'The Prologue' corrected and revised

The Attack on Zhao Laoxu
When the new edition of The Three Leaps of Wang Lun was published, I was not given an opportunity to proofread the text. Here I post a revised translation of the Prologue. If you would like to read more, please buy the book!


Darkly the ridges of the Xishan marched inland from the coast. A long way from the golden coast rose the mass of the Dushan, only reluctantly, as if they might desert it, leaving the flower-strewn hills to lie beside the yellow-grey water. In the bright air lines shimmered beyond and above the mountains. They were the peaks of the Bianwai; they were oscillations, resembling the eyebrows of a woman.

It was evening on the Gulf of Bei Zhili.

The sea beat higher and brighter on the rocky shore. Warm turbid waves carved grooves in the sand around the little junks on the beach. During long harsh hours the sun’s rays had lashed the water; now they rebounded. The sea had covered itself in an armour which, it is said, is the back of the Peng bird. When the Peng rises up and flies to the southern seas, his scaly body stretches millions of miles and his gigantic wings are able to drive the clouds along. A soft haze glided over the surface, gathered loose and thick like cotton wool. The sun’s rays draped themselves in loose folds of mist. Moments before a round furnace in the sky has roared forth heat; now the fire was sintered over. A misty shade had suddenly been placed on the world.

Things swelled into one another.

The shouts of coolies at the harbour came up muffled from the Customs House. Beside the harbour lay the old town of Shanhaiguan. House jostled house. Low broad plaster-walled houses in narrow alleys, slender wooden structures, hulking warehouses and pawnshops, a few brightly painted temples, memorial arches, government yamens.

The streets grew quieter as darkness gathered. Mist fell like a wedge between passers-by, merchants, peddlars, street hawkers. In the Oxmarket, a wide space on Juefu Street, fat glossy beasts lowed and flicked their tails at bluebottles buzzing up from the hoofhigh dung. The drovers, five of them, sat in a shabby teashop. Fat Zhang squatted crosslegged outside by the door, on the ground. He strummed a big-bellied mandolin, a yueqin, they sang out the refrain, a coarse peasant song. Two old knife-grinders made their way up the long street. Their little barrows scarcely rattled in the soft muck. On a street corner they simultaneously took the jinggui from around their necks, the Maidens’ Terror, brass plates five spans wide threaded on a string. They pulled the wooden handle: a jangling like shattered panes. The elder whistled mournfully and stood on one leg. He had a blue cloth tied over his right ear. They walked on opposite sides along the housefronts, cocked their ears, came back. Then they pushed their barrows on, trailing behind a water cart. They shouted a few words to the water-carrier, who did not turn round. At the Oxmarket they stopped. The grinders upended their barrows. The water-carrier stepped from the shafts, swung his arms. He spat into his hands, rubbed them. He stomped to the teashop ahead of the others, joined in the peasant song loudly from the doorway.

Mist hung impenetrable from curving roofs. A light drizzle fell. From the eastern part of the town, the shop quarter, walking slowly through the streets came young Zhao Laoxu and Han Yongguang. They held elegant gardenias, with which they pointed, laughing. They told each other the thick mist was just the thing for flirting and catching girls. Slender Laoxu, only son of General Zhao Hui, walked in front with the dancing springy careful gait that jugglers use when they juggle on bamboo poles. He wore a bright blue damask undergarment, a dark overgown with the finest embroidery on the wide sleeves and shiny collar. There were lotus blossoms with dragon-eyed fish, white flower stems that ended swelling in the goggle eyes of fish. His shoes were painted green and blue with thorn-apple blossom.

Laoxu turned now and then to warn his friend of a puddle, revealing to him a childish, fine-formed face. It was not so strongly Manchu as Yongguang’s – who had slanted, flickering eyes in a long face, cheekbones jutting sharply, thin lips; – it was more softly contoured, the eyes more rounded, but their laugh was the same: soft, trilling, beginning like a cough. They were still laughing about their chairs, left waiting outside a shop in Wei’ai Street while to the astonishment of the shopkeeper they climbed a ladder over the courtyard wall into the neighbouring yard through a cobbler’s workshop into a parallel street, merrily pulling and shoving one another. The streets were deep in mud. The lovely white felt of their shoes was soon brown. On their backs, on their queues crusts of mud stuck, thrown up by runners and carriers who loomed suddenly out of the mist and ran franticly from them. But their pleasure was unclouded. If a shuffling of slippers, the tripping of a girl’s feet made itself noticeable at a gate, at a window, behind a lattice, Laoxu would whip an inlaid dagger from his sleeve and spring forward.

He had bought it in a nearby town ten days before, when an itinerant Peking opera troupe was performing the old play The Temple of the Eight Zhao’s. He had watched the pranks of Feide Gong, ravisher of maidens, with delight. From his seat, to the terror of the women, he set off a rocket which he aimed right across the theatre, so that a general sneezing and spitting began. But during the prelude to the final scene, where the cocksure hero is robbed of his weapon by a crude female trick, he stood up noisily with his friend and pushed along the narrow row of benches out of the theatre; considered first whether it wasn’t more appropriate to rob the bonze outside the theatre of his ornamental blade, then for a hundred taels and without bargaining bought the old inlaid sleeve-dagger. “We shouldn’t lower ourselves to the tradesman’s level of these Chinese,” he said to Yongguang, as without a word he handed the huge sum to the stupefied bonze. They teased him: he was holding the blade in his hands like a boy his new plaything. Again and again he laid it lovingly across both arms, showed and concealed the fine engravings on the hilt, wondered if he shouldn’t have it consecrated by a priest of Wudi, god of war.

They turned towards the poor western part of town, so as to arrive at the river and the flowerboats, and the pretty singing of pretty women.

Hardly had they stepped into Juefu Street when a broad-shouldered Chinese by the wall of the ivory carvers’ guildhouse looked them closely in the face. He had a carrying-pole on his shoulder, shrank back against the wall. He followed them.


They walked faster. The rain was heavier now, darkness was falling. Laoxu’s high spirits were growing. He grabbed the hands of a serving-girl on her way at this late hour to buy salves from an old herb woman for her mistresses; no one was to know that these ladies obtained their rouge and salves from a disreputable woman. The little thing, muffled up to the eyes, was too frightened to cry out or run away when a hand grabbed her waist, a short sword danced in front of her face. The empty salve-jar dropped to the ground. Laoxu’s face was stern, like a policeman’s; he pulled her along, and Yongguang followed close behind pulling grotesque faces.

The coolie laid down his pole. He glided past them in the mist, in the darkness, knocked on a house door: three double taps, then twice with the palm. A boy in a red cap opened it. Behind him stood a tall man, naked to the waist, scarred. As the coolie whispered to him he pulled over his thin arms, his movements quick as lightning, a long gown that was hanging at the hearth to dry. Both strode out, leaving the door open.

Finally Yongguang could go no farther for laughing. As Laoxu was explaining solemnly to the girl that in this time of unrest any Chinese who stuck their dirty nose outside the door without first plugging the nostrils was liable, according to a prefectural decree, to a summary sentence of three weeks in the cangue, two figures fell on them out of the gloom, hit them over the head with wooden clubs, threw them to the ground, chased away the girl. They cut off their queues with short knives, removed their shoes, ripped from their gowns the embroidered insignia showing membership of the eight Manchu Banners. They dragged the two boys, senseless in the churned-up filth of the street, into the doorway of a ruined hovel, and propped them against the half-open door. On the forehead of the two motionless youths they drew in mud the sign of the five evil demons. Laoxu’s bloody head lolled all the while on his left shoulder. They shoved his arms together and laid the magnificent sleeve dagger across them. Hu, the tall man, strode across the Oxmarket to the teahouse. The two old knife-grinders came sleepily back with him; they grinned, and rocked their heads. Three melon hawkers and a salt-boiler jostled for a look. They exchanged greetings, sighed. The salt-boiler spat on the still body with the sleeve dagger. The coolie, an old serious face, fingered the long gaping wound on Laoxu’s head, then rested the lolling skull on his left arm as he knelt beside the boy, and with quivering lips poured a healing draught from a little gourd flask that had stood for a hundred sutras on an altar table.

There was movement in the street. Muffled, the beat of a night-watch drum between the houses. They vanished behind the door. The young night watchman whistled a chirpy tune. The dull gleam from the round lantern he carried before him on a long pole slid over the still bodies. Muffled, the echo of his drum across the wide marketplace.

The men behind the door separated, after the coolie had told them the name of his family and where he lived, and had invited them to honour him soon with a visit to his tumbledown cottage.

A fine rain was still falling. In the main streets lamplighters went about, climbed their hand-ladders and lit the oil lamps outside the houses of rich merchants, of doctors and midwives. Singing and gongbeats blared from many shops. A rumble of distant thunder came from the Xi-shan. Beyond the harbour where the dark sultry sea stirred, a strumming came from a little vegetable patch behind a fisherman’s hut. The sound from the longnecked bottle-shaped pipa was now loud, now carried barely ten paces. A man’s uncertain high-pitched voice sang in an unfathomable rhythm, wandering among the same few notes:

The bat flits at the east gate.
Pale rain pours down on the plum trees.
A shrill wind will soon rise.
Why does the squirrel seek sweet fruit
By night, as the pale rain pours down?


OLD Zhao Hui paced to the upper window of his mansion.

The second night watch was already past .

He was waiting for young Laoxu.

The mansion stood on its own behind the town, on the northwestern Magnolia Slopes. In the dark it rose abruptly, narrow and tall as a lance. He had not built himself one of those miserable Manchu dwellings with a flat roof and walls of mud, like his northern ancestors from the River of the Black Dragon. As general vested by the Emperor with a special commission and authority in a turbulent province, he lived in splendour under the tall trunks of elms and white-rimmed spruce. Before him the tangle of alleys, the wide empty squares, meandering streets feeling their way to the harbour. His mansion lay high enough to afford a view of the sea, were it not for the triumphal arch at the end of Hanben Street – that ancient edifice erected in the time of Zhu Yuanzhang to commemorate some securing of the border against the Mongols. Four smooth pillars, straddled high up by broad cross-beams, supported stepped cornices. On each step crouched stone phoenixes; each beam bore reliefs and boastful inscriptions. Anyone passing through the wide central arch of the monumental pailou could read on every frieze about that grand old victory on the northeast frontier.

Zhao Hui laughed as he gazed on it. They rejoiced over that ancient victory – and wore shaven heads in their own land, the mark of the Manchu, despite the presence of their tutelary ancestors. Deeply embedded in the Chinese soil before the mansion, two wooden flagpoles rose menacing; from fine, ornately perforated flag-baskets hung white pennants with the insignia of the Banner Lord. A low green wooden fence enclosed the building, its two storeys – a red and gold upper floor over a blue-washed ground floor – decked with an immense over-elaborate roof. Above the door, between two paper-covered windows hung an engraved tablet with the inscription: Righteousness and the Pure Dynasty. Gold and red the paint of the blind upper floor, from which roofbeams thrust out, flashing gold and red, and side beams ending in dragonheads. Fearsome lions squatted big as children on the balustrade around the upper floor. They snapped with twisted mouths, bit their long itchy poodle ears, they growled and curled pointed tongues, flopped lazily on their sides and nuzzled their fur.

And inside at the open balcony door stood gaunt restless Zhao Hui, lightly clad in black, trying to penetrate the mist. Prized by his troops, his clan, an object of jealously among courtiers, intriguing eunuchs. Here he was in this northern province, and knew he had been sent here to be got swiftly out of the way.

He had grown too big for them the day he was awarded the title Guardian of the Gate in Peking, the day the Emperor came bearing a cup of tea to welcome him at the door of the Summer Palace. His glittering eyes darted over the walls of the room. The entire study was surrounded by a fantastic hunt. A broad relief in black wood panelled the low walls. In the dim light of the oil lamp, figures flickered into ghostly life. Horses and carts, warriors between colossal wheels and targets tall as horses. They continued from wall to wall, banners fluttering in uninterrupted procession, rode over a kneeling man who was touching a cloud-soaring Buddha’s head. Demons flew like dragonflies around a tree. A yard-long phoenix swished down; behind it swam a groaning man with the tail and fins of a fish, trying to grab the phoenix; there was wave after wave of dragons and men and genies.

The dreadful events of the last few years rose before him.

He had marched four times against the Dzungars, had helped exterminate them. The Emperor granted very few of those who took part in that bloodbath a homecoming; the rest had to settle in that New Frontier. Some thousands declined the opportunity. Zhao Hui on the Emperor’s advice took them on as a standing army for the suppression of internal unrest.

These formed the core of Zhao Hui’s troops, his horde: the incendiary ravagers of Ili. Now they were camped across the province of Zhili, where rebellion seethed. They were posted before the gates of the Northern Residence.

Rebellion was rippling through this province, through Shandong, across Liaodong, and the burrowing worm could not be crushed. It smouldered in many hundreds of villages and towns. And no enemy showed itself! His horde were yawning. His patrons in the Ministry, high officials in the Bing-bu, wanted him drowned here, as his estates had drowned in the Great River, down in the Lower Reaches. He wanted to hurl himself, a scourge, a violence, upon the unruly populace, teach them as they prayed to Buddha and read their sutras the religion of the halberd, the prayer of the long rod. They should all be burned to ashes.

The mist lay thick enough to cut on the black town. Sailors’ songs rose from it like a breath. From the forest came the scream of a wild goose and the tumult of several geese squabbling. They quietened down; one continued scolding for a time.

The gaunt mandarin with the grey drooping moustache hunched in fury in his black silk gown. He wrenched the long chain of glass beads that he wore around his neck, threw it clattering across the table. It rolled, slid hesitantly to the floor. Mindful suddenly of the Son of Heaven he dropped to his knees, pressed his forehead to the floor.

He went to the gong that hung in a four-legged stand near the southern wall of the room, rapped quickly with his knuckles twice. Dai-zong, the old house slave, the “Little Father without a tongue”, knelt in the doorway. The young folk had still not returned to the mansion. He looked uncertainly beyond his lord, who stalked from balcony door to his low couch and from couch to balcony door. The mist had thickened very early; the young illuminary hadn’t been long in this disreputable den of fisherfolk; might he have lost his way. The mandarin’s laugh was like his son’s: beginning with a cough, then pealing, then a throaty cooing: “Do you intend to join a jugglers’ guild in this disreputable den of fisherfolk? Have you ever seen the streets of Liuyou? A street goes over roofs, fences, walls, through yards and cellars. Within three days Laoxu had his bearings.”

Daizong, still on his knees, raked his stringy beard, sighed and followed his lord with tragic eyes: “Will the favourite of Wudi not send after the young illuminary?”

“The flowerboats are an hour away.” And Zhao Hui laughed again.

“I was so bold as to send to the flowerboats two hours ago, and ask. The resplendent Lao is not amusing himself there. He went into a shop in Wei’ai Street with the inestimable Yongguang. Their chairs came home without them. But they were in Juefu Street, in the dark. The young radiances were in very high spirits.”

“And went off to the flowerboats.”

“They aren’t at the flowerboats,” the old man murmured obstinately as he gathered up the pacing general’s glass beads from the floor.

Zhao stood over him, knocked him on the back of the head: “So what do you want from me, you ninny? What are you doing down there?”

“It is dangerous in the town, Excellency. He is the son of a righteous but severe general. He can’t come home. He is being held.”

“Out!” roared Zhao Hui, eyes flashing.

Half an hour later a quite unfamiliar sound hummed through the mansion. Two soft deep gongbeats, very close by, ghostly, as if a great wounded bird had stroked the metal with its wings as it sank. It was the gong out in the northern side-hall, placed there since the start of the troubles for public use in emergencies. Only in perilous times and places did leading officials set up a public alarm gong before their yamen. Three servants – a cook and two bearers – and the Little Father ran at each other’s heels through the back door. Suddenly they stopped. To all of them at once came the dreadful thought: it was not the house gong but the alarm gong, the northern one. As they stared at one another and ran excitedly about, two figures with paper lanterns were already whispering in the hall, two of the general’s people, barelegged, pointing animatedly at the damp ground between them. Nobody near the gong. A lengthy whispering began among the six in the windy hall. They glanced anxiously about to see if the general was coming, but the mansion was quiet. He was asleep. They stayed concealed in the shrubbery behind the northern gong.

The two bearers had already stretched out, the little old man with the white beard snored squatting, when a very soft, almost vibrationless note sounded, then a full plaintive bleat. Something white was still falling under the gong as the first bearer ran up. Before he could look at it, old Daizong grabbed it from his hand. On the paper were the words: Juefu Street. Beneath them the characters for Sun and Moon: the sign of the rebels. In all stealth they woke Zhao Hui’s twenty bodyguards in the rear apartments. Silently, barefoot, halberds in hand, they raced down into the black town. Four lanterns swayed on long bamboo poles before them.

Now and then water splashed as they ran through puddles. The wooden drums of the night watch sounded near, then farther off. The streets were steps leading down. Across the sinister Oxmarket they ran, into Juefu Street They felt their way from house to house, lanterns hovering over every doorway. Finally the soldiers banged on doorposts with their halberds, woke the startled shouting residents, who came rushing out. Rapid words were being exchanged when from the last house but one before the market a long whistle came. Then several piercing whistles. Against the half-open doors of an empty derelict house two bloody sacks were leaning, shoeless human feet projecting from them. When a soldier and Daizong pulled away the coarse matting, there sat two men motionless at the threshold, their breathing shallow, queueless head sunk to the chest. On their foreheads the sign of the five evil demons. In the crossed arms of one – neck and half the face thick-crusted with blood – lay a superb sleeve-dagger.

They crowded into the stinking hovel. Rats scuttled big as cats over the front yard, over the steps, through empty rooms with collapsed roofbeams. On the strawstrewn kang, lying on its side, a dead dog mouldered.

Daizong, knees trembling with cold, stood in the doorway. He dropped the lantern, howled as he knelt and rubbed Laoxu’s hands.

The whole street gathered round. As word spread of who it was that lay here, men raised their hands, women cried out in fear. They brought water and powdered whitecake, washed the wounds, dusted them.

Soldiers had quickly commandeered two public chairs. The bearers jostled one another in their haste. On the way Laoxu awoke, asked Daizong where he was. The old man comforted him. Outside the mansion he whimpered for his knife. Louder than the alarm gong the clear boyish voice resounded through the sleeping house: “Who has my knife? Yongguang, Yongguang! Give me the dagger! Your dagger!”

Upstairs Zhao Hui’s gong squalled.


DAIZONG WAS astonished next morning at his master’s calm. Zhao asked, as the slave soaped and shaved his head, where they had found Laoxu. He had asked five times already. At great length and with many fanciful details the man kneeling behind him told the tale. He skipped over the deplorable situation in which they had found the wounded boys. He patted the gleaming skull with tissue paper. Zhao turned over on the couch, raised himself, joints cracking, on his elbows, looked the old man, who shrank respectfully back, in the face. Who did he suspect, then? he grunted in his deep bass voice. Was Laoxu’s breast badge intact, with its Banner device? And when Daizong flushed, Zhao roared: “Did they leave him his queue?” A friendly hefty slap on the old man’s hunched shoulders, then Zhao Hui stretched.

His little eyes again wandered restlessly about the room. They bored, excavated.

A little servant girl slipped through the doorway. The grieving Haitang would be glad to speak with Old Master. He followed the girl at once, through the hall of twelve green pillars that served as a reception room, into the women’s quarters that lay towards the forest. Haitang was not in her room, nor on the balcony with her daughter. But a cheerful lively girl gave the hastening man a deep qing’an on the gong and chanted: The grieving mistress is grinding medicines by the young illuminary’s brick-bed.

Wordlessly they retraced their steps across the Turfan carpets. Haitang was crouching on a yellow rush mat beside the kang on which Laoxu lay delirious. Two Chinese servants, old fat women, sat beside her holding umbrella, fan. A full face: the straight cut fringe of the Cantonese women on her yellowish-white powdered forehead. Red beauty spots over thickly drawn eyebrows. Her eyes were large and almond-shaped, almost round. Only when she smiled did they narrow to slits, lines. Irises a satiny brown-black, swimming in little bluetinged whites. The eyes dwelled naked, lidless, in their roomy sockets; the short stiff lashes stood out above them like a spray of thorns. The nose was set flat on its broad low bridge, though it ended in a fine surprising upturn. The nostrils as they breathed were incomparably tender and soulful. Brownish-yellow skin of a wilful dullness lay smooth on the soft, well-proportioned body, over the roundness of her expressive face, about the very small broad hands and well-turned fingers with silver sheaths over the long nails. When blood flowed into Haitang’s face, the skin took on a tender olive-green hue.

She bowed to Zhao Hui, put down the wooden red-lacquered bowl in which she had been working with a thin-stemmed pestle, took the paper fan from the maid. With his principal wife Zhao Hui, unlike other husbands, did not speak of children, the household, relatives. From the first years of their marriage young Haitang had won a place at his side. He had in those days been fortunate to use her influence with her father, Huang Zidong, governor of Anhui; his promotion was rapid. In the Lower Reaches, south of the little town of Xinghua, they acquired large fertile estates on the Chulou Canal. Even now the literati there on the Mussel Canal under the warm southern sky sang of Haitang’s  intelligence and sweetness, of her refined learning, also of her untamability.

He sat down on a stool by the brick-bed. They spoke long and earnestly, conversing in pure Guanhua, which the servants did not understand. Anger coloured Haitang’s cheeks, the large fan whisked in her right hand. “For as long as the Great Dyke has stood along the Yangtse, the villainous rabble has not dared such a deed. And shall not again treat our precious child so. We helped restrain the Huang-he, Zhao, China’s sorrow. The wild swans shall not fly again across this land before the hooves of our swiftest horses have overtaken the assassins, trampled them.”

Such was the import of their long fierce discussion. While Haitang, beside herself with grief, rocked back and forth and clapped her little soft hands. While she grasped the dangling sleeves of the Tartar, in whose eyes the pupils grew wide with a thrilling, hungry passion.

THE MALE residents of Juefu Street were punished with twenty blows of the long rod, the neighbourhood night watchman was thrown into gaol, the district intendant of police dismissed.

Zhao Hui summoned the town’s Prefect. For two days he pleaded sickness. When the general’s courier came on the evening of the second day with orders either to appear or to appoint a personal representative, and then in view of the continuing grave situation in the province to resign his office, the Daotai acquiesced. Obedience was bitter to him. As Prefect of the town he was subordinate to the Viceroy of Zhili; only in the previous month had an Imperial decree been issued, empowering the specially appointed general Zhao Hui to require in quite exceptional cases that civil officials of the rank of Futai and above should report directly to him.

In the temple of the town god, behind the altar, was the god’s bedchamber, his bed and clothes. A second bed stood in the sparsely furnished room opposite the adytum. This was provided for senior officials of the town and district, when before deciding on important matters they wished to obtain advice from the Lord of the Walls and Moats, the great wise god. Before venturing to Zhao’s camp, Tang Shaoyi undertook his temple sleep.

Riders pranced ahead, runners cried their piercing “Make way for the Daotai!” Oncoming chairs were forced to the side, carts overturned. The bearers had steady shoulders: a rhythmic sure pace carried the mandarin’s green palanquin in the fresh morning out from the town wall. Outside the town yellow dust blew from the plain, and not far away the strong square ramparts of the camp rose, barely distinguishable from the earth. Yokeshaped gate. Fearsome little soldiers in blue jackets shot arrows at hanging mice, strolled in the rectilinear lanes of the camp, juggled on poles held steady by others. In the centre of the camp above a high structure a red pennant with white characters fluttered: Yamen of the General Officer Commanding. A runner carried the Prefect’s long red visiting card into the building; the bearers half set their load down in the courtyard. Then the runner beckoned. The palanquin stood in deep sand before the door. The large corpulent mandarin in his robes of office, at his belt a fan and embroidered tobacco pouch with flint and steel, slowly climbed out and slowly mounted the two steps to Zhao Hui’s yamen. Zhao came to meet him. They exchanged greetings with endless flourishing of the fists, up and down. The yamen door remained open.

In the open room Zhao Hui sat facing his guest. The teacups in front of them remained covered. Coolly the Daotai regarded the gaunt Tartar, whose cheekbones stood out a burning red, whose little moustaches dangled over thin lips, whose cat-black eyes glittered; who took a couple of pulls on the silver-mounted mouthpiece of the water-pipe. Water gurgled.

Each spoke with intense interest of the other’s family. It was perhaps coincidence that the general’s silver hand tapped ceaselessly on the table: the Imperial hand, three fingers extended, the sign of judicial authority. Very soon the general alluded to his guest’s indisposition, which he much regretted. When the Daotai, leaning over the table, asked after Laoxu’s condition, Zhao, grasping the silver mouthpiece, asked more loudly what intelligence the town authorities had obtained relating to the rebels; whether the sects had been uncovered, and the emissaries who agitated in the town; what gatherings within the town boundaries had been raided during the past few weeks.

Tang Shaoyi smiled complaisantly. Several had been apprehended at sutra-reading, but as a rule insurrectionaries went about their business in secret, and were not as easy to catch as rampaging cattle, barbarian horses, perambulating youths. If it were all so easy, the Governor-general and the Futai would not have needed to request help from the Son of Heaven, from the most successful general in many a year. They exchanged bows.

The recent occurrences, Zhao continued, his expression hard, demonstrated the impudence and audacity of the insurgents. He intended to report to Qianlong and propose that, in any troubled district, the streets where political crimes were committed or insurgents arrested should be burned. He would further recommend that for some months the old system of mutual clan supervision should be reintroduced throughout the province, and the ten mutually responsible households punished together.  The attentive Tang could not find words to express his astonishment: “Your Excellency observed during your felicitous time in Anhui how difficult it is to contain the raging waters of the Great River. The conspirators and sectarians are seeping through the foundations of our defenceless houses.”

“A man is not water. A man can die.”

“The power of the glorious emperor Kangxi acquired Tibet for the blackhaired sons of Han. The land of Tibet is far away. Its abundant passes lie beyond the horizon. No army plunders its stolid populace, as Your Excellency intends to plunder here. Go with your horde to Tibet. I know Zhili. It is peaceful – without soldiers.”

“Tang Shaoyi has never been to Tibet. He does not know the pestilence of that land. In Lhasa, in Tashi Lhunpo, the pestilence walks in yellow robes and red priest-girdle through the streets and wears precious jade rings on its fingers. They take the copper cash from a man’s pockets and the brain from his skull. They walk through the streets. Here they seep under our houses.”

“Our land is peaceful, Excellency. It has room for many priests. Not fifty years have passed since Zhili and Shanxi suffered a drought of many months, the wells dried up, cattle died in droves. The father of Qian-long, sublime Yongzheng, now throned in Heaven, found only steppe in the rich provinces. No army stood then outside Yongping, outside Shanhaiguan. No peasants fled their villages in fear of troops. In Peking the Emperor went to the Altar of Heaven and addressed a petition to Shangdi; processions chanted in every province. And it rained! People thought the age of Yao and Shun had returned. But that sort of wisdom, perhaps, seems ridiculous to more elevated minds.”

Since Zhao said nothing, just stared at him unblinking as he continued coolly to give rein to his learning. He spoke of the mythical ancient Shen Nong, born in an age of fishermen and hunters; he taught agriculture, sampled the tastes of herbs, mixed medicines, so that even now he was held in great esteem among doctors, greater perhaps even than Cang Jie.

Wordlessly the general clapped his hands. The waterpipe that a servant brought he pushed behind him with a brusque movement of the arm, pointed to a large scroll on a small corner table. Controlling his voice he read out the latest Imperial edict:

When in any district unruly persons declare themselves to be divine or Buddhas and purport to found a heretical religion or sprinkle themselves with water imbued with virtuous or magical properties, or when they seduce the populace with clandestine religious practices and collect money among themselves, then, even if no danger of a breach of the peace is occasioned, the Sub-prefect of the district who neglects to proceed to that place and arrest the criminals shall be demoted by two ranks in the Civil List. And the Prefect shall be demoted by one rank.

He did not continue. Tang Shaoyi had thrust out his broad chin and assumed a challenging smile. Zhao laid down the scroll.

“The Imperial edict that Your Excellency has done me the honour to read out does not apply to me. For me, miserable lizard, another decree applies. The law against heresy. Your Excellency will understand.”

But he seemed not to understand.

“The old law that hangs on every wall. I mean that law. Your insignificant servant, Excellency, will speak slowly and clearly. Your insignificant servant stands in the place of those insurgents who are to be cut to pieces, whose wives and daughters are to be sent to Ili, whose graves are to be filled with rubble. Your insignificant servant grants his protection to all who fall foul of this law. It is the particular pleasure and the unbounded delight of the most obedient slave who cowers before you to succour and shelter those who fall foul of Your Excellency’s measures. And happily fall foul.”

The table with the covered teacups between Zhao Hui and Tang Shaoyi rattled. Both had stood up.

The general, whose eyes were starting from their sockets, growled: “I’ll have you bound and laid in the dust.”

“At Your Excellency’s command. We are at war. This poor northern province has no greater wish than to live in a state of war with the murderers of Ili. Those who dwell meekly between the four seas pray and obey the laws. Let only the Imperial hand not be raised. What Your Excellency and this clod of yellow have to discuss had nothing to do with the glorious Son of Heaven.”

“Are you, Tang Shaoyi, Daotai of Shanhaiguan, in league or in collusion with the insurgents? Perhaps the words of my renowned senior lack clarity.”

The Daotai was a head taller than the military mandarin facing him. Sunlight fell sharply through the open door into the room, over the Daotai’s back into the elaborately bony face of Zhao Hui, that face gnawed by blizzards; the small ears with their shallow folds had admitted more death screams than those of any other man of his time. The one-eyed peacock feather on his round cap shimmered green in the light.

Tang Shaoyi, instead of answering the question, asked if in his mulish ignorance he might proffer a suggestion. “The honourable general was sent here by the Emperor with special authority. In a few weeks the Emperor will possibly travel to his summer palace in Jehol, or the tombs at Mukden. Before the Emperor passes through the province it must be at peace.”


“The dwarf before you would not dare to make a proposition. There is only one solution known to this dwarf.” Tang, uninvited, sat down again. Slowly the general too bent his knees.

“And that is – for Your Excellency to come over to us.”

The two men looked blindly into each other’s little eyes, searched out facial lines. Through Zhao’s brain there swept suddenly a bleak, hopeless feeling; his brain swam in it, slithered as in a tub of greasy, filthy washing-up water.

“If Your Excellency does not pacify the province in the next few months, at least provisionally, you will lose what remains of your estates in the Lower Reaches, will yourself be dismissed, your glorious ancestors demoted. If you think of saving yourself, all will fall out as you wish. The insurrectionaries have infiltrated almost every family and many of the guilds. It is impossible to hunt them down, since there are as many havens for them as roofs in the town. The train of events is easy to predict. The hatred of the peaceable masses for the murderous horde that has been set here under your command is growing constantly. The insurrectionaries are gaining adherents. The war-likin contributions are becoming insupportable, the tax revenues of the civil power are diminishing. Let your troops commit just a few more atrocities against civilians, and this province and Shandong and Shanxi as well will erupt in rebellion. They will be beaten down five times. Other armies will come, other generals. But the war will – drag on for months.”

Now the Tartar understood the wily mandarin. His thoughts cohered again. Carefully he probed the size of the losses in tax revenue suffered by the civil power last month, the month before. Now, as he approached the core of the matter, he marvelled at the sureness with which the Daotai had kept a grip on his thoughts, like a lathe its iron bar. And how the artful man had deceived and nearly, nearly seduced him.

Zhao Hui suggested, tentatively, turning over half the likin proceeds to the town. But Tang declined in tones of delight, suggested that the tax might be increased a trifle for certain guilds and a third of the resulting revenue be allowed to flow to the civil power, in furtherance of Imperial commands for the suppression of rebellion. Civil and military could then at last work hand in hand. Also, in view of the considerable deficit in the town’s treasury, it was desirable to levy on the rich merchants a special, not too heavy, tax, proportionate to their means, in the name of the General Plenipotentiary, for three or perhaps four months. Some arbitrary portion of this tax could usefully be put to augmenting the strength of the town police.

Zhao Hui agreed, with a few minor diminutions, to the Daotai’s proposals.

Tang beamed the whole while. He asked time and again: however could misunderstandings have arisen between them? It was certain that the town would now be at peace, with new resources flowing to the authorities. This intolerable discord between magistrate and military had – so he was reliably informed – already driven several town officials into the arms of the rebels.

They smiled at one another, bowed countless times, showed their yellow teeth.

Zhao Hui felt a little dizzy. Red and green spots danced before his eyes.

They lifted the lids from their teacups, drank tea from the plantations near Swatow. Zhao accompanied his cheerful guest quickly down the two steps to his palanquin.

Inside he let his head fall heavy and reeling onto the table. With his hot forehead he kneaded the red scroll, the Imperial edict from the previous week.

That evening the Daotai sent to his house two valuable sceptres, two ruyi in white jade with finely carved birds and flowers, on the endplates verses by Qian-long.

Zhao Hui’s messengers next morning carried into the town magistracy a screen consisting of twelve porcelain leaves; the leaves were wonderfully painted with cherry blossom and longnecked birds; finest underglaze in cobalt blue.

Haitang asked if Tang Shaoyi had been sent packing and these were presents for the new Daotai. Zhao Hui turned his head away.

 This revised translation (c) C D Godwin 2018.