by Robert Wexelblatt
Among the many details recorded by the Tang minister Fang Xuanling in his account of his visit to the poet is an explanation of the origin of Chen Hsi-wei’s most popular poem for children. Despite its fanciful and mythic qualities, the poem originated in one of the adventures Hsi-wei had after leaving the capital and taking to the road. In this case, the road was the one that ran the length of Lungyu province from Shan to Tunhuang. In this portion of his account, Fang tries to reproduce his conversation with the aging poet.
“Is there a story behind that poem of yours, the one children love so much? I mean the one people call ‘Mai Ling’s Idea’?”
“Have you ever visited the province of Lungyu, my lord?”
“No. I haven’t had that pleasure.”
“There’s little pleasure to be had there. It’s a narrow province, hardly wealthy, squeezed between fierce Tibetans to the south and the even less hospitable desert to the north. A land of mountains and gorges. The people lead narrow lives in narrow valleys where they have to cultivate every mu. And yet it would be unfair to say that the people themselves are more narrow-minded than those elsewhere. They are, in fact, much the same.”
“I suppose you mean that the peasants are poor and the gentry rich.”
“In Lungyu even the gentry aren’t all that well off. In fact, the story behind the poem you asked about turns on a decision made by one of them. I never met the man but gathered he was a kindly landowner, but lonely and childless, a widower too shy or perhaps too inward to marry twice. The village of Zhaide belonged to him.”
“Excuse me, my lord. I’ve been digressing before starting.”
“Then please begin again, Master.”
“I was still young then. I had been on the road barely a year. I lived by selling my straw sandals and comforting myself by writing poems from time to time.”
“Where did you learn the craft of sandal-making, Master Hsi-wei?”
“From my uncle. Uncle was highly respected for his sandals. He wove the straw so tight that none failed to last out a whole year. Sandal-making is the most useful thing I’ve ever learned.”
“Do you mean that what you learned from Master Shen Kuo—reading and writing—was not useful?”
“To me, useful and beyond price. But to others, not at all.”
“There are many who would disagree.”
“You are pleased to offer me a graceful compliment, my lord. Well, I confess I’m pleased to receive it. All the same, it really is good to be able to make something with one’s hands, something others need and will pay for. I often think with some pride of all those feet I’ve shod.”
“I believe I understand. When I was a boy I loved fashioning pens from goose feathers, sometimes duck as well. I gave them away though. I doubt anyone would have paid me.”
Here Fang records that Hsi-wei’s laughed as sweet as a girl before resuming.
“Well, for not particular reason I had decided to make my way to Tunhuang. It wasn’t hard to find the villages as the road ran through mountain passes from valley to alley and each valley had its own village, large or small. The approach to Zhaide was particularly arduous. The pass was high up and the lowlands at the head of the valley were heavily wooded; then there was swampland too, not easy to cross. When I finally arrived in the village I could tell something was wrong. The women at the well kept their backs to each other; the men passed one another by in cold silence. Even the children played in a strangely subdued fashion, and in groups of only two or three. Hostility fouled the air of that little village the way acrid smoke does after a house fire.
“I set my sign up by the well and announced that I would take orders for straw sandals. One peasant came up and wanted to know where I would be buying the straw for the sandals. ‘Does it matter?’ I asked. ‘We all have straw,’ he said, ‘but if you’re going to make sandals for me and my family then I don’t want you buying straw from anybody else. Understand?’ Oh, it was an unhappy village indeed.”
“And did you discover the cause?”
“Oh, yes. I found lodging with an old widow and she told me all that had happened. Once, she said, the village was happy; that is, no more unhappy than any other. People looked out for one another and shared when times were hard. Then one afternoon a pair of monks from the monastery on Lan Shan showed up. As night was just falling, the landlord Mr. Fu, who happened to be near the well and who had plenty of extra room in his villa, offered them beds. ‘It must have been quite a night,’ the widow told me. ‘By morning, Mr. Fu had made up his mind that he would also become a monk on Blue Mountain. He called us all together, recited some of that Buddhist twaddle—I couldn’t make head or tail of it—and said he was renouncing the world which meant the land was now ours. Then, just like that, the three of them went off and we’ve never laid eyes on Mr. Fu since.’
“Apparently the first dispute arose over who was to occupy Fu’s villa. The Wongs claimed that, because of their fine pigs, they were the best off family in the village and ought by rights to move into the villa. This was disputed by both the Changs and the Tsengs, the former because of the wife’s golden bracelet, the latter because of their ducks. But that was nothing compared to what came next. As no proper boundaries had ever been drawn between one holding and another, greedy families began to claim land others were sure belonged to them. Even the humblest, those with the least, were forced to assert dubious claims as a defense against losing the little they had. By the time I arrived, there had been fights. A man named Chui had been injured in the leg. Zhaide had become a town feuding with itself and Mr. Fu’s villa still stood empty.
“I thought of leaving this unfortunate place at once. There certainly wasn’t much business to be done. But then I was possessed by an idea—a wild one. But perhaps you know how such things can take possession of one, just because they are so improbable. I asked my landlady to let it be known that the stranger had something to say to the people and would say it the following day at sunset, by the well.”
“Did you really think the peasants would come together to listen to you?”
“No, and neither did the old widow. Nevertheless, she did as I asked and spread the word. And, to my surprise, most of the people did show up. This showed that, beneath all their hatreds, jealousies, and mistrust, the villagers knew something had to be done and were willing to listen even to an itinerant sandal-maker.
“I began by bowing low and admitting that, as a stranger, I was ignorant of the complex history of their village. Then I dared to offer a proposition. I spoke of the swamp and woodland at the foot of the mountain. I said that, if this land could be cleared, drained, and carefully terraced, it would add several hundred productive mu. But such a task would, of course, be a huge undertaking. It could only be accomplished if everybody pitched in. Once the work was done, I said, you could draw up proper boundaries for the new land and the old as well. You’d have plenty of wood for fences, if that’s what you want.”
“I see. You were hoping that, if they took up your proposal and worked together, they’d return to the old ways, weren’t you?”
“I thought it was unlikely; but I confess I did muse about how, if such a thing came to pass, it would please Mr. Fu, should he get to hear of it up on Blue Mountain. Still, I knew such a happy ending was unlikely. The people of Zhaide had become intoxicated with the idea ownership, with property, and would not readily give it up. Yet, even if joint labor didn’t bring the villagers to renounce their greed entirely, I hoped that the new land might at least help to launch negotiations over boundaries.”
“And did the people of Zhaide agree to your idea?”
“They argued over it, of course. Some said that, if the swamp could be drained, the forest cleared, and the land terraced, their ancestors would have done it long ago. Others retorted that their honorable ancestors had never been more than serfs and so had no reason to undertake work from which the profit would go to the landowner. They broke into two factions. The larger favored the project and, so out of fear of losing out, the smaller felt compelled to go along.”
“And did the peasants of Zhaide manage to reclaim that land? Did you restore peace to the village, Master?”
“All I can say is that, when I went back on the road, a dozen peasants had new straw sandals and the work of draining the swamp was underway. Yet there was one project, much more modest, that did come to completion. You asked, my lord, about that old poem of mine, the one children like. It was written on the road from Zhaide to Tunhuang.”
Mai Ling’s Idea
Long ago, between Night and Day there was war.
They taunted and insulted one another. Spite and spleen.
Like a woolen curtain, Night sought to black out Day
while Day, like a huge bonfire, labored to outshine moon and stars.
From these mighty battles, people and animals suffered,
enjoying a little respite only at noon and midnight.
With Winter and Summer it was much the same.
They detested each other and all the more
for being evenly matched. Midsummer and Midwinter
were calm, but, in between, the seasons’ wrestled ceaselessly;
tempests and earthquakes afflicted the world.
One day, as her parents were complaining,
Mai Ling, a little girl of eight years, spoke up.
“Nobody can tell me what time is or how much there is of it.
Why not just make more? Then Uncle Winter can have
his time and Auntie Summer hers; then Day can be day
all day and Night can be night the whole night through.”
Mai Ling’s parents laughed indulgently, as parents will.
But her old granny reproached them. “Listen to the child.
New eyes see better than old ones.” And so
the people convened a parley with Day and Night,
with Winter and Summer, and let Mai Ling explain.
“Uncle Day, when you get sleepy you shouldn’t struggle.
Auntie Night, when you’re worn out, you ought to go to bed.
You shouldn’t rub your eyes and spite each other.
Neighbors need boundaries, little walls, not too high.
We can make new time if only you’ll agree.
We’ll set fences between you: Dusk and Dawn.
“And as for you, Uncle Winter and Auntie Summer,
you should do the same and not rub up against each other
ruining our rice with mistimed warmth and blasts of cold,
hail and sleet, too much rain or parching heat.
Let’s set new seasons between you, just little ones, low walls.
As Winter tires, we’ll have Spring, and as Summer fades, Fall.
That is my idea. In the night people and animals shall
sleep and during the day we’ll work and play.
In Spring we’ll sow and in the Fall harvest.
Then you can stop this nasty wrangling and enjoy yourselves.
Then we shall all be grateful to you, blessing
each day and each night, every season and every year.”
Editor’s Note on Hsi-Wei and Mai Ling’s Good Idea
Hsi-Wei and Mai Ling’s Good Idea is not Robert Wexelblatt’s first piece in Eastlit. The following pieces of work have appeared in earlier Eastlit issues: