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By Robert Wexelblatt


The Montréal Review, June 2012



Once again Hu Zhi-peng had brought a small gift. This time it was a pomegranate from the south, quite a rarity in the days when Yang Jian had yet to unite the two kingdoms and declare himself Emperor Wen of Sui.

Tian Miao sat up straight, her back not touching the chair. She thanked Hu humbly and sincerely, but didn't know what to do with her hands or, indeed, her life. She prepared herself to receive Hu's guidance; for he never arrived with presents alone; there was advice as well.

When Tian Miao became a widow at the age of seventeen Hu Zhi-peng had been of great service to her. He helped her secure the small house in which she lived and the one hundred mou of land which he then arranged for her to lease to two peasant families. Hu had also found her a servant, Jingfei, a decent if garrulous peasant widow of forty. Miao was obliged to be grateful to the merchant.

Hu had been a business associate of Miao's husband and had been a frequent visitor to the Tian villa. As a second wife, Miao had exchanged hardly a word with the man; but, after her husband was killed by bandits on the road to Chingling, it was Hu who had come to her aid. He was an intelligent and discreet man and, like her late husband, almost fifty years old. Miao told herself she could feel secure with him because he already had two wives. So she was disconcerted when Hu, making himself at ease on her couch, said, "A pomegranate is hard on the outside but inside there is much sweetness. Do you know, Miao, people sometimes say that's how I am, too. Perhaps it is a compliment. What do you think?"

"You have been kind to me, Zhi-peng. To me you have been nothing but sweet."

Hu seemed to content himself with this guarded answer. "Ah," he said, "I nearly forgot my other surprise" and pulled from the sleeve of his silk robe a small scroll. "Imagine," he said tossing the scroll up and down, "a peasant has set up as a poet."

"Really?" asked Miao absent-mindedly. She was still unsettled by Hu's comment about himself and pomegranates.

"Oh yes, indeed. I have here copies of some his poems. It seems they're being circulated by the young man's teacher, Shen Kuo, a most remarkable man. I'm told he is proud of the young peasant the way a dog-trainer is of a pup he's taught to stand on its hind legs."

Miao frowned prettily. "Do you know how this peasant came to be educated?"

"I do," said Hu, striking his thigh, "and it's a fine story. I'll tell you and then, if you wish, I'll read you one of this Chen Hsi-wei's poems."

"Yes, please," said Miao, glad not to have to speak of her gratitude or her guest's sweetness.

Hu told the story of how, four years earlier, during the most chaotic period of the war, Hsi-wei had been chosen to deliver a critical message to General Fu's army in the south, a secret message that could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

"They used a stratagem some scholar found in a dusty history of the Qin dynasty. The First Minister put out a call for illiterate peasant boys with fast-growing hair. Volunteers were tested and a few were chosen to be sent south. Their heads were shaved and the message inscribed on their scalps. As soon as their hair grew back they were dispatched to try to reach General Fu. This Chen Hsi-wei was the only one to get through, or at least the only one to return alive. He was offered money and land but-astonishing for a peasant-he begged instead to be educated."

"I think I can understand," said Miao in her soft voice.

"Really?" Hu was genuinely surprised.

"Chen Hsi-wei must have passed through all sorts of dangers carrying on his head words he couldn't understand. I expect he wanted to learn to read, to understand the mystery, and to be able to write down what had happened to him, to record the images inside his head."

Hu nodded, pleased that Miao, who spoke so little, was engaged by his story. "You may well be right," he said.

"He must have seen a lot on the roads," Miao added.

"Yes. The first of these poems is about just that, what he saw."

"May I hear it?"

"Of course." And Hu read Miao the poem which later became known as "My Skull":

In Pingyao, as they began to lash my back and chest,

I could just hear little girls chanting "Rice-Bowl-Rice":

Through green doors, across red pavement, that jolly song.


When they dragged me off to be questioned in Nanyang

Melancholy music wafted from Three River Tavern,

Just the sort to make barge men soften like medlars.


I curled up contentedly by a great sow near Chuchow,

No less warmed than she by our soiled straw,

Our cradle rocked by Feng's fierce horsemen tramping by.


Wuchow's streets ran with festive dragons, crackers burst,

Women warbled, children cheered, babies bawled as

General Fu ran his so-eager finger over my skull.

"What do you think of the poem?" asked Miao, who liked it very much. She felt sympathy for the peasant boy, lashed in Pingyao, hiding from Feng's cavalry in Chuchow. She could hear the music from three River Tavern and the chanting little girls.

"It's rather crude, and he mixes in southern idioms."

"Are all the poems about his adventures on the road?"

"No," said Hu. "The last one is quite peaceful and settled, a kind of survey of the city. But the boy can't resist being excessively personal. At the end he mocks himself, which I do like."

"Would you please read that one to me?"

"If you like, certainly." And Hu read her a poem Hsi-wei had written only two weeks earlier.

Tendrils thin as new snakes

undulate upon the inlaid table.

No desire for sudden noise

disturbs the Lord Shi-Yueh

taking green tea with his friend.


In the scarlet bedchamber

a man turns to his wife

and speaks of some incident

long past. Her gentle nodding

is like sunlight on gold roofs.


The family sits in the garden.

From the railing of the foot-bridge

the littlest child pushes pebbles

into the shallow running brook

while two ducks stop to watch.


In his study underneath the

dumpling shop of Mrs. Shang-kiu,

the wretched student Hsi-wei

paints these images in his

bumbling bird's-foot characters.

Miao found the poem charming; in fact, she liked it even more than the first, but sensed that Hu would not be pleased to hear her say so.

Hu put the scroll back in his sleeve. "Miao, I've been thinking, he said cautiously, "thinking about your situation. It's true you could live here as a widow; you're not wealthy but there's enough to get by. Still, it will be a poor and lonely sort of life for you, a dry life. I think as the world does."

Miao stiffened. "How does the world think?" she asked without needing to.

"It thinks pretty young ladies of good family like you ought to be married, of course."

Miao fumbled with her useless hands.

"I, for instance," drawled Hu, leaning back on the couch, "have only two wives, as you know. I can easily afford another. You would get on well with Sulin and Meili; I'm sure of it. They'd make a pet of you."

For a moment Miao thought Hu meant to get hold of her property; but then she admitted to herself that, while he was a man of business, Hu was also honorable and not exceptionally greedy. Besides, what did her property amount to in the eyes of a man like him? Then she recalled the way he had looked at her in her husband's house, the intensity of it.

Tactfully, Hu got to his feet and arranged his robe. "Think it over, Miao. . . as you enjoy the pomegranate. I am not impatient. Meanwhile, will you do me the honor of permitting me to call again?"

"Of course," whispered Miao, looking at the hands lying heavily in her lap.


When Tian Miao told Jingfei about Hu's offer, the woman laughed. "So," she said, "he's got to the point at last."

"You knew?"

"My dear Lady, only a seventeen year-old who didn't care for his horse's face and camel's feet would have failed to notice his intentions, and even then she'd have had to work at it."

Miao confessed she had been dreading just such an offer from Hu. A third wife, and of another merchant more than twice her age and even uglier than the first one! "But I owe him so much," she said, to be just.

"Never mind about that. It wasn't out of the kindness of his heart that he helped you. You ask me, another part of his body had more to do with it."

"You dislike him?"

"Yes," drawled Jingfei. "I suppose I do."

"Yet I believe Hu Zhi-peng is a good man. And he isn't wrong about the lonesome life a widow can expect, is he?"

Jingfei just grunted.

"Since my mother died, my father takes no interest in me. My brother is in the army down south and I can't say if he's alive or dead. Except for Hu Zhi-peng, I'm alone."

"Except for Mr. Hu and me."

Miao smiled. "Tell me, Jingfei, have you heard talk of a young peasant who writes poetry?"

"I know plenty of young peasants but none that can tell a poem from a pisspot."

In the days that followed, Miao often found herself thinking of Chen Hsi-wei, of his sufferings, even his maladroit calligraphy. She would have liked to know whether the secret message was still inscribed on his scalp. She wondered what his voice was like and whether he was fat or thin.

Finally, one morning she sent Jingfei to seek out the dumpling shop of Mrs. Shang-kiu and to ask if this Chen Hsi-wei were really living in the basement.

Jingfei was back by noon with a terse report. "He lives there all right."

"Did you see him by any chance?"

Jingfei almost smirked. "No, dear Lady. The great poet was out. The peasant too. As it's winter and there aren't any flowers to smell, I can't think what he was doing."

Miao withdrew to her bedroom.

It was with a feeling of effrontery-freedom mixed up with transgression-that, the following morning, she took up her brush to write out an invitation. Miao had to still her hand.


Hsi-wei was not pleased by the invitation Mrs. Shang-Kiu delivered to him when he returned from his lesson with Shen Kuo. Since the Master had taken it into his head to scatter abroad copies of his first poems, there had been half-a-dozen such invitations, none of which he was in a position to decline. The meals were all excellent; but the fine people who wanted him at their homes treated him as an upstart, a butt for their dull wits, or a curiosity to be shown off to guests. From her name he knew this Tian Miao was a female. All the previous invitations had come from men, third ministers, teak merchants, and the like. He pictured a bored dowager who desired a novel diversion to impress her circle of rich old women. With a sigh, he wrote out his acceptance and went to look for the usual boy, the one who loved to hear about his adventures, to deliver it.


It was nothing like the grand villa he had expected. A peasant woman met the poet at a low door and, without ceremony, invited him in. The furnishings were comfortable, but sparse and rather worn.

Jingfei had resolved to treat this Chen as an equal and so she spoke to him, not rudely, but familiarly, even with some fellow-feeling.

"So you're the peasant-poet. Well, you certainly dress like one, a peasant I mean; I've no idea how poets dress. But good for you, I say. Why shouldn't a poet be a peasant and a peasant a poet? See you write plainly, though, and not just about flowers either. Come, come inside. My dear Lady will join you in a minute or so."

Miao left her bedroom a little flustered. If Hsi-wei was surprised by the modest house, Jingfei's cheeky greeting, and the absence of a flock of silk-clad crones, Miao was equally taken aback by the poet's appearance. She had been anticipating someone meaner, less dignified, shorter, with either too much hair or too little. But here was a tall, straight-backed man of twenty-one, half-peasant and half-lord.

The two looked at one another and each felt it was a moment outside of time. Such things really can happen.

"I'll bring the tea," mumbled Jingfei and withdrew, amused by the two young people standing stock still like that.

"Thank you for coming," said Miao at length.

"And to you for the honor of being asked to do so," replied Hsi-wei, and he made a bow of the sort he gave his Master and third ministers.

At this moment, Miao took a step toward the couch but the hem of her robe caught on a loose fitting of a chest and she faltered. Hsi-wei leapt forward and caught her as she fell. This little contretemps may explain a passage in the poem known as "Women and Rubies":

Perfection, being cold and lifeless, is suited

Best to precious stones and ice crystals;

While nothing is more fetching than a moment

Of clumsiness in a woman one loves.

Though little was said that evening, both relished every minute. Hsi-wei praised the food; Miao his verses. Miao remarked on how cold the weather was; Hsi-wei that the war would have to wait until Spring. Even Jingfei managed to hold her tongue.

Through the winter, the young people saw one another every other day. They would walk by the frozen river or stroll through the deserted Pavilion of the Five Virtues. Hsi-wei told her about the poor village in which he had spent his boyhood and how, when the call for illiterate boys with fast-growing hair was read out, his parents had sent him off to the capital with a duck to give to the First Minister. He told her about the tests-the running, swimming, keeping quiet under pain, the hair-growing measurements-how the boys had been housed in a stable. He explained his gladness at being chosen, not knowing the risks. She thrilled at his stories of escape, his resourcefulness, how he had hidden among the pigs, how cleverly he had talked his way to freedom when he was taken prisoner.

Hsi-wei felt discontented with himself after speaking of these things to Miao; it was too much like boasting, no matter how he played up his luck and down his courage. And yet, in her presence, boasting was just what he felt like doing. He yearned to tell her how those courtiers who had laughed when he turned down money and land in favor of learning no longer mocked him, how his stern Master, who had grumbled and cursed when Hsi-wei was sent to him for instruction, had come to treat him nearly with respect and exploited his pupil's poems to advertise his own skill.

As for Miao, she was simply infatuated with Hsi-wei. Now it was she who out-talked Jingfei, going on about his stories, his good manners and humility, his sensitivity, repeating his comments on the people at court, his opinions of the war, his accounts of how people lived in the south.

"Enough!" cried the exasperated Jingfei one day. "If you really mean to marry a penniless peasant boy, dear Lady, then do it. But please give me a little peace."

The mention of marriage reminded Miao of Hu Zhi-peng, who still visited once each week and brought presents each time, most recently a little jade Buddha. He had explained that this Buddha was the founder of a religion which had come over the mountains and was spreading throughout the north. "Doesn't he look jolly and wise?" he asked her. "You don't often find the two together."

Hu found out about the time Miao was spending with Hsi-wei but he waited for the right moment to put an end to this rivalry. He considered carefully how best to approach the young peasant. Hu was neither a violent man nor an unjust one; moreover, he sensed that threats, empty or genuine, were likely to achieve the opposite of his aim. He thought the matter over thoroughly, weighing what he had learned of the character of this Hsi-wei, until he had settled on what he should say to him. One afternoon he accosted Hsi-wei as he was leaving his Master' house.

"Chen Hsi-wei, my name is Hu Zhi-peng. I am a merchant and, without boasting, can say a successful one. Perhaps Tian Miao, a young lady in whom we are both interested, has mentioned my name to you?"

Hsi-wei said that she had and always with respect and gratitude.

Hu was relieved; he had anticipated something different, most likely bridling resentment. "That's good," he said. "I'm glad to hear it. Let me speak plainly and to the point. I have offered to make the lady my wife; this would not only assure her security but also her place in decent society. Forgive my bluntness, but, as we both know very well, you can offer her neither." Here Hu took Hsi-wei by the arm and scowled at him, hoping to imply some sort of unpleasant consequence. "Do you understand me?"

Hsi-wei said nothing. He shook off the older man's grasp and, by way of reply, simply nodded and went on his way.


The new year celebrations were well past and winter was drawing to an end. Crocuses broke through the unfrozen earth. As the air grew warmer and softer, the court busied itself with preparations for the year's military operations. Miao and Hsi-wei continued seeing each other; they read old poems aloud and spoke about the Buddha, whose teachings appealed to them both.

With his usual tact and patience, Hu did not pressure Miao for an answer but neither did he allow Miao to forget about his suit. He had an ally in Jingfei who, despite having become fond of the young peasant, made it clear that in her opinion Miao ought not to reject the merchant for the poet. She gave her reasons, too, and at length.

As for Hsi-wei, he had been troubled ever since the conversation with Hu. Though perhaps there had been the faintest hint of a threat, in fact the merchant had appealed to his reason and his love. He did love Tian Miao dearly and the thought of losing her was like being dismembered. And yet more and more the conviction grew in him that he was on the wrong path. The merchant was right to argue that he was in danger of ruining Miao's life. What troubled him nearly as much was that he was going against something in himself. It had to do with his poetry and with his adventures on the road. He did his best to resist his vocation and wanderlust as he did Hu's level-headedness; nevertheless, as the first white and pink blossoms appeared on the fruit trees, his misgivings overwhelmed him. Every day became a torment, especially those he spent with Miao, and the nights were worse. In the end, he decided that the only solution was for him to leave the city. He could not give up Miao and still live near her. The night on which he resolved that he had to leave Miao, his Master, and the life he had lived for four years was terrible. He lay in his basement under the dumpling shop and wept.

Hsi-wei could not look Miao in the face and say he was going away. Feng's cavalry had not frightened him, but for this he lacked the courage. Instead, disgusted by his weakness, he wrote a poem for Tian Miao, the one that has become popularly known as "The Cruelty of Springtime."

Blossoms unfold overnight.

Hills change from ugly brown to

The pale green of Lingnan jade.

The weightless air bears intoxicating

scents of manure and turned soil.

Ducklings waddle behind their mothers,

plop into ponds refreshed by rain.

Horses stamp on the dried-out roads.

Armies begin to march.


I too take to the road in springtime,

indifferent to peril, ineptly sealing up

a heart fissured by departure.

I suppose in springtime all men must

go to war, each in his own way.


Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction. A short novel, Losses, will be published later this year.


Illustration: "How Hsi-wei Became a Vagabond" (2012) by Svetoslav Tatchev. Svetoslav lives in France. His work appeared in Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Magazine Littéraire among others. He is also a contributing art editor at The Montreal Review.


Zublinka Among Women Robert Wexelblatt

( KenArnoldBooks, 2008)

"Loaded with wit, bristling irony, draped in erudition and studded with metaphysics": so wrote The New York Times Book Review about Robert Wexelblatt's work. This warm and witty novel of ideas shows that goodness is possible-and in Zublinka palpable-but that goodness is seldom unalloyed. As Zublinka and we learn in the course of this richly rewarding story, the discovery of truth and one's self is the work of a lifetime. Wisdom is possible and hard won.


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