Hsi-Wei and the Magistrate
Note: In the course of their conversations, Minister Fang Xuan-ling told Chen Hsi-wei that his poem, popularly known as “Good to Protect the Good,” was presumed to have been written for children, to inculcate virtue. Hsi-wei replied that he was pleased children liked his verses, even though they were not written for children. Fang then asked Hsi-wei to explain the origin of the poem and its puzzling title.
The village of Heping Linguy lay in Hebei province. During Hsi-wei’s time about fifty families lived there, on good soil watered by the River Huang. This land was adjacent to the Shan family estate which extended over the ten thousand mu to which the great families were restricted by the Equal Field System. Emperor Xiaowen had introduced this popular and effective plan more than two centuries earlier and subsequent rulers wisely retained it. They had to do so against continuous efforts by the aristocracy who employed bribery, influence, legal actions and illegal seizures to destroy it. The System allotted land under a fixed formula: so many mu for able-bodied men, so many for women, so many per ox. Though the land was held and worked by the peasants it belonged to the Emperor. After death or advanced age made land available, the government would reassign it. There were exceptions for some mu to be retained within a family, especially those requiring development and tending, such as fruit orchards and mulberry plantations. The peasants paid their taxes in kind directly to the central government, ensuring the state a reliable source of income collected on a wide base. While great families owned their land and it was exempt from taxes, the size of their holdings was limited and therefore their power. This system fortified the peasants’ loyalty to the Emperor; for they understood that, if he did not maintain this system, they would quickly be reduced to the condition of tenant farmers, serfs under the heels of landlords.
Hsi-wei’s travels brought him to Heping Linguy village at the height of summer. He took note of the well-tended cottages and admirable fields, green with many sorts of crops. Here he found a ready market for his straw sandals and people eager to talk. Had he arrived a year earlier, the people would have been more gratified by his praise for their village and their work; like peasants everywhere, they were proud of their village and of their success. However, the people of Heping Linguy were in a foul temper. The young were angry, the middle-aged indignant, and the old fearful.
Injustice makes the timid fall silent, the proud protest.
“Your village is thriving,” said Hsi-wei after taking orders from his first two customers, both strong young men. “It’s one of the finest I’ve seen in Hebei.”
“Yet it’s growing smaller,” said one bitterly.
“And may be swallowed up altogether,” added the other.
“Why is that?” asked Hsi-wei.
“Six months ago, Chu was killed when some roof tiles, loosened by a storm, fell on his head. The same week a wasting disease took old Fung. As it happens, their eighty mu abut the Shans’ land.”
On hearing this name, a crowd began to gather. They wanted to vent their feelings and make sure the story was related correctly.
“A haughty family, wealthy and powerful. One of them got himself appointed a third minister in Daxing.” The young man pointed east. “Their land lies over there, right up to the horizon.”
The crowd couldn’t hold themselves back.
“A greedy bunch.”
“They’ve been casting a jealous eye on our land for generations.”
“And they’ll stop at nothing.”
A woman of about thirty, heavy and dignified, quieted everyone by holding up her hand and grunting loudly. “Don’t all speak at once. I’ll tell the stranger what happened. Who knows? Perhaps he can do something.”
“What? A sandal-maker?”
She ignored this scoffing.
“Please,” said Hsi-wei, who was feeling overwhelmed and bewildered. “I would like to hear the story.”
“Well then, here’s the truth of it,” declared the woman. “You’ve heard about Chu and Fung dying the same week. Well, their land had to be reassigned. But before that could happen the Shans seized it and claimed it as their own. When we objected, they posted armed men.”
“Those bloody-minded retainers of theirs.”
The woman turned from Hsi-wei to those who had spoken up. “Be quiet,” she said.
“Well then, get on with it, Hualing.”
“Gladly,” the woman said and turned back to Hsi-wei. “So we sent young Li and his friend Ping off to the capital, to Shiyi, to appeal to the governor himself. After overcoming many difficulties, they managed to get an audience with a deputy. Li said he was a good man and Ping thought he seemed suspicious of the Shans. The deputy promised the boys to take the matter up with the governor. And the deputy was as good as his word. Ten days later a magistrate arrived from Shiyi to sort things out.”
“Unlucky job for him.”
Hualing raised a hand then went on. “This magistrate was very young, hardly older than Lin and Ping. He must have just passed his examination when the governor sent him here on his first mission. He made a good impression. Jun Ti-an was an upright and respectful man. He carried himself with more dignity than his years would suggest.”
Hsi-wei said it was clear that something bad had happened.
“You’re right, sandal-maker. Something very bad.”
“I regret to hear it.”
“Of course when he arrived the Shans invited him at once to stay in their villa but he refused. He lodged with Mrs. Xiong who sometimes rents out rooms to travelers. She’s a good cook too. Perhaps you’ll stay with her yourself?”
“Enough drumming up business for your crony,” somebody complained.
The woman frowned. “You’ll be comfortable there,” she whispered to Hsi-wei.
“I’m sure,” he said with a smile.
“Go on, Hualing. Just tell him,” somebody said.
“Very well. A place was set up for the hearing right here in the square, a little stage with a chair for the magistrate. He invited us to speak first. So we told him for how many generations the land had been worked by us, the names of all the families who had worked it, and what crops they produced. We gave him the names of two young men who could marry if the land were assigned to them. We reminded him that it was the government’s duty to protect the peasants and to divide the land among us.”
“Yes, among us!”
“As for the Shans, they came in numbers, and all dressed up as if it were the Emperor’s birthday. None of them deigned to speak. Instead, they produced a scholar in a yellow robe and one of those high hats they wear. Skinny fellow with a long nose. This scholar had a lot to say but the long and the short of it was the false claim that the land—and more besides—had belonged to the Shan family from before the time of Emperor Gao Heng.”
“And more besides!”
“Magistrate Jun let the fellow talk, then politely observed that, according to the records, the Shan family already controlled their allotted ten thousand mu of untaxed land. At that the scholar, knowing the law, ought to have blushed, but he didn’t. Not a bit of it. Instead he brazenly claimed the land had been stolen from the Shans—stolen by us, mind you—and that the loyal and generous Shan family had suffered the injustice long enough.”
“And by us!”
“Magistrate Jun listened patiently to this nonsense. When the scholar finally finished, he asked us if what the Shans’ spokesman said was true. Had the land been wrongly taken? Any of it? Of course we told him it was all a pack of lies. Then the young magistrate said he would take an hour to eat and consider his decision.”
Here a market woman stepped forward. “He bought four dumplings from me,” she said. “And, when I turned to fetch them, the Shans thought I couldn’t see. But I watched them out of the corner of my eye and I could tell what was up. One of them tried to bribe the young magistrate. He pushed back his sleeve like this and opened his palm and whispered in the young man’s ear.”
“Of course they tried to bribe him.”
“And did he take the bribe?” Hsi-wei asked hesitantly.
The dumpling seller stamped her foot. “The young magistrate? Not him!”
Hualing took up the story. “We all gathered in the afternoon to hear the magistrate’s decision. He wasn’t longwinded, like that lying scholar. He said the land would be allocated among us, in accord with the law.”
“Then it ended well?” said Hsi-wei hopefully.
“No, sir. Magistrate Jun went on to say that he would be leaving for the capital in the morning and when he arrived would see at once that the proper papers were prepared and recorded. But then he did something unwise. He added that he would also be making a report on the conduct of the Shans.”
Hsi-wei suspected what was coming. “Did he reach Shiyi?”
“He did not. The honest magistrate Jun Ti-an was murdered on the road. The Shans claimed to have found his body—stripped naked by robbers, that’s what they said.”
“The Shans are the only robbers here!”
“The government was informed?” asked Hsi-wei.
“Certainly. But you remember that third minister the Shans have in Daxing? He must have fixed things. The governor has issued an edict. He declared that Magistrate Jun had unfortunately been killed by unknown robbers and that the land he had been sent to here to dispose of would be added to the Shans’ estate.”
Hsi-wei understood that the peasants of Heping Linguy did not rehearse this sad tale to satisfy the curiosity of a traveling sandal-maker but to vent their collective exasperation, to voice their anger and grief.
Not even Hualing could have taken seriously the notion that a vagabond like him would be able to do anything about the injustice. Yet they were wrong. Hsi-wei wrote a poem and enclosed a copy in a letter which he sent to an admirer in the capital city. It is impossible to be certain that Hsi-wei’s letter and poem were brought to the attention of the court in Daxing; however, the record shows that Third Minister Shan was relieved of his position, the eldest Shan son exiled, and the size of the Shan family estate in Hebei reduced by five thousand mu.
Though it is now considered simply an instructive children’s poem and called “Good to Protect the Good,” the title given the poem by Hsi-wei is “In Praise of Magistrate Jun Ti-an.”
The children were let into the orchard.
Fa quickly stuffed his sack with apples.
Though his stomach was full he wanted more.
Young Guo picked only two apples.
Then he saw Ai, who was too little
to climb trees. She poked among
the fallen apples but all were
rotten or thick with stinging wasps.
Guo gave Ai one of his apples
and they enjoyed them together.
It is sweet to share what is sweet.
In Chingling, schoolboys, fed up
With being chided for their laziness,
Tied their master up and stuck him in a cart.
They called him bad names, pointed, laughed.
In mocking him they made fools of themselves.
Just then four monks happened by.
While one gently freed the sage the
Others beat some sense into his pupils.
It is wise to defend what is wise.
Should the fields be neglected weeds
Will seize the entire plot for themselves,
Strangling the young shoots. Though weeds
Never lack for land yet they are voracious.
When they invade good soil it’s
Best to tear them up by the root.
It is good to protect the good.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Poet, Dancer, Tree
The poet aches just like the dancer’s toe.
Who knows of that broad gnarled beech
the agonies of its growth, what blisters,
what strained heavings through dirt, towards sky?
All beauty’s born of pain. Nothing strides
into the grace of form without labor.
And still, when words and limbs are tightly tuned,
who remarks the ground over which they glide?
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg’s Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.