Hsi-Wei and the Grand Canal

by Robert Wexelblatt

The following narrative is included in the Tang minister Fang Xuan-ling’s record of his conversations with Chen Hsi-wei during the poet’s retirement in Chingling.  At the head of the passage Fang wrote down a proverb, “Blessed is the grandson who knows all he owes to his grandfather.”

            For two years, the court poet Zhang Chu-po was exiled from Daxing.  This was owing to some verses in The Autumn Festival Banquet, a work he intended to circulate discreetly among a few friends.  Unfortunately for Chu-po, a copy fell into the hands of a high official, a member of the southern Shun clan, a man more wealthy and proud than competent or intelligent.  The Emperor’s chief officials in the South, General Tung and Governor Cheng, while noting his deficiencies, urged the prudence of shoring up the loyalty of the Shuns by appointing this man to a significant post in the capital.  Emperor Wen reluctantly acceded and placed Shun in the Ministry of Fisheries.  However, to limit the damage, he insisted the man be given the title of Deputy Minister.  Shun accepted the post with a formal show of gratification but private resentment. 

            The new Deputy Minister for Fisheries was the sort of envious person who could not bear to hear others praised.  Perhaps this is why he took against the celebrated Zhang Chu-po and went out of his way to insult him on several occasions.  Chu-po knew better than to protest these slights in public.  The trouble arose because he could not resist including these lines in his Autumn Festival Banquet:

As the wine passed around for the sixth time,

a certain deputy minister, already deep in drink,

thought to amuse the company by mocking me.

“Master Chu-po, you have a reputation for wit,

though I have heard many say it is not well deserved. 

In fact, some tell me you are ignorant, others that you

are stupid.  Perhaps then,” he demanded, “you are

qualified to tell us the difference between stupidity

and ignorance.”  To this I replied, “That’s easy,

Your Excellency.  Only one of them is curable.”

            Shun was furious and exerted all his family’s influence until the Emperor agreed to exile Chu-po from the capital.  He was given a sum of money and sent to a fishing village on the shore of Lake Tai near Suzhou.  When the Deputy Minister Shun died of an apoplectic fit two years later, the Emperor at once recalled Chu-po to the capital.  With some reluctance, the old poet returned to the court.  He was welcomed at first but never regained his old popularity.  Chu-po’s fu had turned humorless, a fault-finder who made unpleasant remarks at table.  He was invited to few banquets. 

            Hsi-wei told me how he met Chu-po during his exile when his travels brought him to the town of Suzhou.  The local captain of cavalry, a lover of poetry, had befriended Chu-po.  He had also read and admired several of Hsi-wei’s poems and had heard that the peasant-poet lived as a vagabond supporting himself by making straw sandals.  One day, while walking through Suzhou’s marketplace, this captain encountered a newly arrived itinerant advertising straw sandals made to order.  He asked his name. 

            “Chen Hsi-wei, Your Honor.”

            “The poet?” 

            “Your Honor, it’s true that I make poems, though most people prefer my sandals.” 

            “Not everyone,” said the delighted captain.  “It’s an honor to meet you.  My men have been ordered to send me any poems of yours they come across.”

            “I’m most flattered that my humble scribblings have found favor with you, Sir.”

             “Tell me, Master Hsi-wei, do you know the work of Zhang Chu-po?” asked the good captain. 

            “Certainly.  Chu-po’s poems are famous.  Even within the strictures of the court forms, he manages verses that are entertaining and well made.  Yet I especially like a poem of his that I was shown just two weeks ago in Huzhou. This poem surprised me because it is so different from his other work.  It’s called On A Peasant’s Wife Giving Birth Beside Her Sow.”

            The captain nodded.  “I know it.  Perhaps you aren’t aware that Chu-po has been exiled to the shores of our lake?”

            “No, I hadn’t heard.”

            “We’ve become friends.  It’s my impression that his misfortune has changed him,” said the captain.

            “I expect it has. A court poet would have much to learn here.  Sooner or later, I’ve noticed, all the best poets are exiled.” 

            “Yes, I believe he’s actually proud of it.  Yes, the man’s taken his adversity nobly.  Instead of turning his eyes to the capital with resentment and longing, he takes an interest in what’s around him.  He’s become quite sympathetic with the peasants.  Almost, I sometimes fear, to excess.”

            “That’s to his credit, surely. Nobility isn’t always a quality of the happy.  I think it rather lies in one’s attitude toward unhappiness.  Exile can make men bitter and has turned many poets into the authors of ceaseless complaints.” 

            “Not Chu-po.  When I met him he said cheerfully, ‘The way I see things, it’s the Emperor who’s in exile from Chu-po.’” 

            Hsi-wei laughed.  “Bravely said.”

            The captain was silent for a moment then broke into a grin and clapped his hands together. “Master Hsi-wei, a certain Mrs. Shin runs a small inn nearby.  She serves well prepared fish, always fresh.  Would you do me the honor of being my guest there tonight with my friend Chu-po?”

            “That would be a great pleasure for me,” said Hsi-wei then looked down at his dusty clothing.

            The captain laughed.  “Don’t worry.  Chu-po has put aside his court robes.  We’re not in Daxing and Mrs. Shin is no imperial hostess.”  The captain told Hsi-wei where to find Mrs. Shin’s establishment and when they would meet, then went off to find Chu-po.


            The three men met at dusk and enjoyed both a fine dinner and a memorable evening.  Mrs. Shin’s inn was a narrow two-story wooden structure, unpainted and listing like a doomed junk.  But the wine was good and the steamed fish still better.  To Hsi-wei it was a banquet and he said so.

            “A banquet without either the stupid or the ignorant,” quipped the cordial captain.  Chu-po had told him the story of his exile, which the captain eagerly related to Hsi-wei.

            “The greatest of exile’s compensations is freedom,” observed Chu-po.  “Here I can say what I like.  At court, to tell the truth is perilous,”

            “And to do it elegantly even more so,” added Hsi-wei.

            Chu-po nodded, pleased with the compliment and quick to return it. “You were often mentioned in Daxing, Master Hsi-wei.  The peasant who aspired to become a poet, my colleagues liked to call you.  After I’d read a number of your poems I’d correct them.  No, I said, this is a poet who used to be a peasant.”

            “A dog who can walk on his hind legs is nevertheless a dog.  I’m a peasant still, Master Chu-po.” 

             The elder poet slapped Hsi-wei on the back.  “I say good for you, then.  Peasant-poet or poet-peasant, either way you’ve reason to be proud.  I’ve known enough poets to fill a garbage scow—a good place for many of them—but I’ve learned much about peasants of late.  They endure.  They’re stubbornly loyal and complain so much less than they could.  When I think of the scorn with which they are spoken of at court, I’m ashamed.  And when I think of the injustices they suffer, I’m indignant.”

            Hsi-wei liked the older poet’s appearance.  He had the dignified look of a man who had gained stature by losing weight and a healthy color by being much in the open.  He was past fifty but wore his age lightly.  The skin over his high cheekbones was tight and his nose was narrow and straight.  Though of middle height, Chu-po seemed taller.  He held himself very erect, his back as rigid as their host’s.

            For a time, the men spoke of poetry, especially the ancient masters.  Chu-po and Hsi-wei agreed that it was their youthful enthusiasm for these masters that had inspired them to write. Chu-po could quote them at will, which the captain urged him to do.

            “Yes, for me it was reading the Masters that led to writing,” remarked Chu-po.  “It’s common enough.  People call it being inspired.  But, in my experience, many would-be poets are moved by vanity and envy rather than reverence.”

            When Hsi-wei complimented Chu-po’s poem about the peasant woman giving birth beside her sow, the older man grinned.  “Ah, that’s one for which I have to thank Deputy Minister Shun.  I’m particularly pleased you approve of it, you above all.  It says things I could never have said in Daxing, wouldn’t have been able to say—matters people at court wouldn’t care to hear about.”  Here Chu-po gave a little nod or bow.  “Things you would say, in fact.  I’ve learned from you, Master.”

            Hsi-wei did not know what to say to this.  He only blushed.  The captain smiled and passed the wine around.

            “Where are you staying tonight?” asked Chu-po, putting down his cup.

            “I’ve found a place in a shed by the docks.”

            “I suspected something of the sort.  I’ve heard how you live. But, though in exile, I’m not without resources for humble hospitality.  I have a lease on a house by the lake.  No one would call it spacious but it’s comfortable and there’s a room there for you.  If you’ll do me the honor to consent, you’re welcome to be my guest for as long as you like.”

            Hsi-wei accepted gratefully.  There were rats in the shed.   “I received only six orders today.  I’ll finish the sandals tomorrow and you’ll be free of me the day after.”

            “That’s settled then.  Let’s drink on it.”

            After that, Chu-po made a disparaging remark about the new governor and a still more pointed one about the Emperor’s First Minister.  The captain squirmed then suggested that it was late, beyond time for him to return to his billet. He rose and went off to settle with Mrs. Shin.

            “A splendid young officer.  But even with him, even here,” whispered Chu-po, “it’s risky to say too much.”

            “You put me in mind of those Buddhist teachers who say their first principle is pu shuo p’o.”

            “Yes, never speak too plainly.  They are experts in self-defense, those Ch’an masters.” 

            When the captain returned, Chu-po and Hsi-wei thanked him warmly and bid him farewell.  The captain said that he would always treasure the memory of the evening, then made his escape.


            The two poets walked down to the docks to retrieve Hsi-wei’s belongings, exchanging stories about their lives.  As they strolled back along the shore of Lake Tai they took turns reciting poems.  Chu-po chose ancient verses from the Shijing and Chu Ci, Hsi-wei lyrics by Tao Yuanming, the lover of hedges and chrysanthemums.  Then the talk turned to genres and the elder poet delivered what amounted to an enthusiastic lecture on the form known as protest fu.

            “Many—too many, I’ll grant—are just whining raised to high art, but the form has great flexibility and potential.  The best are like roses forged from sharp spearheads, delicate and indirect but making piercing points, and always about the powerful.  The bad fus make you despise the poet; but the good ones make you sure that the Duke of this and the Minister of that deserve all they get.”

            Chu-po’s house was a trim one-story abode with a tiled roof and red-painted portico.  A middle-aged woman with wispy hair and an anxious face sat in the doorway.  On seeing the two poets, she leapt to her feet and bowed low.  Chu-po told her she was free to go home for the night.  She bowed again, walking backwards.

            “My housekeeper,” Chu-po explained with a sigh.  “I don’t really require one, but there are so many widows.”

            They went inside.  The central room, dimly lit by two shaded lamps, was sparsely furnished and immaculate, with a pair of matching chairs, low couch, and a teak desk with a stool.  Chu-po showed Hsi-wei around.  The main room was flanked by two small bedrooms.  At the back a kitchen gave on to a patio and a little hedged garden that Hsi-wei said would have pleased Tao Yuanming.

            “It’s exile,” retorted Chu-po with a shrug, “but, to tell the truth, it suits me.  Shall we talk or are you too worn out?”

            Hsi-wei really was drowsy, more from the wine than his travels, but appreciated that his host, accustomed to late nights and court gossip, longed to go on talking.  So each took a chair and, rather abruptly, Chu-po asked what Hsi-wei thought of the Emperor.

            “I revere Emperor Wen.”

            Chu-po scoffed.  “Revere?  Really?  You who know the suffering of the peasants?”

            “It’s true the people suffer; the poor always do. But they suffer less under Wendi than they have for four centuries.”

            “Your tone suggests you think me wrong to be critical, or perhaps naïve.”

            “If so, I apologize, Master.  That’s not what I meant.  For you the tribulations of the rural poor are a new discovery.”

            “While you’ve known these things all your life?  And so you think my indignation is the zealotry of the disillusioned.  You’re indeed a peasant, Hsi-wei.  You have a broad back, strong legs, practical skills, and readily accept things I cannot.” 

            “The Emperor has done much good.”

            “Such as?”

            “He unified North and South.”

            “At the cost of how many lives?”

            “Ending the perpetual wars saved more.”

            “He’s waged new wars.”

            “He’s an emperor, Master, not a saint.”

            “That’s a tautology, not an excuse.”

            “He promotes Buddhism, which is good.”

            “And neglects Confucianism, which is bad.”

            “The Empire’s prosperous now. They say in Daxing there is enough food stored to last for fifty years.”

            “Full storehouses in the capital?  No surprise there.  How many bursting granaries did you see in Tafang and Hsuan?”

            “He’s defeated the four great enemies—in the north, the Tijue, to the west the Tibetans, in the east Goguryeo, and Champa to the south.”

            “As I said, more wars.  The Emperor’s appetites are insatiable.”

            “He has only two concubines and it’s said he sleeps with neither.”

            “So he’s uxorious.  His wife and her greedy relatives hold too much sway.”

            “He built Daxing.”

            “Yes, and a magnificent parasite it is.  The capital costs a lot, and who pays?”

            “The Emperor reduced taxes, redistributed land, reformed the currency.  He even refused to break his own laws for those nearest to him, as in the case of Princess Cui.”

            “And he’s whelped a spoiled and unworthy successor.”

            “Who can say?”

            “I say.  I’ve seen the boy.  A little viper.  No, I say the Emperor is cruel not kind.  He imposed the death penalty for theft.”

            “But soon rescinded that law.”

            “He executed the Dukes of Cheng, Qi, and Shu, his three oldest comrades.”

            “Because they plotted against him.”

            “The evidence was thin.”

            “I heard the documents were damning and, when they were shown to him, the Emperor wept.”

            “It’s a good story, just the kind peasants would swallow.”

            “Well, as you say, I’m a peasant.” 

            “Did you know he gave permission for supervisors to thrash their subordinates?”

            “What do the sages say?  Respect is a marriage of love and fear.  The Emperor is strict but fair.”

            “He much prefers being strict to being fair.  What else?”

            “He’s improved the land.”

            “Such as by building his madly gigantic canals?”

            “Yuwen Kai, a competent engineer, advised the Emperor to dredge.  The project has created work for many.”

            “Oh yes.  Work for millions,” said Chu-po caustically.  “But for how much pay?  The whole aim of digging that blood-soaked trench from Daxing to Tong Pass is to supply luxuries to his precious capital and its fat inhabitants.”

            “With respect, that seems unfair.”

            “No, Master Hsi-wei.  I too can be strict but fair.  Have you seen the canal?”


            “Then you ought to.  It isn’t so far.  When you leave here you should see the works.  On the way you might stop at the village of Weizhuang; it’s on the way, only a dozen li off.”

            “Very well.”

            “Good!”  Chu-po slapped his thighs and got to his feet. “Now, I have to apologize for keeping you up so late.  I can see you’re losing the battle with sleep, poor fellow.  Forgive the gluttony of an exile starved for intelligent company.  Go now.  Get some sleep.  There are sandals to be made in the morning.  Six pairs, wasn’t it?”


            Two days later, Hsi-wei took his leave of his host with many thanks for his hospitality, and headed in the direction of the canal. Chu-po shouted something after him.  Hsi-wei wasn’t sure if it was “I hope you’ll return” or “None will return.”


            Weizhuang was in a deplorable state:  fences falling down, fields untended, houses collapsing.  Hsi-wei found only hungry children and starving grandparents, all barefoot and poorly dressed.  He left them with what money he had—the Emperor’s new currency—and a dozen pairs of sandals.  “Thank you, sir,” said one old man.  “I hope you’ll come this way again.  When our children return from the canal, we’ll be able to repay you.”


            It took Hsi-wei another week to get to the canal which had almost reached Bian Qu.  From the top of the eastern embankment he looked down on an astonishing sight, hundreds of men and women struggling in thick mud like ants.  Around him the exhausted and sick lay under lean-tos, wheezing in crude tents.  On both embankments men and women strained under huge bags, heavy with mud and rocks.

            He found an overseer, a powerfully built man with a cudgel in his fist.

            “Sir,” he said, “where can I find the people from Weizhuang.”

            “Weizhuang?  Why are you interested in them?”

            “I have messages, sir.”

            “There were rains last month,” growled the overseer and began to turn away.

            Hsi-wei stopped him.  “Rains?”

            “It’s bound to happen.  The embankments get undermined. Those useless weaklings from Weizhuang were supposed to be shoring them up.”

            “There were over two hundred men and women from that village.”

            “Two hundred?” scoffed the overseer.  “We lost three times as many in one night.  They’re easily replaced.  We have the Emperor’s authority to conscript all the people we need.”

            “And their pay?”

            The man laughed and, looking Hsi-wei up and down, said, “Interested in some work?”


            Though the formal title of the following poem is “The Guangtong Canal in a Hundred Years,” it is generally known simply as “The Grand Canal.”  Chen Hsi-wei confessed that he wrote it but he relished the irony that it has been attributed to Zhang Chu-po.

On some far off spring noon, a little girl

will sit quietly while at the tiller her father

guides their barge, broad bottomed and laden

with good things for the nobles of Daxing:

worked iron, brass bowls, lotus root,

lemongrass and lychees, dressed pork

and salted fish, rolls of paper, bolts of silk

and cords of the finest rosewood.  How she will

delight to see the breeze in the tall shore reeds

and the carpet of new violets rising up the

embankments.  Far above, she’ll see white pines and

fragrant Yulan magnolias, homes for the

birds whose songs sound as bright to her ear

as their feathers look to her eye, and never suspect

the thousands of bones mingled with their roots.


Editor’s Note on Hsi-Wei and the Grand Canal

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

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