The Scholars – Chapter 1

In the innings and outings of life are many different paths. Even those who would meet the saints, must first live as mortals. A hundred generations are born and then die, dynasties rise and fall. The river winds topple over the shoots of past times.

Rank, honor, and riches have no basis, they deplete the spirit, and always cause time to slip away. Sinking deep into drunkenness after three cups of rough wine, who knows where the streams and flowers have gone?

These verses may just be the platitudes of old scholars. All they mean is that the honors and riches gained in life are purely external to ourselves. But once people get a whiff of such honors, they promptly risk their lives to pursue them! Yet when they actually have them in hand, they turn out to be as dull and tasteless as wax. From the ancient times until today, who has been able to see through this?

Although we say all this, in the dying years of the Yuan dynasty, there emerged a person who was unlike anyone else before or since. His name was Wang Mian, and he lived in a village of Zhuji County. When he was seven, his father passed away. His mother earned a living by needle and thread, and provided for him to attend the village school. Three years on, Wang Mian was already ten. His mother called him to her and said, “My son, it’s not that I want to hold you back. But ever since your father died, I as a widow have only seen things go out the door and not come in. The times are poor, and the cost of firewood and grain is high. These few old clothes and these poor old things… What could be pawned has been pawned, what could be sold has been sold, and it’s all up to my sewing for other people’s households that we have any money at all. How is there enough to provide for your schooling? At the moment there’s simply no other way. You’ll go to our neighbor to care for his buffalo. Every month you can earn a few cash from him, and he’ll provide your meals too. You’ll go over there tomorrow.” Wang Mian replied, “I’ll do as Mother says. I get bored sitting there in the school hall anyway. Why not try being a cowherd? It’d surely be more lively. Even if I wanted to study, I could just bring a few books along to read.” That night the agreement was made.

On the second day, Mother accompanied him to the home of Old Tai next door. Old Tai had them both stay for some breakfast, and then led out a water buffalo which he passed to Wang Mian. Pointing to the door, he said, “Just over two arrow-flight’s distance beyond my door is the Qimao Lake. By the lake is a stretch of green grass, where everyone’s cattle go to snooze. There’s also a willow tree big enough to be encircled by several people, with a good cool shade. When the buffalo wants to drink, bring it to the lakeside. Young chap, you just remain there to play, and don’t wander off too far. This old fellow here has two meals a day, and every morning I’ll give you two coins to buy some snacks to eat. So long as you’re diligent in what you do, don’t think that I’m neglecting you.” Wang Mian’s mother thanked him and prepared to go home. Wang Mian saw her to the door. Mother tidied his clothes for him, and said, “When you’re here you should be watchful, don’t let people say that you aren’t. Go out early to work and come back late, but don’t let me worry for you.” Wang Mian promised to do so, and Mother went back with teary eyes.

From then on, Wang Mian only went to the Tai household to herd his buffalo. Every day at dusk, he would return to spend the night at home with his mother. When Old Tai cooked some salted fish or cured meat for him to eat, he would pack them up in lotus leaves to bring home for his mother. He wouldn’t spend his daily allowance either, but saved it up for a month or two, before finding some time to go to the village school where he bought some old books from the bookseller there. When he tied up the buffalo, he would sit under the shade of the willow tree and read.

And so passed another three years. Wang Mian read books, and gradually gained understanding. One day, it was just the season for plums, and the weather was unpredictable. Wang Mian tied up the buffalo, and sat on the grass. In an instant, the dark clouds gathered and a heavy rain started to fall. White clouds followed up the dark, and as the latter dispersed, rays of sunshine fell, bathing the entire lake in a red glow. Up the hillsides by the lake were shades of blue, purple, and green. The branches looked as if they had been washed and the greens were most lovely. In the lake were dozens of lotus flowers, with drops of limpid water on their buds. On the lotus leaves, beads of water rolled about. Wang Mian look upon this, and thought to himself: the ancients said, ‘Man lives in a painting’, and that actually seems right. It’s a pity that I don’t have the skills, or I would paint these lotus flowers, that would be nice. He soon had another thought: There isn’t a skill under the sun that can’t be learnt, so why not I learn how to paint these flowers for myself!

As he was caught up in his thoughts, he saw from afar a porter carrying a basket of food, and holding a bottle of wine in his hand. On the basket was fastened a felt carpet, which he spread out once he had reached the willow tree, and then opened the basket of food. From that direction walked three people, wearing the square scholar’s cap, one who wore a gown layered with sapphire-blue silk, and two with dark gowns, all being about forty or fifty years old. In their hands they waved white paper fans as they strolled over. The one with the sapphire-blue robe was a plump fellow. When they came to the tree, he respectfully bade the mustachioed one in a dark robe sit at the head. The skinny one sat opposite him. The plump one must be the host, sitting at the bottom and pouring out the wine. Having had a quaff, the plump one opened his mouth to speak, “Old Mister Wei is back. He’s just bought a new residence, even bigger than the one in Belltower Lane in the capital. It’s worth 2000 taels of silver. Because Old Mister Wei wanted to buy it, the landlord sold it at a loss of several dozen taels, wanting to gain some reputation by being associated with him. On the tenth of last month when he was moving, the district magistrate and county magistrates all personally paid a visit to his door, and stayed up drinking wine there till the second or third hour of night. Of the people on the street, which one didn’t come to pay their respects?” The thin one spoke up: “His Excellency is a candidate scholar (Note 1) who was qualified in the renwu year (Note 2), and so being a disciple of Old Mister Wei, by rights should have come to pay his greetings.” The plump one said: “My [this humble one’s] in-law is also a disciple of Old Mister Wei, and is currently a county magistrate in Henan. The day before my son-in-law came to the home, and brought two pounds of dried deer meat as a token of appreciation, and this platter is it. When my son-in-law next goes back, he’ll beseech my in-law to write a letter over, calling upon Old Mister Wei. If he decides to go down to visit in the countryside, he’ll still have to avoid those country villagers, who set their donkeys and pigs loose in our fields to eat the grain.” The thin one said: “Old Mister Wei must be quite the scholar.” The mustachioed one said “I heard that when he was setting out from the capital the other day, the Emperor himself walked him out the city walls, taking his hand and walking several paces. Only after Old Mister Wei repeatedly bowed to take his leave, did the Emperor mount the palanquin and return back. With something like this happening, wouldn’t he be an official soon?” Taking turns in this manner, the three continued conversing. (Note 3)

Wang Mian saw that the sky was turning dark, and led his buffalo back. From this time on, the money he saved wasn’t for books. He got someone to head into the city to buy some cochineal paints and the like so he could learn to paint lotus flowers. In the beginning it wasn’t too good, but by the third months, those lotus flowers were perfect in both spirit and colour. If not for the sheet of paper, they could just be those growing in the lake. It seemed as though they were plucked from the water and pasted onto the paper. People in the village saw that he drew well, and paid money to buy them. Wang Mian used to money to buy some good things for his mother. One became two, two became three, until the whole county knew that this was the famous artist who could paint [spineless flowers] living flowers, and were jostling to buy them. By the time he was seventeen and eighteen, he was no longer at the Tai’s, but spent every day painting a few works, reading the ancients’ poetry, and gradually had no more worry for clothing or food, bringing joy to his mother’s heart.

This Wang Mian was a clever chap. Not yet twenty, he had mastered all the great mysteries of astronomy, geography, and history. But his character was different: he didn’t seek an official position, nor did he go out to make friends, instead he spent all his day shut at home reading. Having seen a picture of Qu Yuan’s clothing in an illustrated edition of the Songs of Chu, he made himself a very tall hat, and a set of very wide robes. (Note 4) When it was the season for flowers to bloom and willows were at their most attractive, he hired a bullock cart for his mother, and put on his tall hat, and wore his wide gown. Wielding the whip while singing a song, through the villages and towns and even by the lake, he caroused everywhere. Gangs of children from the country were laughing at him, but he did not care one jot. Only Old Tai from next door, although a farmer was a very perceptive man. Having seen Wang grow up from a little boy, and so was familiar with him, and so respected and loved him, and was often close with him, spending time chatting in his thatched cottage.

One day, just as he was sitting with Old Tai, there came a man from outside, wearing a commoner’s tile hat on his head, and clothes of blue cloth. Old Tai welcome him and bade him sit down. This man was named Zhai, and was the head runner for the yamen of Zhudi county and also a comprador. Because Old Tai’s son Tai Dahan was a sworn relation, and called him Godfather, so he commonly came down to the village to visit. Old Tai hurriedly called his son to brew some tea, kill a chicken, and cook the meat to offer to him. He wanted Wang Mian to be acquainted with him. They introduced themselves to each other. Comprador Zhai said, “My man Wang, could you be the one who paints the living flowers?” Old Tai said, “This is he. My dear relative, how do you know about him?” Comprador Zhai said, “Who in this county hasn’t? Just the other day, His Excellency the county magistrate ordered that he wanted twenty-four flower paintings to be sent to his superior, and entrusted me with the matter. I heard about Brother Wang’s good name, and so also came down to look up you my relative. Today it is good fate that has allowed us to meet. Brother Wang, I must persuade you to pick up your brush and exercise your talent. In the next half-month, I’ll come down to the village to pick it up. His Excellency is sure to have a few taels of silver for artists; that’ll be sent over.” Old Tai stood by, urging him to accept. Wang Mian felt that he couldn’t disappoint Old Tai, and so agreed to do it. Back home, he carefully and artfully painted twenty four flower paintings, and appended a poem to each. Comprador Zhai went back to his boss. That magistrate Shi Ren sent off twenty four taels of silver. Zhai took his share of twelve, and only brought twelve taels for Wang Mian, and took the scrolls back. Magistrate Shi prepared some other gifts, and sent them to Wei Su, as a gesture of greeting.

Wei Su received the gifts, but kept looking at the scrolls over and over, liking them so much that he couldn’t bear to put them down. The next day, he prepared a course of wine, and invited Magistrate Shi to his home to offer his thanks. After the formal greetings were passed, and the wine had gone around several times, Wei Su said, “Those flower scrolls that Your Excellency kindly gifted me the day before: were they done by the ancients, or by a modern master?” Magistrate Shi didn’t dare to hide the truth, and so said “This was by a country farmer living in your disciple’s jurisdiction, named Wang Mian, he is not far advanced in years. I hear that he has merely learned to paint a few strokes, which perchance have met with Teacher’s approval.” Wei Su sighed, saying “my disciple has been out in the world for a long time. That there should be such a talent in his own village, sight unseen, is certainly a pity. This youth is not just talented, but has wisdom in his breast, and is different from the rest. His eventual position will not be beneath either one of us. Would Your Excellency perhaps be able to have him come here in person?” Magistrate Shi replied, “How could that be a problem? Your disciple will go and make the arrangements. Once he hears that Teacher appreciates his work, he will naturally be beside himself with joy.” Having said this, he took leave of Wei Su and returned to the yamen, where he instructed Comprador Zhai to send a personal invitation to Wang Mian.

Comprador Zhai raced down to the village, to Old Tai’s home, called Wang Mian over, and told him everything. Wang Mian laughed and said, “I’m sorry to trouble you, boss, but report back to His Excellency the magistrate that Wang Mian is merely a humble farmer, and daren’t seek an audience with him. And this calling card, I daren’t accept either.” The expression on Zhai’s face changed and he said, “With a personal calling card from His Excellency, who dares not to go? After all, in this matter, it was originally I who took care of you. Otherwise, how would His Excellency know that you could draw flowers? By rights, after meeting His Excellency, you should be thanking me heartily instead! How is it that having come here, not having seen a single cup of tea from you, but instead get all these excuses and you refuse to go: what sort of logic is that? How do you expect me to reply to His Excellency? Do you mean to say that His Excellency as the master of this county, can’t even summon a mere commoner?” Wang Mian said, “Boss, you’re mistaken. If for some reason His Excellency should summon me with a warrant, how dare I not go! But today’s invitation is by calling card, which means that there is no compulsion. If I don’t want to go, His Excellency will understand.” Comprador Zhai said, “What on earth are you saying! You’ll go if there’s a warrant, but not if there’s a cordial invitation? You really don’t know how to appreciate a kindness!” Old Tai counseled, “Brother Wang, come on. His Excellency has sent his calling card, and so naturally means well. Why not just go over with my relative? People have always said ‘the magistrate has power of life and death’, why do you want to vex him?” Wang Mian said, “Old Father Tai! Big boss here doesn’t know what I’ve told you before. Haven’t you heard the story of the dry wood and weeping willow? I simply don’t want to go.” Comprador Zhai tried to persuade him, “If you give me this difficult problem, what am I going to tell His Excellency?” Old Tai said, “This really is two problems: If you want him to go, Brother Wang doesn’t. If he doesn’t go, my relative will find it difficult to answer for. Well I’ve got an idea: My relative, you go back to the county office and don’t say that Brother Wang doesn’t want to come, but just that he’s ill at home and can’t come out, and once he gets better in a few days he’ll come.” Comprador Zhai says, “An infectious disease? You’ll need the neighbours’ witness statements!” They both debated this for a while, and Old Tai prepared dinner to eat with him. He also quietly asked Wang Mian to go next door to ask his mother to weigh out three cash and two coins, to give Comprador Zhai as a tip. Only then did he agree and return to report to the magistrate. The magistrate thought to himself, “What sort of illness could this little snot have! It must be that slave Zhai, putting on airs when he went down to the village, that scared the man silly! He’s never seen anyone from the government, and is too afraid to come. Since Teacher has asked me to produce him, I’ve got to have him called up to meet Teacher, otherwise Teacher will mock me for being weak in my business. Why not I go personally to the village to visit him. He’ll see that it’s giving him face, and that it’s not a difficulty for him, and naturally will drum up the courage to meet me. I’ll then fetch him back to go meet Teacher. Now isn’t that clever?” He thought again to himself, “A grand official of the county government, stooping down to call on a mere villager, that’ll make the yamen runners laugh!” And he thought yet again, “What Teacher said about him the other day, was a word of respect. If Teacher respects the man ten times, then I must respect him a hundred times. Moreover if I condescend to pay my respects to a virtuous worthy, future record-books great and small will surely praise me for it. This is an opportunity that doesn’t come by for a thousand years – it’s nothing I can’t do!” And so he made up his mind.

The next morning, he summoned the chair-bearers, but not the full official entourage, only bringing along eight red- and black-hatted night servants and troopers. Comprador Zhai led the sedan-chair all the way down to the village. In the village people heard the herald cymbals, and everyone of them young and old came out jostling to see. The sedan-chair came to Wang Mian’s door, but all there was to se were seven or eight thatched huts, with their white plank doors tightly shut. Comprador Zhai ran ahead and hurriedly knocked on the door. After knocking for a while, the old lady inside, hobbling on a walking stick, came out to say, “He’s not at home. From the early morning he brought out the buffalo for a drink, and hasn’t been back yet.” Comprador Zhai said, “His Excellency himself is here to speak to your son, don’t take your time about it! Quickly tell me where he is, and I’ll go to get him!” The old lady said, “He really isn’t at home, I don’t know where he is.” Having said that, she shut the door and went back inside.

While they were talking, the magistrate’s sedan-chair had arrived. Comprador Zhai kneeled in front of the sedan to report, “Your servant went to call Wang Mian, but he was not at home. May it please Your Excellency to proceed to the official residence to have a seat, and your servant will try again to call him.” Going ahead of the sedan chair, he went around behind Wang Mian’s house. Behind the house were a tangle of narrow foot paths. In the distance was a large pond, and by the pond were planted innumerable elms and mulberry trees. Beyond the pond was farmland as far as the eye could see, and also a mountain. Although it wasn’t too big, it was thickly forested with verdant wood. The road stretched for more than a mile, where you could call out to someone and still be heard. The magistrate was now walking. Far in the distance was a cowherd boy, sitting astride a water buffalo, just now coming over the spur of a hill. Comprador Zhai rushed up to him, and asked, “Tai Xiao’er, have you seen Big Brother Wang from next door leading a buffalo here for a drink?” Xiao’er said, “Uncle Wang? He went to drink wine with his relatives more than twenty miles away. This buffalo is his, and I’m helping him lead it home.” Comprador Zhai took this reply back to the magistrate. The magistrate’s expression changed and he said, “If that’s the case, there’s no need to stop at the official residence! We’re going back to the yamen!” Magistrate Shi was extremely vexed at the moment, and originally wanted to have his men haul in Wang Mian for punishment, but he feared that Teacher Wei would say that he was too impulsive, and so held his anger and went back. He’d slowly explain to Teacher that this man didn’t know good from bad, and it wasn’t too late to punish him. The magistrate left.

Wang Mian hadn’t in fact gone very far, and soon strolled back home. Old Tai came over to say to him, angrily, “You were simply too obstinate just now. He was the master of this county, and you simply gave him the run around?” Wang Mian replied, “Please have a seat, sir, let me explain it to you. Magistrate Shi leans on Wei Su’s power, and wants to come here to terrorize the commoners, and there’s nothing he won’t do. Why should I want to consort with this sort of person? But now that he’s had to go back like this, he must report to Wei Su what happened. Wei Su will be enraged by his embarrassment, and may want to settle a score with me. Today I’ll have to say goodbye to you, sir, and pack up my belongings, to go hide this out somewhere for a while. It’s just that with mother at home, I can’t rest easy.” His mother said, “My son, with all the poems and paintings that you’ve sold, I’ve saved up some several dozen taels of silver, and there’s no lack of food or fuel. I may be old, but I’m not ill, so you should go without worry to hide out for a time. You aren’t a criminal, after all. Do you mean to say that the officials will come to drag your mother away?” Old Tai said, “That makes sense. After all you’re buried in obscurity in this little village even though you have talent, no one appreciates it. Go out into the world, who knows who you might get along with. Your business here at home, this old man will take care of it, and will help you settle any matters.” Wang Mian thanked Old Tai. Old Tai went back inside, and brought out some wine and meat to bid Wang Mian farewell, and they drank and ate till the middle of the night.

At the fifth hour of the next day, Wang Mian woke up to pack his belongings, have breakfast, and just then Old Tai also arrived. Wang Mian paid his respects to his mother, and also bowed to Old Tai twice. Mother and son parted with tears in their eyes. Wang Mian wore a pair of hemp sandals, and carried his things on his back. Old Tai carried a small white lantern in his hand, and sent him to the village gate, and said a teary goodbye. Old Tai held the lantern, and stood there watching him leave, walking until he could be seen no longer, and only then went back home.

Wang Mian slept rough through his journey, taking a big break every ninety miles and a small one every seventy, until he arrived at Jinan district in Shandong. Although Shandong was a region close to the North, this city was still rich in people and goods, with closely-packed houses. By the time he had got there, his traveling money was exhausted, and so he could only rent a small room in a monastery, selling divination slips. He also painted two scrolls of his “living flowers” and pasted them there, selling them passers-by. Reading fortunes and selling paintings every day, he was in hot demand.

In the blink of an eye, half a year had gone by. In Jinan lived several rich commoners, who loved Wang Mian’s paintings and often came to buy them. Yet they didn’t come themselves, but sent some uncouth servants, who raised a ruckus at the slightest provocation, and made such a racket that Wang Mian could not be at peace. Wang Mian was fed up with this, and so painted a big cow which he pasted there, and even added some barbed verses to the painting. Yet, afraid that he’d end up in a brawl, he decided then to leave the place.

Sitting there early that morning, he saw many men and women weeping and crying pass by on the street. Some were carrying pots and pans, while others had bundled with them small children. Each of them looked yellow and haggard, their clothes in a rags. As soon as one wave of them passed, another wave came, filling up the street entirely. And there were those who sat on the ground and started begging. He asked around and found out that they came from districts where the Yellow River had broken its banks and flooded the land. Their land and homes had been completely submerged. The officials didn’t care about these people fleeing disaster, leaving them to their own devices, spreading out in all directions to find something to eat. Wang Mian looked upon this scene and was grieved by it. He heaved a big sigh and said, “As the river flows North, there is going to be a big tumult under the heavens. What am I still doing here!” He gathered up the scattered coin he had and kept it away, packed his luggage, and went back home. Once he entered Zhejiang, he heard that Wei Su had gone back to court, and Magistrate Shi had been promoted elsewhere. And so, he could return home without worry and see his mother again. Seeing that his mother was still as healthy and hale as before, he was glad. Mother also commended Old Tai to him. He hurriedly opened up his traveling case and brought out a bolt of silk, a bag of biscuits, and brought them over to thank Old Tai. Old Tai again broke out the wine to welcome him back home. From then on, Wang Mian resumed composing poetry and painting as before, supporting and waiting upon his mother.

Six years later, his mother was in the sickbed. Wang Mian sought help from all the doctors he could, but to no avail. One day, his mother instructed Wang Mian, “My eyes are no longer of any use to me, but in these past few years, people have been saying to my year that you’ve acquired enough learning, and that I should persuade you to go and be an official. But being an official is nothing glamorous or to be proud of! Those officials that I’ve seen don’t always come to a happy ending! Given your proud character, you’d be driven out of town and it won’t be pretty. My son, listen to these words that I’m leaving to you: get married and have children, tend my grave, and don’t go to be an official. When I die, I can’t see nor say anything!” Wang Mian sobbed as he promised. With a breath, his mother passed on to heaven. Wang Mian beat his chest and wailed in grief, crying so pitifully that none among his neighbors could themselves hold back a tear. Again with Old Tai’s help, they prepared the grave clothes and casket. Wang Mian piled up the earth for the burial mound. Of his three years’ deep mourning we needn’t say any more. (Note 5)

After he came out of mourning, there was but one year of plenty before tumult reigned again under the sky. Fang Guozhen occupied Zhejiang, Zhang Shicheng occupied Suzhou, Chen Youliang occupied Huguang. These were all heroes only among bandits. Only the Taizu Emperor [Zhu Yuanzhang] raised enough troops to blot out the sun, conquered Jinling [Nanjing], and installed himself as the King of Wu. He was the sole model of kingship. His troops overcame Fang Guozhen, giving him command over all the Zhejiang region, but none of the villages and towns were harassed. (Note 6)

One day in the afternoon, Wang Mian was returning from sweeping his mother’s grave, when he saw several dozen horses with riders enter his village. The man at the head was wearing a warrior’s cap on his head, and wore a flowery battle-dress. With his fair complexion, and trailing moustache and beard, he had a regal mien. (Note 7) This man got off his horse when he reached the threshold, and courteously greeted Wang Mian, “May I ask, is this where Mister Wang Mian lives?” Wang Mian said, “I am he, and this is my humble dwelling.” The man was delighted, “That is wonderful, I have come to seek his acquaintance.” He instructed his men to dismount and remain outside, tying up their horses on the willow trees by the lake. He alone took Wang Mian by the hand and went inside, and sat down inside in their respective places as guest and host, according to custom. Wang Mian said, “May I ask which general I have the honor of playing host to? What brings him to this village?” The man replied, “My name is Zhu, and first raised troops in Jiangnan, and am called the king of Chuyang. Now that we have occupied Jinling [Nanjing], I am called the king of Wu. Because I have been brought to this region in the campaign against Fang Guozhen, I have specially come to pay a visit to you, sir.” Wang Mian replied, “This villager’s eyes were poor, and had not recognized your lordship. But I am just an ignorant villager, how dare I delay your lordship?” The king of Wu said, “I am a coarse fellow. Today in the presence of a scholar like you, sir, whatever advantages I have melt away. In the Jiangnan region, I am well-known. Paying a visit today, I hope to gain guidance from you, sir. Having won the province of Zhejiang, how can I win the people too?” Wang Mian said, “Your lordship is high-minded and far-sighted, please forgive this commoner if he says too much. If one serves the people with mercy and righteousness, what person won’t be won over, not only the people of Zhejiang? If one rules by military force, then although the Zhejiang people are weak, they will not suffer such insult. Don’t you recall the example of Fang Guozhen?” The king of Wu sighed, and nodded his head in assent. The two sat discussing side by side till sundown. His men had brought along provisions. Wang Mian went to the kitchen himself and baked a pound of buns, and fried up a pan of onions, and handed it out. The king of Wu ate, thanked him for his advice, got on his horse and left. This day, Old Tai came back from the town and asked about what happened. Wang Mian didn’t let on that it was the king of Wu, but just said that it was a general from the army, whom he had met during his year in Shandong and had come by to pay a visit. And that was all he said.

In the space of a few years, the king of Wu had quelled disorder and brought stability to the land. He unified all the regions under the heavens and established the empire of the Great Ming, calling himself the emperor Hongwu. The villagers were secure and happy in their homes and occupations, each and every one of them. In the fourth year of Hongwu’s reign, Old Tai once again went into the town, and came back to ask Wang Mian, “Old Mister Wei has been denounced, and exiled to Hezhou. I’ve brought back a copy of the court proclamation for us to look at.” Wang Mian took it and read it, and found out that after Wei Su had surrendered, he stood in front of the emperor and declared himself to be the emperor’s loyal servant, an act of rash presumption. The emperor flew into a rage, and exiled him to Hezhou to tend the grave of Yu Que. (Note 8) The next item was about the Ministry of Rites, which announced the rules for selecting new scholars: there was to be an examination every three years, on the Five Classics, Four Books, and the eight-legged essay. Wang Mian pointed this out to Old Tai, and said, “This won’t do! In the future, those who study will have this one route to glory, and they’ll neglect the cultivation of true learning and character.” (Note 9) While they talked, the sky was turning dark. This was the beginning of summer, and the weather was warm. Old Tai set up a table on the threshing floor and the two had a drink together. Wang Mian held a cup in his left hand, and pointed up to the stars in the sky, telling Old Tai, “Look, the Cage Constellation has ensnared the God of Literature; a generation of scholars is at risk!” (Note 10) Having just said this, a freakish wind suddenly blew, so hard that the trees were resounding loudly. The birds and animals on the water were up in a fright. Wang Mian and Old Tai were frightened enough to cover their faces with their sleeves. After the wind had died down, they opened their eyes again, to see hundreds of little shooting stars scattered across the sky, all streaking towards the South-East. (Note 11) Wang Mian said, “Heaven takes pity, and sends down this starry host to keep order in the world of learning and culture. We haven’t seen the end of it!” That night they each packed their things and retired to bed.

From that time on, people would often say, that the court would send messages to the Zhejiang administration, wanting to invite Wang Mian to come out and be an official. At first he ignored this, but as people started talking more and more, Wang Mian said not a word to Old Tai, packed his things secretly, and slipped away towards the Mount Ji. Half a year later, the court actually sent an official, bearing an imperial edict, and trailing a large entourage, dressed in damask and satin, and showed up to Old Tai’s doorstep. They found Old Tai there, aged over eighty, with flowing whiskers, and gripping a cane in his hand. That official paid greeting to him, and Old Tai let him into his thatched cottage to sit down. The official said, “Does Mister Wang Mian live here? Our Emperor has bestowed upon him the position of staff adjutant, and this envoy has brought his letters of appointment.” Old Tai said, “Although he is from these parts, he has long since gone away to no one knows where.” Old Tai offered some tea, and brought the official to see Wang Mian’s house. Pushing open the door, they saw cobwebs everywhere, and tall grass grown over the path. It was plain that he had been gone for a long time. The official let out a sigh, and brought the edict back to the capital.

Wang Mian lived on Mount Ji, but never revealed his name. When he later fell sick and died, the mountain villagers pooled some money, and buried him at the foot of the mountain. That year, Old Tai passed away of old age at home. It is funny to hear scholars of our time who say that Wang Mian was an imperial staff officer! Did Wang Mian ever spend a day as an official? Hence this lengthy exposition. This is no prologue, there’s more to read below.


1. A candidate scholar (juren 举人) is someone who has passed the provincial examinations. See the separate note on the examination system. Up

2. The renwu 壬午 year refers to one of the years in the 60-year calendar cycle (sexagenary cycle), or tiangan dizhi 天干地支 system, where 10 heavenly stems (tiangan) are combined with the twelve earthly branches (dizhi) to form a sequence of 60 unique year-names. Given the timing of this story (the Ming dynasty was officially founded in 1368), he must have gotten his degree in 1342. Up

3. This passage implies that the trio here are “talking big” about events they have never personally witnessed. Up

4. Qu Yuan, an official of the state of Chu during the Warring States period, is best-known for his wandering in exile after being slandered at court and ignored by his king. He eventually committed out of his grief. Several poems in the Chu Ci (Songs of Chu) are attributed to him, as well as the longer poem Li Sao (Elegy on Encountering Sorrow). Wang Mian parallels him in the state of exile and in being unappreciated by temporal powers, but in Wang Mian’s case this represents a conscious decision to distance himself from the world of scholar-officials. Up

5. Filial children were expected to enter into three years’ mourning at the death of a parent. For scholar-officials, this meant that they were obliged to go on leave from their appointments and travel back to their hometowns. Up

6. Fang Guozhen (1319-1374), was a regional warlord in the waning years of the Yuan dynasty. Zhang Shicheng (1321-1367) was a leader of the Red Turban rebellion. Chen Youliang (1320-1363) founded the insurgent Dahan state. Zhu Yuanzhang joined a rebel group during the turmoil that preceded the fall of the Yuan, and at one point allied with the Red Turbans but broke away to form his own faction. He conquered the Yuan capital at Beijing in 1368, but established his own capital at Nanjing. Up

7. Many stories and traditions have grown up around Zhu Yuanzhang, the Emperor Taizu. Not all agree that Taizu had a “fair-complexioned face”, although this is how he is portrayed in his official portraits. An alternative portrait tradition shows him as hook-nosed, scabby-faced and generally ugly. See Dora C.Y. Ching, “Visual Images of Zhu Yuanzhang,” in Long Live the Emperor! The uses of the Ming founder across six centuries of East Asian history, ed. Sarah Schneewind (Society for Ming Studies, 2008), 171; and other chapters in that volume. Up

8. What Wei Su did was seen as treasonous to the loyalty that he owed to the former dynasty, under which he earned his degree and received his appointments. The proper Confucian response was to retire to a lifetime of seclusion, in mourning for one’s former dynasty. A more extreme response was to commit suicide, as Yu Que did. He was an actual official of the late Yuan who killed himself after his city fell to the warlord Chen Youliang. By exiling Wei Su to tend to Yu Que’s grave, the fictional Taizu was making a point about what Wei Su was expected to do. Up

9. Wang Mian’s comment on the new syllabus for the examinations reflects an ongoing debate from the Song through to the Qing about the content of the syllabus. One perennial sticking point was the value of poetry in education, and whether it should be part of the examination. See the incident of Zhou Jin and Wei Haogu (ch. 3) for the opposite opinion. Up

10. The Cage Constellation 贯索 , a constellation of nine stars, represents the commoner’s prison. The God of Literature, or Wenchang Wang is a Taoist deity represented by a constellation of six stars also called Wenchang 文昌. The symbolism of the ensnarement represents the theme of the rest of the book. Up

11. The “falling stars” that Wang Mian and Old Tai see are among the many natural portents of ancient times. Meteor showers and comets were also seen as portentous in the Western world, heralding events of particular spiritual or historical significance. In Chinese history these usually portend something untoward, as explained in more detail by Timothy Brook, The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming dynasties (Harvard University Press, 2010). Up


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