Hsi-Wei and the Tale of the Duke of Shun

by Robert Wexelblatt

What follows is an explanation of a recently discovered poem-letter dating from the Sui period.  It was sent by the poet Chen Hsi-wei to a friend he made in the vicinity of Hsuan, Ko Qing-zhao, thought to be a painter of pastoral scenes.  To understand Hsi-wei’s text requires some knowledge of the nearly forgotten figure of Chang Yan-lu.


            No one can be certain about the truth of the ancient tale of how Chang Yan-lu became the Duke of Shun. Without faith in its veracity a story will be judged less as history than as a made-up tale:  is it credible? faithful to human nature? does it make me think or wonder; above all, is it both pleasing and significant?  Of course, everyone must decide such questions for himself.  However, if the story of Yan-lu were not pleasing it would long ago have been lost to our people’s imperfect, albeit long, memory whereas, in fact, it has been retold many times and over many centuries. Proof that it is a meaningful story is that it has given rise to disputes and has even been the cause of bitter feuds.  That is why it is held to be a dangerous story, not to be told to young children.  Surely a story that is both inflammatory and often repeated ought to be granted some merit, whether it is true or not.

According to most sources, Chang Yang-lu’s father was a petty landowner in Zhou, holding the rank of count, second class.  His land lay in the north and, while extensive, was arid and unproductive.  Yang-lu was a second son.  Though the title and land had to go to his brother everyone acknowledged Yang-lu’s superiority, even his brother.  The boy was well-built, athletic, quick with numbers, a precocious apt pupil who produced elegant calligraphy.  He excelled at all martial exercises and games of strategy; he was able to speak easily with either a peasants or a scholar, and to impress both.  Despite all these gifts, he aroused affection more often than jealousy.

Yan-lu’s mother had a cousin in the capital who had attained the rank of a third minister.  Through him, a place was arranged for Yang-lu at court.  With tears being shed on all sides, he was sent off to the capital at the age of fourteen.

Yan-lu was politely received by his mother’s cousin, welcomed warmly by his extensive family, and given a room in their villa.  He was appointed as an assistant in the Ministry of Cloud Cavalry which, in addition to horses, had charge of food storage and road maintenance.

The boy quickly distinguished himself by adding up dan of rice more rapidly and accurately than anyone else and by riding the most fractious horses with reckless grace.  In short order, he was promoted.

According to one version of the story, Yan-lu was rewarded by his superiors with an invitation to join the gentry in the silver pavilion at the annual Lantern Festival.  In the course of the evening, Yan-lu found himself standing near a group doing traditional riddles. A lady complained that the riddles were so traditional that they had grown stale.

With the audacity of his youth, Yan-lu spoke up.  “Pardon me, My Lady, would you like me to ask you a new one?”
The lady was surprised but smiled.  “What?  Have you just made one up?”

Yan-lu bowed low.  “Two, My Lady.”

People gathered around, including the Cloud Cavalry Minister himself.

“Well, what’s the first?” asked the lady, intrigued.

“What can turn everything around without moving itself?”

“What indeed?” asked the Lady with a giggle, glancing around at her friends who all shook their heads.  “It appears we need a hint, if you please.”

Yan-lu looked at the lady in her carefully coiffed hair and silk gown which was cut rather low.  “It is something you see at least once every day.”

“I’ve got it!” exclaimed the Minister.  “It’s a mirror and I assure you she sees it twenty times a day.”

Everyone laughed except for the lady, who happened to be the Minister’s first wife.

“Let’s have the second riddle,” said the Minister, who had enjoyed solving the first and discomfiting his haughty wife.

“Well, Your Excellency, try this:  When I slap you, I slap me.  And when I hit you, my blood flows.  Who is you?”

The Minister’s deputy, who seldom left his side, made a shocked face and grumbled.  To speak to the Minister of slapping?  Imagine!  To his mind it was this impudent boy’s blood that ought to flow.

But the Minister was not in the least offended.  He requested that Yan-lu repeat the riddle, and asked his deputy if he knew the answer.  The deputy scowled and shook his head.  Then the Minister asked his first wife if she knew, but she turned away and pretended not to have heard.

“Well, then, I give up. What’s the answer?”

“A mosquito, Excellency.”

“Ah, a mosquito.  Of course.  Splendid!”


The boy grew into a tall young man and his reputation rose with his stature.

One day the First Minister sent for Chang Yan-lu.  The First Minister was a crafty man feared for his ruthlessness, high standards, and intelligence but esteemed for the same qualities. Yan-lu was conducted by two guards through courtyards he had never before seen and down a red-painted corridor to a wide and well-appointed inner chamber.  On a dais sat the First Minister.  Yan-lu at once put his forehead to the floor.

The First Minister gestured to the guards to leave the room. Only after the doors were shut tight did he address Yan-lu.

“By all accounts you are a gifted and brave young man.  I am informed you are now seventeen.  Is that so?”

“Yes, Excellency.  Seventeen.”

“We have a challenging task for you.  It will be difficult, but I ask it in the name of the Duke, to whom you have sworn allegiance.”

The Minister explained that the recent death of the Duke of Shun had brought his young son to power.  Shun was growing in strength and, with a new ruler of unknown temperament and ambition, might prove a problem.  In short, the Minister had to consider the probability that Shun would attack Zhou in the near future.

“You will be provided with documents proving that the Duke has treated your family unjustly.  You are to take these to Shun, declare that you detest Zhou, and beg to be taken into the service of the Duke of Shun, even in the lowliest capacity.  We rely on you to distinguish yourself in Shun as you have here and so to attain a position giving you access to information that will be vital in the event of war.”

For the sake of this plan, the Chang family did have their land confiscated by the state, though, after a few months of privation, they were given a smaller but more profitable estate in the south.

Yan-lu did as instructed and was taken into the service of the youthful Duke of Shun in which he rose quickly.  After only three years, he was appointed third deputy to the Minister of the Green Jade Gate.  This was approved by the First Minister, a kindly man who, during their interview, treated Yan-lu in a fatherly manner.  In this new position, he accompanied the Duke, who was only two years his senior, on hunting forayss and then on a punitive expedition to the western border.  On the way to the frontier, the column was ambushed and, in the ensuing fight, Yan-lu saved the Duke’s life.  As a consequence, he became the Duke’s favorite companion.

According to some versions of the story, shortly after this expedition Chang Yan-lu married while in others he remained single; however, all agree that he grew fond of the Duke and of the people of Shun.  As for the young Duke’s political objectives, he could find no indication of any aggressive intentions with regard to Zhou; quite the contrary, in fact.

Yet war did come.

Zhou’s First Minister persuaded his Duke that Shun was a clear threat and the time had come to eliminate it by annexing their neighbor.  With a man of their own in a position of confidence in the court of Shun, they could rely on having a decisive advantage.

A distant cousin of Yang-lu’s father, a rural bureaucrat, was sent to Shun, ostensibly to visit him and give him news of his family.  When they were alone, the cousin said, “I’ve been sent by the First Minister to deliver this” and drew from his robe a sealed scroll. “Don’t ask me anything about it.  I swore not to open it.  All I know is that I am to take your reply back with me in the morning.”

The scroll did not say that an attack was imminent; however, the questions it posed made the Minister’s intentions clear enough.  Shun would soon be attacked and without warning.

Yang-lu spent a terrible night, torn between two loyalties.  He did not sleep and wrote nothing until dawn was breaking.  When he did write, he wrote falsely.

The following day, after seeing the cousin safely off, he begged a private audience with the Duke and his First Minister.  He told them the whole story, not leaving out his personal struggle.

The Duke was too furious to speak but the First Minister remained calm.  “Why did you decide for us?” he asked.

“Three reasons,” said Yan-lu.  “First, because you are the more worthy.  Second, because you are not the aggressor.  Third, because I have come to know you.”

The Minister suggested to the Duke that Yan-lu be given a commission in the cavalry and sent to the border with two generals to strengthen the defenses.

The fighting began within weeks. Yan-lu led his men so well that he was acknowledged as Shun’s best field commander.  After repulsing the initial onslaught, the army of Shun crossed into Zhou.  Meanwhile, in the capital a treacherous official, bribed by Zhou’s First Minister, poisoned the Duke of Shun and his First Minister as well.  In the panic that followed, he declared himself ruler.  He sent orders for the army to withdraw from Zhou and signed them as Duke of Shun.

Yan-lu met with the other officers and they resolved to ignore these orders.  Instead, with Yan-lu at its head, the army swept across the plains of Zhou to the capital.  When the troops reached the palace, they found it empty.  Yan-lu drew up a proclamation to the effect that Shun and Zhou would henceforth be united for the benefit of both.  The bulk of the army remained to pacify Zhou while Yan-lu, at the head of half the cavalry, wheeled around and made for the capital of Shun.  News of his approach preceded his arrival.  The Second Minister, who had gone into hiding, managed to organize loyalists among the guard who could foresee what would await them on the return of Yan-lu.  And so, before Yan-lu and his horsemen arrived, the usurper had been arrested and beheaded.  The late Duke of Shun had neither children nor brothers and so, instead of the desperate battle he expected, Yan-lu was asked by the remaining ministers to become Duke of the newly united Shun of Zhou.

From a position that had been precarious and divided, Yan-lu now unified his two countries in his own person. According to the most popular accounts his reign was progressive, prosperous, peaceful, and long.  He was even-handed with all, favoring neither Shun nor Zhou.  After his death many legends were told of his wisdom and the people gave him a new title.  Putting their children to sleep mothers would whisper to them, “May the Duke of Good Dreams visit you tonight.”


            Four years after leaving the capital and taking up his vagabond life, fashioning straw sandals and poems, Chen Hsi-wei arrived in the city of Yun. He was recognized in the market as the young poet-peasant of whom people were talking and word was sent to the governor who invited him to a banquet that very night.

The feast was in honor of a far more celebrated visitor to Yun, the Court chronicler Fung Chu-li.  At the reception before the meal, the Governor introduced the two, formally praising both.  The older man looked Hsi-wei up and down, taking in his youth and the borrowed robe made of woven linen rather than silk.  When he spoke he did so as rudely as he had scrutinized Hsi-wei.

“Forgive me, but I cannot share in our host’s high opinion of you, young man. If I cannot think well of you, it is not only because you are a peasant,” he went on, “it is still more because you are a poet.  What irritates me about you poets is just what you brag of most—I mean your so-called imagination.  While claiming to see the profound insides of things you ignore the exterior facts which, while they may appear too plain for you, are nonetheless true.  History is solid rock; a poem is merely a mirage.”

Hsi-wei did not respond to these insults. He simply smiled at the chronicler’s using two metaphors, gave a bow, and moved to the other side of the room.  However, over dinner, he did reply in his own way.  One of the guests had raised the subject of loyalty and the chronicler spoke of Chang Yan-lu.

After clearing his throat, he spoke pompously.  “When loyalties are divided they must always be resolved, for good or ill.  I am reminded of the famous Duke of Shun.  Though he died almost a thousand years ago his life remains the best account we have of such a dilemma being resolved in a happy fashion.”

Hsi-wei, one of the few at the table who knew the story, spoke up.  “Perhaps I am too ignorant and that is why I am uncertain about the Duke of Shun.  But I have heard that people do not all see the story in the same way.  Even where they agree on the facts—or that the facts are facts—they do not agree on their meaning.”

The chronicler was not pleased by this turn in the conversation and decided to bully Hsi-wei.

“That is ridiculous.  There is nothing to argue over, once the facts are known.”

Hsi-wei replied, “Pardon my using a comparison that might be thought poetic, but it seems to me that facts, like peonies and lilies, can be arranged in various ways. Where one makes a bouquet meant for a young lady, another will weave a funeral wreath.”

“Nonsense,” said the chronicler at the same moment that the Governor said, “Go on.”

“Well,” said Hsi-wei, “when I was living in the capital, my tutor entertained several scholars. As it happens, they fell into arguing over the story of the Duke of Shun.  One said the popular ending cannot be believed, as it is too neatly happy.  The bad are punished, the good rewarded, and the two dukedoms are married like a prince and a princess at the end of a fairy tale.  His view was that, having won the war, Shun oppressed Zhou, and the story was exactly the kind victors always like to give out.  Another insisted the story was not about divided loyalties but betrayal.  He pointed out that Yan-lu had sworn allegiance to the Duke of Zhou, legitimate ruler of his homeland.  He shirked his duty and was the cause not only of his country’s defeat but its disappearance.  Nothing more damnable, he said, and added that he had more sympathy for the banished Duke of Zhou than the poisoned Duke of Shun.  Another observed that both dukes came to disastrous ends. He said the story is actually about the evils of war which so often harms victors as well as vanquished.  In his opinion, if Yan-lu was a hero at all, it was not because he won the war of Shun against Zhou but because he foreclosed the possibility of all future wars between them.”

“Ah,” said the Governor, “that’s quite a range.  And what was your master’s opinion?”

“Well, Excellency, my master was not the most optimistic of men.  He saw the story as one about high politics carried out by the all too customary methods of murder and treason.  He argued that the character of Yan-lu may have had some historical source but was obviously an imaginary figure, invented to trick the people into believing that what is ugly and selfish is pretty and magnanimous.”

The banquet came to an end shortly thereafter.  As they were departing, Hsi-wei went up to the chronicler to say that it had been a great honor to meet him.  Though Hsi-wei was sincere, Fung felt provoked.  So he gave the poet yet another and still more passionate lecture on the supremacy of his profession.

And that is how Hsi-wei came to write the following:

              Hsi-wei’s Letter-Poem to Ko Qing-zhao

Just yesterday I encountered Fung Chuan-li, the renowned chronicler.

Pointing to a coffered ceiling he declared, “The present is fleeting,

not to be caught, and the future unknowable; but the past—the past is

as firmly set in place as iron spikes have made this roof beam.” 

I bowed courteously, a peasant thankful for this lesson on the

objectivity of truth.  I did not wish to offend and so refrained

from remarking, “Beams burn.  Surely you know some future

emperor is going to make a bonfire of your elegant chronicles. 

The past, rewritten in a moving present, only appears still.” 


What is beyond dispute in the tale of Chang Yan-lu?

As it recedes, the past softens into poems up for interpreting.

Did Yan-lu make a good choice or a treacherous one? 

Was he a hero to Shun, a villain to Zhou, the savior of both, or a

usurper loyal only to himself?  The tale is so ancient one may ask

if there ever was a Yan-lu, or even a hostile Shun and Zhou.

Like snowstorms and heat waves, so many dynasties have blown

over Zhong guo, that it scarcely matters now.  What counts

is that people like the story—and what they make of it.


Editor’s Note on Hsi-Wei and the Tale of the Duke of Shun

Hsi-Wei and the Tale of the Duke of Shun is not Robert Wexelblatt’s first piece in Eastlit. The following pieces of work have appeared in earlier Eastlit issues:

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