigmies to stand
before one who has every intention of becoming a rapacious pirate
"The sedan-chair is certainly in need of new shafts," retorted Hien,
and drawing his sword with an expression of ferocity he caused it to
whistle around his head so loudly that a flock of migratory doves
began to arrive, under the impression that others of their tribe were
calling them to assemble.
"Alas!" exclaimed Thang-li, in an accent of despair, "doubtless the
wise Nung-yu was surrounded by disciples all eager that no other
should succour him when he remarked: 'A humble friend in the same
village is better than sixteen influential brothers in the Royal
Palace.' In all this illimitable Empire is there not room for one
whose aspirations are bounded by the submerged walls of a predatory
junk and another whose occupation is limited to the upper passes of the
Chunling mountains? Consider the poignant nature of this person's vain
regrets if by a couple of evilly directed blows you succeeded at this
inopportune moment in exterminating one another!"
"Do not fear, exalted Thang-li," cried Hien, who, being necessarily
somewhat occupied in preparing himself against Tsin Lung's attack,
failed to interpret these words as anything but a direct encouragement
to his own cause. "Before the polluting hands of one who disdains the
Classics shall be laid upon your sacred extremities this tenacious
person will fix upon his antagonist with a serpent-like embrace and,
if necessary, suffer the spirits of both to Pass Upward in one
breath." And to impress Tsin Lung with his resolution he threw away
his scabbard and picked it up again several times.
"Grow large in hope, worthy Chief Examiner," cried Tsin Lung, who from
a like cause was involved in a similar misapprehension. "Rather shall
your imperishable bones adorn the interior of a hollow cedar-tree
throughout all futurity than you shall suffer the indignity of being
extricated by an earth-nurtured sleeve-snatcher." And to intimidate
Hien by the display he continued to clash his open hand against his
leg armour until the pain became intolerable.
"Honourable warriors!" implored Thang-li in so agonized a voice--and
also because they were weary of the exercise--that Hien and Tsin Lung
paused, "curb your bloodthirsty ambitions for a breathing-space and
listen to what will probably be a Last Expression. Believe the
passionate sincerity of this one's throat when he proclaims that there
would be nothing repugnant to his very keenest susceptibilities if an
escaping parricide, who was also guilty of rebellion, temple-robbing,
book-burning, murder and indiscriminate violence, and the pollution of
tombs, took him familiarly by the hand at this moment. What,
therefore, would be his gratified feelings if two such nobly-born
subjects joined forces and drew him up dexterously by the body-cloth?
Accept his definite assurance that without delay a specific
pronouncement would be made respecting the bestowal of the one around
whose jade-like personality this encounter has arisen."
"The proposal casts a reasonable shadow, gracious Hien," remarked
Tsin Lung, turning towards the other with courteous deference. "Shall
we bring a scene of irrational carnage to an end and agree to regard
the incomparable Thang-li's benevolent tongue as an outstretched olive
"It is admittedly said, 'Every road leads in two directions,' and the
alternative you suggest, O virtue-loving Tsin Lung, is both reputable
and just," replied Hien pleasantly. In this amiable spirit they
extricated Thang-li and bore him to the ground. At an appointed hour
he received them with becoming ceremony and after a many-coursed
repast rose to fulfil the specific terms of his pledge.
"The Line of Thang," he remarked with inoffensive pride, "has for
seven generations been identified with a high standard of literary
achievement. Undeniably it is a very creditable thing to control the
movements of an ofttime erratic vessel and to emerge triumphantly from
a combat with every junk you encounter, and it is no less worthy of
esteem to gather round about one, on the sterile slopes of the
Chunlings, a devoted band of followers. Despite these virtues,
however, neither occupation is marked by any appreciable literary
flavour, and my word is, therefore, that both persons shall present
themselves for the next examination, and when in due course the result
is declared the more successful shall be hailed as the chosen suitor.
Lo, I have spoken into a sealed bottle, and my voice cannot vary."
Then replied Tsin Lung: "Truly, it is as it is said, astute Thang-li,
though the encircling wall of a hollow cedar-tree, for example, might
impart to the voice in question a less uncompromising ring of finality
than it possesses when raised in a silk-lined chamber and surrounded
by a band of armed retainers. Nevertheless the pronouncement is one
which appeals to this person's sense of justice, and the only
improvement he can suggest is that the superfluous Hien should hasten
that ceremony at which he will be an honoured guest by now signifying
his intention of retiring from so certain a defeat. For by what
expedient," he continued, with arrogant persistence, "can you avert
that end, O ill-destined Hien? Have you not burned joss-sticks to the
deities, both good and bad, for eleven years unceasingly? Can you, as
this person admittedly can, inscribe the Classics with such inimitable
delicacy that an entire volume of the Book of Decorum, copied in his
most painstaking style, may be safely carried about within a hollow
tooth, a lengthy ode, traced on a shred of silk, wrapped undetectably
around a single eyelash?"
"It is true that the one before you cannot bend his brush to such
deceptive ends," replied Hien modestly. "A detail, however, has
escaped your reckoning. Hitherto Hien has been opposed by a thousand,
and against so many it is true that the spirits of his ancestors have
been able to afford him very little help. On this occasion he need
regard one adversary alone. Giving those Forces which he invokes
clearly to understand that they need not concern themselves with any
other, he will plainly intimate that after so many sacrifices on his
part something of a really tangible affliction is required to
overwhelm Tsin Lung. Whether this shall take the form of mental
stagnation, bodily paralysis, demoniacal possession, derangement of
the internal faculties, or being changed into one of the lower
animals, it might be presumptuous on this person's part to stipulate,
but by invoking every accessible power and confining himself to this
sole petition a very definite tragedy may be expected. Beware, O
contumacious Lung, 'However high the tree the shortest axe can reach
As the time for the examination drew near the streets of Ho Chow began
to wear a fuller and more animated appearance both by day and night.
Tsin Lung's outer hall was never clear of anxious suppliants all
entreating him to supply them with minute and reliable copies of the
passages which they found most difficult in the selected works, but
although his low and avaricious nature was incapable of rejecting this
means of gain he devoted his closest energies and his most inspired
moments to his own personal copies, a set of books so ethereal that
they floated in the air without support and so cunningly devised in
the blending of their colour as to be, in fact, quite invisible to any
but his microscopic eyes. Hien, on the other hand, devoted himself
solely to interesting the Powers against his rival's success by every
variety of incentive, omen, sacrifice, imprecation, firework,
inscribed curse, promise, threat or combination of inducements.
Through the crowded streets and by-ways of Ho Chow moved the
imperturbable Thang-li, smiling benevolently on those whom he
encountered and encouraging each competitor, and especially Hien and
Tsin Lung, with a cheerful proverb suited to the moment.
An outside cause had further contributed to make this period one of
the most animated in the annals of Ho Chow, for not only was the city,
together with the rest of the imperishable Empire, celebrating a great
and popular victory, but, as a direct consequence of that event, the
sublime Emperor himself was holding his court at no great distance
away. An armed and turbulent rabble of illiterate barbarians had
suddenly appeared in the north and, not giving a really sufficient
indication of their purpose, had traitorously assaulted the capital.
Had he followed the prompting of his own excessive magnanimity, the
charitable Monarch would have refused to take any notice whatever of
so puny and contemptible a foe, but so unmistakable became the wishes
of the Ever-victorious Army that, yielding to their importunity, he
placed himself at their head and resolutely led them backward. Had the
opposing army been more intelligent, this crafty move would certainly
have enticed them on into the plains, where they would have fallen an
easy victim to the Imperial troops and all perished miserably. Owing
to their low standard of reasoning, however, the mule-like invaders
utterly failed to grasp the advantage which, as far as the appearance
tended, they might reasonably be supposed to reap by an immediate
pursuit. They remained incapably within the capital slavishly
increasing its defences, while the Ever-victorious lurked
resourcefully in the neighbourhood of Ho Chow, satisfied that with so
dull-witted an adversary they could, if the necessity arose, go still
Upon a certain day of the period thus indicated there arrived at the
gate of the royal pavilion one having the appearance of an aged seer,
who craved to be led into the Imperial Presence.
"Lo, Mightiest," said a slave, bearing in this message, "there stands
at the outer gate one resembling an ancient philosopher, desiring to
gladden his failing eyesight before he Passes Up with a brief vision
of your illuminated countenance."
"The petition is natural but inopportune," replied the agreeable
Monarch. "Let the worthy soothsayer be informed that after an
exceptionally fatiguing day we are now snatching a few short hours of
necessary repose, from which it would be unseemly to recall us."
"He received your gracious words with distended ears and then observed
that it was for your All-wisdom to decide whether an inspired message
which he had read among the stars was not of more consequence than
even a refreshing sleep," reported the slave, returning.
"In that case," replied the Sublimest, "tell the persevering wizard
that we have changed our minds and are religiously engaged in
worshipping our ancestors, so that it would be really sacrilegious to
"He kowtowed profoundly at the mere mention of your charitable
occupation and proceeded to depart, remarking that it would indeed be
corrupt to disturb so meritorious an exercise with a scheme simply for
your earthly enrichment," again reported the message-bearer.
"Restrain him!" hastily exclaimed the broadminded Sovereign. "Give the
venerable necromancer clearly to understand that we have worshipped
them enough for one day. Doubtless the accommodating soothsayer has
discovered some rare jewel which he is loyally bringing to embellish
"There are rarer jewels than those which can be pasted in a crown,
Supreme Head," said the stranger, entering unperceived behind the
attending slave. He bore the external signs of an infirm magician,
while his face was hidden in a cloth to mark the imposition of a
solemn vow. "With what apter simile," he continued, "can this person
describe an imperishable set of verses which he heard this morning
falling from the lips of a wandering musician like a seven-roped cable
of pearls pouring into a silver bucket? The striking and original
title was 'Concerning Spring,' and although the snow lay deep at the
time several bystanders agreed that an azalea bush within hearing came
into blossom at the eighty-seventh verse."
"We have heard of the poem to which you refer with so just a sense of
balance," said the impartial Monarch encouragingly. (Though not to
create a two-sided impression it may be freely stated that he himself
was the author of the inspired composition.) "Which part, in your
mature judgment, reflected the highest genius and maintained the most
"It is aptly said: 'When it is dark the sun no longer shines, but who
shall forget the colours of the rainbow?'" replied the astrologer
evasively. "How is it possible to suspend topaz in one cup of the
balance and weigh it against amethyst in the other; or who in a single
language can compare the tranquillizing grace of a maiden with the
invigorating pleasure of witnessing a well-contested rat-fight?"
"Your insight is clear and unbiased," said the gracious Sovereign.
"But however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of
bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of
almost equal importance?"
"There is yet another detail, it is true," admitted the sage, "but
regarding its comparative importance a thoroughly loyal subject may be
permitted to amend the remark of a certain wise Emperor of a former
dynasty: 'Any person in the City can discover a score of gold mines if
necessary, but One only could possibly have written "Concerning
"The arts may indeed be regarded as lost," acquiesced the magnanimous
Head, "with the exception of a solitary meteor here and there. Yet in
the trivial matter of mere earthly enrichment--"
"Truly," agreed the other. "There is, then, a whisper in the province
that the floor of the Imperial treasury is almost visible."
"The rumour, as usual, exaggerates the facts grossly," replied the
Greatest. "The floor of the Imperial treasury is quite visible."
"Yet on the first day of the next moon the not inconsiderable revenue
contributed by those who present themselves for the examination will
"And by an effete and unworthy custom almost immediately flow out
again to reward the efforts of the successful," replied the Wearer of
the Yellow in an accent of refined bitterness. "On other occasions it
is possible to assist the overworked treasurer with a large and
glutinous hand, but from time immemorial the claims of the competitors
have been inviolable."
"Yet if by a heaven-sent chance none, or very few, reached the
necessary standard of excellence--?"
"Such a chance, whether proceeding from the Upper Air or the Other
Parts would be equally welcome to a very hard-lined Ruler," replied
the one who thus described himself.
"Then listen, O K'ong-hi, of the imperishable dynasty of Chung," said
the stranger. "Thus was it laid upon me in the form of a spontaneous
dream. For seven centuries the Book of the Observances has been the
unvarying Classic of the examinations because during that period it
has never been surpassed. Yet as the Empire has admittedly existed
from all time, and as it would be impious not to agree that the
immortal System is equally antique, it is reasonable to suppose that
the Book of the Observances displaced an earlier and inferior work,
and is destined in the cycle of time to be itself laid aside for a
"The inference is self-evident," acknowledged the Emperor uneasily,
"but the logical development is one which this diffident Monarch
hesitates to commit to spoken words."
"It is not a matter for words but for a stroke of the Vermilion
Pencil," replied the other in a tone of inspired authority. "Across
the faint and puny effusions of the past this person sees written in
very large and obliterating strokes the words 'Concerning Spring.'
Where else can be found so novel a conception combined with so unique
a way of carrying it out? What other poem contains so many thoughts
that one instinctively remembers as having heard before, so many
involved allusions that baffle the imagination of the keenest, and so
much sound in so many words? With the possible exception of Meng-hu's
masterpiece, 'The Empty Coffin,' what other work so skilfully conveys
the impression of being taken down farther than one can ever again
come up and then suddenly upraised beyond the possible descent? Where
else can be found so complete a defiance of all that has hitherto been
deemed essential, and, to insert a final wedge, what other poem is
half so long?"
"Your criticism is severe but just," replied the Sovereign, "except
that part having reference to Meng-hu. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of
the proposal, though reasonable, looms a degree stormily into a
troubled future. Can it be permissible even for--"
"Omnipotence!" exclaimed the seer.
"The title is well recalled," confessed the Emperor. "Yet although
unquestionably omnipotent there must surely be some limits to our
powers in dealing with so old established a system as that of the
"Who can doubt a universal admission that the composer of 'Concerning
Spring' is capable of doing anything?" was the profound reply. "Let
the mandate be sent out--but, to an obvious end, let it be withheld
until the eve of the competitions."
"The moment of hesitancy has faded; go forth in the certainty,
esteemed," said the Emperor reassuringly. "You have carried your
message with a discreet hand. Yet before you go, if there is any
particular mark of Imperial favour that we can show--something of a
special but necessarily honorary nature--do not set an iron screen
between your ambition and the light of our favourable countenance."
"There is indeed such a signal reward," assented the aged person, with
an air of prepossessing diffidence. "A priceless copy of the immortal
"By all means," exclaimed the liberal-minded Sovereign, with an
expression of great relief. "Take three or four in case any of your
fascinating relations have large literary appetites. Or, still more
conveniently arranged, here is an unopened package from the stall of
those who send forth the printed leaves--'thirteen in the semblance of
twelve,' as the quaint and harmonious phrase of their craft has it.
Walk slowly, revered, and a thousand rainbows guide your retiring
Concerning the episode of this discreetly-veiled personage the
historians who have handed down the story of the imperishable
affection of Hien and Fa Fei have maintained an illogical silence. Yet
it is related that about the same time, as Hien was walking by the
side of a bamboo forest of stunted growth, he was astonished by the
maiden suddenly appearing before him from the direction of the royal
camp. She was incomparably radiant and had the appearance of being
exceptionally well satisfied with herself. Commanding him that he
should stand motionless with closed eyes, in order to ascertain what
the presiding deities would allot him, she bound a somewhat weighty
object to the end of his pig-tail, at the same time asking him in how
short a period he could commit about nineteen thousand lines of
atrociously ill-arranged verse to the tablets of his mind.
"Then do not suffer the rice to grow above your ankles," she
continued, when Hien had modestly replied that six days with good
omens should be sufficient, "but retiring to your innermost chamber
bar the door and digest this scroll as though it contained the last
expression of an eccentric and vastly rich relation," and with a laugh
more musical than the vibrating of a lute of the purest Yun-nan jade
in the Grotto of Ten Thousand Echoes she vanished.
It has been sympathetically remarked that no matter how painstakingly
a person may strive to lead Destiny along a carefully-prepared path
and towards a fit and thoroughly virtuous end there is never lacking
some inopportune creature to thrust his superfluous influence into an
opposing balance. This naturally suggests the intolerable Tsin Lung,
whose ghoulish tastes led him to seek the depths of that same glade on
the following day. Walking with downcast eyes, after his degraded
custom, he presently became aware of an object lying some distance
from his way. To those who have already fathomed the real character of
this repulsive person it will occasion no surprise to know that, urged
on by the insatiable curiosity that was deeply grafted on to his
avaricious nature, he turned aside to probe into a matter with which
he had no possible concern, and at length succeeded in drawing a
package from the thick bush in which it had been hastily concealed.
Finding that it contained twelve lengthy poems entitled "Concerning
Spring", he greedily thrust one in his sleeve, and upon his return,
with no other object than the prompting of an ill-regulated mind, he
spent all the time that remained before the contest in learning it
from end to end.
There have been many remarkable scenes enacted in the great
Examination Halls and in the narrow cells around, but it can at once
be definitely stated that nothing either before or since has
approached the unanimous burst of frenzy that shook the dynasty of
Chung when in the third year of his reign the well-meaning but
too-easily-led-aside Emperor K'ong inopportunely sought to replace the
sublime Classic then in use with a work that has since been recognized
to be not only shallow but inept. At Ho Chow nine hundred and
ninety-eight voices blended into one soul-benumbing cry of rage,
having all the force and precision of a carefully drilled chorus, when
the papers were opened, and had not the candidates been securely
barred within their solitary pens a popular rising must certainly have
taken place. There they remained for three days and nights, until the
clamour had subsided into a low but continuous hum, and they were too
weak to carry out a combined effort.
Throughout this turmoil Hien and Tsin Lung each plied an unfaltering
brush. It may here be advantageously stated that the former person was
not really slow or obtuse and his previous failures were occasioned
solely by the inequality he strove under in relying upon his memory
alone when every other competitor without exception had provided
himself with a concealed scrip. Tsin Lung also had a very retentive
mind. The inevitable consequence was, therefore, that when the papers
were collected Hien and Tsin Lung had accomplished an identical number
of correct lines and no other person had made even an attempt.
In explaining Thang-li's subsequent behaviour it has been claimed by
many that the strain of being compelled, in the exercise of his duty,
to remain for three days and three nights in the middle of the Hall
surrounded by that ferocious horde, all clamouring to reach him, and
the contemplation of the immense sum which he would gain by so
unparalleled a batch of rejections, contorted his faculties of
discrimination and sapped the resources of his usually active mind.
Whatever cause is accepted, it is agreed that as soon as he returned
to his house he summoned Hien and Tsin Lung together and leaving them
for a moment presently returned, leading Fa Fei by the hand. It is
further agreed by all that these three persons noticed upon his face a
somewhat preoccupied expression, and on the one side much has been
made of the admitted fact that as he spoke he wandered round the room
catching flies, an occupation eminently suited to his age and
leisurely tastes but, it may be confessed, not altogether well chosen
at so ceremonious a moment.
"It has been said," he began at length, withdrawing his eyes
reluctantly from an unusually large insect upon the ceiling and
addressing himself to the maiden, "that there are few situations in
life that cannot be honourably settled, and without loss of time,
either by suicide, a bag of gold, or by thrusting a despised
antagonist over the edge of a precipice upon a dark night. This
inoffensive person, however, has striven to arrive at the conclusion
of a slight domestic arrangement both by passively waiting for the
event to unroll itself and, at a later period, by the offer of a
definite omen. Both of the male persons concerned have applied
themselves so tenaciously to the ordeal that the result, to this
simple one's antique mind, savours overmuch of the questionable arts.
The genial and light-witted Emperor appears to have put his foot into
the embarrassment ineffectually; and Destiny herself has every
indication of being disinclined to settle so doubtful a point. As a
last resort it now remains for you yourself to decide which of these
strenuous and evenly-balanced suitors I may acclaim with ten thousand
"In that case, venerated and commanding sire," replied Fa Fei simply,
yet concealing her real regard behind the retiring mask of a modest
indifference, "it shall be Hien, because his complexion goes the more
prettily with my favourite heliotrope silk."
When the results of the examination were announced it was at once
assumed by those with whom he had trafficked that Tsin Lung had been
guilty of the most degraded treachery. Understanding the dangers of
his position, that person decided upon an immediate flight. Disguised
as a wild-beast tamer, and leading several apparently ferocious
creatures by a cord, he succeeded in making his way undetected through
the crowds of competitors watching his house, and hastily collecting
his wealth together he set out towards the coast. But the evil spirits
which had hitherto protected him now withdrew their aid. In the
wildest passes of the Chunlings Hien's band was celebrating his
unexpected success by a costly display of fireworks, varied with music
and dancing. . . . So heavily did they tax him that when he reached
his destination he was only able to purchase a small and dilapidated
junk and to enlist the services of three thoroughly incompetent
mercenaries. The vessels which he endeavoured to pursue stealthily in
the hope of restoring his fortunes frequently sailed towards him under
the impression that he was sinking and trying to attract their
benevolent assistance. When his real intention was at length
understood both he and his crew were invariably beaten about the head
with clubs, so that although he persevered until the three hired
assassins rebelled, he never succeeded in committing a single act of
piracy. Afterwards he gained a precarious livelihood by entering into
conversation with strangers, and still later he stood upon a board and
dived for small coins which the charitable threw into the water. In
this pursuit he was one day overtaken by a voracious sea-monster and
The large-meaning but never fully-accomplishing Emperor K'ong reigned
for yet another year, when he was deposed by the powerful League of
the Three Brothers. To the end of his life he steadfastly persisted
that the rebellion was insidiously fanned, if not actually carried
out, by a secret confederacy of all the verse-makers of the Empire,
who were distrustful of his superior powers. He spent the years of his
exile in composing a poetical epitaph to be carved upon his tomb, but
his successor, the practical-minded Liu-yen, declined to sanction the
expense of procuring so fabulous a supply of marble.
When Kai Lung had repeated the story of the well-intentioned youth
Hien and of the Chief Examiner Thang-li and had ceased to speak, a
pause of questionable import filled the room, broken only by the
undignified sleep-noises of the gross Ming-shu. Glances of implied
perplexity were freely passed among the guests, but it remained for
Shan Tien to voice their doubt.
"Yet wherein is the essence of the test maintained," he asked, "seeing
that the one whom you call Hien obtained all that which he desired and
he who chiefly opposed his aims was himself involved in ridicule and
delivered to a sudden end?"
"Beneficence," replied Kai Lung, with courteous ease, despite the
pinions that restrained him, "herein it is one thing to demand and
another to comply, for among the Platitudes is the admission made: 'No
needle has two sharp points.' The conditions which the subtlety of
Ming-shu imposed ceased to bind, for their corollary was inexact. In
no romance composed by poet or sage are the unassuming hopes of
virtuous love brought to a barren end or the one who holds them
delivered to an ignominious doom. That which was called for does not
therefore exist, but the story of Hien may be taken as indicating the
actual course of events should the case arise in an ordinary state of
This reply was not deemed inept by most of those who heard, and they
even pressed upon the one who spoke slight gifts of snuff and wine.
The Mandarin Shan Tien, however, held himself apart.
"It is doubtful if your lips will be able thus to frame so confident a
boast when to-morrow fades," was his dark forecast.
"Doubtless their tenor will be changed, revered, in accordance with
your far-seeing word," replied Kai Lung submissively as he was led
Of Which it is Written: "In Shallow Water Dragons become
the Laughing-stock of Shrimps"
AT an early gong-stroke of the following day Kai Lung was finally
brought up for judgment in accordance with the venomous scheme of the
reptilian Ming-shu. In order to obscure their guilty plans all
justice-loving persons were excluded from the court, so that when the
story-teller was led in by a single guard he saw before him only the
two whose enmity he faced, and one who stood at a distance prepared to
serve their purpose.
"Committer of every infamy and inceptor of nameless crimes," began
Ming-shu, moistening his brush, "in the past, by the variety of
discreditable subterfuges, you have parried the stroke of a just
retribution. On this occasion, however, your admitted powers of
evasion will avail you nothing. By a special form of administration,
designed to meet such cases, your guilt will be taken as proved. The
technicalities of passing sentence and seeing it carried out will
"In spite of the urgency of the case," remarked the Mandarin, with an
assumption of the evenly-balanced expression that at one time
threatened to obtain for him the title of "The Just", "there is one
detail which must not be ignored--especially as our ruling will
doubtless become a lantern to the feet of later ones. You appear,
malefactor, to have committed crimes--and of all these you have been
proved guilty by the ingenious arrangement invoked by the learned
recorder of my spoken word--which render you liable to hanging,
slicing, pressing, boiling, roasting, grilling, freezing, vatting,
racking, twisting, drawing, compressing, inflating, rending, spiking,
gouging, limb-tying, piecemeal-pruning and a variety of less tersely
describable discomforts with which the time of this court need not be
taken up. The important consideration is, in what order are we to
proceed and when, if ever, are we to stop?"
"Under your benumbing eye, Excellence," suggested Ming-shu
resourcefully, "the precedent of taking first that for which the
written sign is the longest might be established. Failing that, the
names of all the various punishments might be inscribed on separate
shreds of parchment and these deposited within your state umbrella.
The first withdrawn by an unbiased--"
"High Excellence," Kai Lung ventured to interrupt, "a further plan
suggests itself which--"
"If," exclaimed Ming-shu in irrational haste, "if the criminal
proposes to narrate a story of one who in like circumstances--"
"Peace!" interposed Shan Tien tactfully. "The felon will only be
allowed the usual ten short measures of time for his suggestion, nor
must he, under that guise, endeavour to insert an imagined tale."
"Your ruling shall keep straight my bending feet, munificence,"
replied Kai Lung. "Hear now my simplifying way. In place of cited
wrongs--which, after all, are comparatively trivial matters, as being
merely offences against another or in defiance of a local
usage--substitute one really overwhelming crime for which the penalty
is sharp and explicit."
"To that end you would suggest--?" Uncertainty sat upon the brow of
both Shan Tien and Ming-shu.
"To straighten out the entangled thread this person would plead guilty
to the act--in a lesser capacity and against his untrammelled will--of
rejoicing musically on a day set apart for universal woe: a crime
aimed directly at the sacred person of the Sublime Head and all those
of his Line."
At this significant admission the Mandarin's expression faded; he
stroked the lower part of his face several times and unostentatiously
indicated to the two attendants that they should retire to a more
distant obscurity. Then he spoke.
"When did this--this alleged indiscretion occur, Kai Lung?" he asked
in a considerate voice.
"It is useless to raise a cloud of evasion before the sun of your
penetrating intellect," replied the story-teller. "The eleventh day of
the existing moon was its inauspicious date."
"That being yesterday? Ming-shu, you upon whom the duty of regulating
my admittedly vagarious mind devolves, what happened officially on the
eleventh day of the Month of Gathering-in?" demanded the Mandarin in
an ominous tone.
"On such and such a day, benevolence, three-score and fifteen years
ago, the imperishable founder of the existing dynasty ascended on a
fiery dragon to be a guest on high," confessed the conscience-stricken
scribe, after consulting his printed tablets. "Owing to the stress of
a sudden journey significance of the date had previously escaped my
weed-grown memory, tolerance."
"Alas!" exclaimed Shan Tien bitterly, "among the innumerable drawbacks
of an exacting position the enforced reliance upon an unusually inept
and more than ordinarily self-opinionated inscriber of the spoken word
is perhaps the most illimitable. Owing to your profuse incompetence
that which began as an agreeable prelude to a busy day has turned into
a really serious matter."
"Yet, lenience," pleaded the hapless Ming-shu, lowering his voice for
the Mandarin's private ear, "so far the danger resides in this one
throat alone. That disposed of--"
"Perchance," replied Shan Tien; then turning to Kai Lung: "Doubtless,
Back to Full Books