by Robert Wexelblatt
Chen Hsi-wei had been wandering through the interior for three years, making poems and straw sandals, when he decided it was time that he saw the ocean. Even his dangerous mission to the South had never brought him near the sea. And so he set out for the province of Yangzhou.
For several reasons Hsi-wei made his destination the city of Jiangdu. First, as the capital and largest city in the province, all roads led to it. Second, while the city did not lie on the coast, it was only a few days from it, less if Hsi-wei could persuade a bargeman to give him passage down the Yangtse. These were reasonable, disinterested considerations, but there was another, a more personal reason.
When, as a peasant lad, he returned from his successful mission to the Emperor’s army in the South, Hsi-wei had been offered rewards of money and land by the First Minister himself. These he had turned down, instead asking to be educated. This request astonished everyone, but the Minister the same day had agreed and placed him under the authority of Shen Kuo. Master Shen resented being told to teach a peasant lad and made no secret of it; however, he was hardly in a position to refuse an order from the First Minister, no matter how absurd or disagreeable. There was, however, no accompanying command to treat the boy with any kindness, respect, or to encourage his efforts. Shen Kuo was proud of being the second son of a provincial governor and of the esteem he enjoyed at court; he had tutored many high officials and more of their sons. In his opinion, a peasant like Hsi-wei could not be educated at all, or if, by dint of great pains and superhuman patience such a boy could be made semi-literate, he would ever accomplish anything of note.
“Your head’s as dense as a granite tombstone; it’s no wonder they chose to chisel that message on it,” he often said to Hsi-wei. Another of his favorite sayings was this: “Trying to make you understand poetry is like teaching astrology to a dog.” To improve Hsi-wei’s calligraphy—which, to tell the truth, never rose much above bare legibility—Master Shen delivered one blow of his thick rod for each inelegant stroke of the brush. Every stage of Hsi-wei’s progress was thus accompanied by discouragement, insults, and whacks; yet progress there was, even if Shen Kuo declined to acknowledge it. When Hsi-wei dared to show Shen his first efforts at writing verse, the teacher was perplexed. On the one hand, he was unable to conceal that Hsi-wei’s compositions had shaken his prejudice. On the other hand, he thought the poems poor and explained why in detail. But Hsi-wei went on studying the classics and gradually his writing improved to such a degree that Master Shen, without praising a single line, began to circulate them at court. He did not hide from Hsi-wei that he did this and explained it was not to show off the boy’s talent—according to him, Hsi-wei had no talent—but to advertise his own skill.
In Chingchi Province, Hsi-wei crossed paths with a young under-magistrate on his way from the capital to take up his first post in Kunnei. He had heard the story of the peasant boy who became a vagabond poet. He was delighted to meet Hsi-wei and politely asked if he might see some of his recent poems. As for Hsi-wei, he was eager for news about matters in the capital. It was then that he learned Master Shen had fallen out of favor. According to the under-magistrate, he had struck one of his pupils, a spoiled, lazy, and insolent boy. But this boy happened to be the nephew of the Second Minister and Lord of the Imperial Stables. He had run straight to his aunt to complain, and the aunt had taken it up with the uncle. So, it was arranged that Shen Kuo, who was far from young, would be permitted to retire to his native town. He was said to have a fine villa there where he housed his first wife. This was Jiangdu. Under the circumstances, Hsi-wei considered that his old master might welcome a visit. He even imagined the old man asking to read some of the poems his pupil had written since they had last seen each other, three years before.
In those days Jiangdu was a peaceful town, without soldiers on the streets or camps in the squares. This was in the time of Wendi, long before his willful son became the wicked Emperor Yang and fled there seeking the protection of the Xiaoguo Army, whose generals promptly had him assassinated. In those days there were beautiful pavilions on the lake shore and fine villas in the hills; business flourished along the riverfront, lined with docks and crammed with barges. But when he arrived Hsi-wei took note that there was no shortage of poverty in Jiangdu. There were many beggars, swarms of famished urchins, and an extraordinary number of stray dogs, packs of them.
Hsi-wei found a tavern by the river that had what the keeper grandly called an inn behind it. This was just a weathered shack divided into three tiny rooms. But the rooms were cheap and Hsi-wei took one of them. He then saw to his own business, putting up his sign by a warehouse, and quickly had six orders from dock men for themselves, plus three more for children’s sandals. Then he set about inquiring after the villa of Shen Kuo. The poor could tell him nothing but a man in a silk gown whom Hsi-wei accosted as he was coming out of a temple shocked him with the news that, just two days before, the esteemed Shen Kuo had passed away. Hsi-wei asked about the villa but the gentleman, being in a hurry, merely pointed in the direction of a hill and rushed off. Feeling deeper grief than he had expected, Hsi-wei climbed the hill. He had to ask directions three more times before he found the villa where he arrived just as the sun was setting. The wake was already in its second day.
The house was pretty, not excessively large but well proportioned, with ornamental trees surrounding the front courtyard where Hsi-wei saw a group of men gambling. These would be family members serving as guardians of the deceased. As they had to hold their vigil through every night of the wake, the tradition of gambling was adopted to keep them alert.
The men, intent on their game, took no notice of Hsi-wei as he strode up to the doorway, across which hung a white cloth. Because Shen Kuo had died at home, the coffin would be placed inside the house. Had he died in Chang’an or elsewhere then the coffin would be set outside the house. A brass gong had been hung to the left of the entrance to signify that the deceased was male. As Hsi-wei drew back the cloth and entered the house, Hsi-wei saw that the statues of the household gods had been wrapped in red paper and there were no mirrors to be seen. Clearly, the funeral rites were being carried out punctiliously, which would have pleased Shen Kuo.
The vestibule led straight into a large room where the three-humped coffin had been set on a stand a foot above the floor. An old woman in a white robe—the first wife—sat by the corpse’s right shoulder. At the left sat a man of about Hsi-wei’s age dressed in black with a sackcloth hood hanging from his neck. His expression made a contrast with his mother’s. The widow looked stricken by her loss, but the son appeared bored and fed up, as if he would much prefer to be outside with the gamblers. Shen Kuo had never mentioned a son. The room was anything but quiet. A mechanical wailing rose from a gaggle of women gathered behind the widow while children clad in blue tumbled around the room, squealing and shouting at one another. Perhaps yesterday their mothers had tried to control them, but now nobody bothered. At the foot of the coffin lay three bowls of food, dried out now, two fading wreaths, and a painting of the deceased. This portrait was painted on rough wood and poor in quality. Hsi-wei had the impression it had been hurriedly executed after the death.
Seeing that the wake was being conducted so strictly according to custom, Hsi-wei did what late-comers were supposed to. He got down on his knees and crawled up to the coffin then peered in. There lay his master in his formal court robe over which a light blue cloth had been spread. His face was covered by a yellow one. Hsi-wei imagined it as stern and, notwithstanding the propriety of the rites and the cost of the extended wake, disapproving.
An altar had been set up against the far wall. On it, sticks of incense smoked beside a white candle. Between these sat a large porcelain platter full of ashes, the remains of joss paper and prayer money. At the end of the altar sat the heavily carved donation box. Hsi-wei got to his feet, fished for some coins in his leather pouch, then made his way carefully around the boisterous children to the altar.
The son glanced once at Hsi-wei’s rough clothing and turned away contemptuously. The widow examined Hsi-wei more quizzically, then, seeing him deposit coins in the donation box, nodded with surprising energy. She motioned him to her.
“You’re a stranger. You knew Shen Kuo in Chang’an?”
“Yes, in the capital. I was his pupil.”
Her face brightened. “What a tribute to Shen Kuo that you’ve come so far and so quickly to pay him respect. And how fitting. I can see that in your haste to arrive you’ve lacked the time to change out of your traveling clothes.”
This was intended as a reproach, though couched as an excuse. Hsi-wei thought it best to allow her to believe what she wanted.
“It was two weeks ago,” she said with a sigh. Then, frowning, she nodded toward the wailing women. “My daughter-in-law over there confessed to me that she had dreamt of snow.”
The widow dropped her eyes. “But surely you know that to dream of teeth or snow foretells a death in the family?”
Not only the splendor but the duration of funeral rites depends on the wealth of the deceased. Shen Kuo’s widow proudly informed Hsi-wei that her husband, the second son of a provincial governor, did not die a poor man.
“This morning a courier arrived, sent by the Second Minister himself.” She turned to indicate the donation box on the altar behind her and told Hsi-wei exactly how much money was in it, not counting his own few coins.
“Please stay in the city if you can. The burial will be in three days.”
Hsi-wei realized that of all those boys Shen Kuo had taught, now men of position and accomplishment, he alone had shown up and that was more or less by accident. “Of course,” he said.
“And perhaps,” the widow added in a whisper that failed to soften her words, “you’ll take the time to dress more decorously.”
After it grew dark a monk came into the house. Behind him were three men, one holding a gong, another a flute, the third a trumpet. The son handed money to each after which the monk went to the altar and began to chant sutras, accompanied by the musicians. Hsi-wei recalled this ritual from his childhood when he was taken to the wake of Mr. Wu, the wealthiest man in his village. In that case, there had been only a one-day wake and only a gong. After death, his father had explained to him, a soul faces many obstacles, even torture for the sins committed in life. The wealthy help their deceased by paying for the chanting of holy texts which can smooth the soul’s passage into heaven. Everything is easier for those with money, even being dead.
Hsi-wei spent the following days making sandals, for which he received three more orders. On the day of the funeral he cleaned himself up as best he could.
The graveyard of Jiangdu lay on another of the hills outside the city. Hsi-wei arrived just in time to see two gravediggers chasing a couple of dogs away after which the burial rites got under way. A cut stone had been set up at the gravesite. Though only a temporary marker, it was imposingly large. The extended family was assembled but there were at least twenty other mourners he had not seen at the villa—Hsi-wei wondered if these had perhaps been hired. It was a noisy group. As three monks in full regalia began chanting texts from The Book of the Three Officials, the women started their ritual wailing. The children, pulling at their starched clothing, were herded up to the grave where they bowed and were ordered to mumble the phrases they had been told to memorize.
It is improper for the old to pay respect to the young. How often had Hsi-wei heard it? Now he thought of what that rule meant for death rites and realized that, if he should die a young bachelor, then his body would not be brought into his parents’ house, nor could they offer prayers for him. Childless and unmarried, there would be nobody at all to perform funeral rites for him. That was what tradition dictated. Silence.
At the far end of the graveyard, in the marshy land where the small stones of the poor were crowded together, Hsi-wei spotted three people standing before a small pile of dirt. A gravedigger stood nearby impatiently leaning on his spade. Leaving Shen Kuo’s grave, Hsi-wei wandered closer.
The grave was tiny and shallow, the coffin was so small. The father, mother, and a little girl he guessed was about eight years old, must have dressed in their best clothes, but these were neither good nor clean. All three stood silently. The older cannot show respect for the younger.
Moved by a rebellious impulse, Hsi-wei stepped up to the edge of the little grave and, in a clear voice, recited The Embryo Breath Scripture of the Jade Emperor. He had memorized it for his grandfather’s funeral, when the words meant nothing; but now it came back to him. The little girl stared at him blankly, the father with something like terror; but the mother, in tears but still silent, looked at Hsi-wei with gratitude.
The Embryo is formed by the concretion of concealed Breath; and the
Embryo being brought into existence, the Breath begins to move in Respiration.
The entrance of Breath into the body is Life; the departure of the Spirit from
the external form is Death.
He who understands the Spirit and the Breath may live for ever; he who
rigorously maintains the Empty and Non-existent may thereby nourish
the Spirit and the Breath.
When the Spirit moves the Breath moves; when Spirit is still the Breath is still.
If you desire to attain immortality, your Spirit and Breath must be
diffused through one another.
If your Heart is perfectly devoid of thoughts—neither going nor coming,
issuing nor entering—it will dwell permanently within of its own accord.
Be diligent in pursuing this course; for it is the true road to take.
So says the Heavenly Lord Jade Emperor.
Hsi-wei gave up his idea of seeing the ocean. He felt an urge to return to the interior, to the rough roads, ramshackle villages and hard-working peasants.
On the road out of Jiangdu, he composed a poem, the one popularly known as “Two Bones.”
Quon drops his scruffy head on his filthy paws
and lays both on the sweet-smelling soil of the grave.
How often had Master beaten him to make him good?
Quon is hungry. His imagination summons two bones.
The one he wouldn’t touch says, “He beat you,” but
the other, the one he yearns to gnaw, says,
“He was your master.” Soon Quon will have to go
masterless into the world’s lanes and fields, armed
only with what he has learned and what he is.
Editor’s Note on Hsi-Wei and the Funeral
Hsi-Wei and the Funeral is not Robert Wexelblatt’s first piece in Eastlit. The following pieces of work have appeared in earlier Eastlit issues: