Allison Scarpulla

Hsi-Wei’s Justice

by Robert Wexelblatt

Though Emperor Wen had reunited the Northern and Southern Kingdoms and brought an end to years of ruinous war, even he could do nothing to improve the weather.

That April the province of Hotung was muddy and much of it flooded. People huddled inside waiting for the sun to come out, but storm followed storm so that planting was delayed. It was during one of these cloudbursts that Chen Hsi-wei trudged into the village of Kuyuan just after dark.  

The previous week he had been in the provincial capital of Loyang. During almost four years on the road he had kept to the countryside, living among the peasants, reminding himself daily that, his education, time at court, and poems notwithstanding, a peasant is what he was too. To support himself he made straw sandals and, along the way, wrote his poems.

In Loyang Hsi-wei learned something that surprised him and about which he felt ambivalent. He discovered that his name was known, and not as it had been in the capital, as that of an upstart who got himself an education and had the audacity to compose verses.  

On arriving in Loyang, Hsi-wei had gone into a ramshackle tavern incongruously calling itself The Inn of Divine Pleasures where he hoped to find a place to sleep. While he waited for the innkeeper, a large, boisterous man dressed in a formal robe, burst in, a regular to judge by the way he was greeted by the other customers. He turned out to be a third minister who liked slumming to get away from both work and home. He noticed the young stranger sitting patiently in the corner straightaway.

“Ho!  I see we have a traveler,” he said, looking Hsi-wei up and down, “and by the look of him he rides the two-legged horse.” The man pointed to a low stool. “Bring that over here, young fellow. I’ll buy you some wine and you can tell me all about where you’ve been.”

Hsi-wei moved the stool next to the man and considered his appearance at closer range. He looked like those old women whose faces turn round and whose skin stretches tighter as they age. It was a genial countenance, though the small eyes were shrewd. The man emptied his cup as quickly as a bargeman and introduced himself as Third Minister Kwan.

“The country around here’s plagued with brigands and robbers,” said Kwan. “Happen to come across any of them? First Minister would be obliged for any useful information.”

Hsi-wei said he had been fortunate in that respect, or perhaps he was merely too poor to be of interest to robbers.

“Lucky indeed,” said Kwan and slapped Hsi-wei on the back. “You wouldn’t be one yourself, would you?” Then he laughed, so Hsi-wei did as well.

“I’ve told you my name.  What’s yours?”

“Chen Hsi-wei.”

“What?  Chen Hsi-wei?”


“Well, there’s a coincidence. Do you know you’ve got the same name as a poet everybody’s been talking about? Don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of a poem called ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan’?”

Hsi-wei was astounded.  “You know my poem?”


Nothing would do but that Hsi-wei should be a guest at Kwan’s villa and that the author of “Yellow Moon” be presented to the First Minister the next morning.

The First Minister appeared to be quite thrilled. It wasn’t that he himself was crazy about poetry, he explained, but his wife was an aficionado and was quite taken with those verses of the peasant-poet that had made their way from the capital into Hotung.

“She likes ‘Yellow Moon’ but I prefer ‘My Skull.’ More adventures, more manly.”

So Hsi-wei had enjoyed two days and two nights of luxury and adulation in Loyang. On the second night a banquet was given by the First Minister so that his wife could show the poet off to the richest and most important people in the town. Hsi-wei was reminded of those dinners he had endured in the capital after his teacher Shen Kuo began to boast of having turned a peasant into a poet and circulated his early efforts. Still, there was a difference. In Loyang there was no condescension or at least not much, and sharper questions about his poems. Nevertheless, just because everything was so pleasant and his bed was so soft and his clothes were dry, the food so toothsome and the compliments so flattering, Hsi-wei itched to get back on the road and into the countryside, sodden as it was. I suppose, he said to himself with amusement, I’m not comfortable being comfortable.

“At least wait until these terrible rains end,” said Kwan when he announced his intention of leaving.

“Yes, do stay a little longer,” begged his wife.

But with many bows and fulsome thanks, Hsi-wei took his leave. On departing he gave the Kwans two pairs of straw sandals and a copy of “Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan” in his own hand.


Hsi-wei knew nothing of Kuyuan or even that Kuyuan was the place he’d stumbled into. He was unaware that it was the chief town of the district with five taverns, two inns, as well as several elegant villas. In the murk and rain, the town appeared to him a hamlet that was as small and dark as the inside of a child’s fist. In fact, he had fetched up not in the town proper but a farmstead on its outskirts. He was weary, wet through and, seeing a light inside the low dwelling, decided to try his luck.  

The man who answered his knock was about Hsi-wei’s own age, closer to thirty than twenty, sturdy and smiling.

The poet asked his usual questions. “Would you have any space for me? A corner will do, or if you have perhaps a stable?” Recalling the coin purse the First Minister had pressed on him in Loyang, he added, “I can pay.”

“Come in, come in.  It’s a wet night,” said the peasant with an easy courtesy that Hsi-wei rarely encountered. “We’re just sitting down to eat. We’d be honored if you’d consent to join us,” and he took a step back to make way for his dripping guest and his soaking pack.

Hsi-wei bowed. “Many thanks. My name is Chen Hsi-wei.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Chen. I’m Shin Liang.” The peasant bowed slightly then nodded his head toward a young woman by the hearth. “My wife, Mingmei, and our son, Tung,” he said with a chuckle.

Mingmei put her hand to her mouth. She laughed too, and her laugh sounded like a silver bell. Then she touched her hand to her stomach and said, “It could be our daughter Bao.” Bowing to Hsi-wei, she said, “Off with those wet things, Mr. Chen.  Liang—don’t you have some spare clothing for our guest?”

“Yes, yes. Of course, of course.”

The meal of rice and vegetables was hot and well seasoned. It tasted good to Hsi-wei who was thinking that he felt more at home with the Shins, who had no idea who he was, than he had with the Kwans, who did. Yet this was hardly surprising. Though writing poems exhilarated Hsi-wei, it was always a relief when the peasant put aside the poet.

“Are you on your way to visit relatives?” asked Mingmei courteously.

“Alas, no.”            

“Business then?” said Liang.

“Not that either.”

The Shins exchanged a puzzled glance.

Hsi-wei smiled. “There’s no mystery. I’m simply traveling.”

“Not going anywhere?”

“Maybe everywhere.”

“But it’s not safe,” said Mingmei seriously.

“That’s true,” added her husband. “Only last week Fen was attacked on the road from Loyang.”

“Then I’m a lucky man. I’ve just come the same way.”

The Shins asked about the city, which they had never visited. Perhaps they really were curious, but Hsi-wei felt they were only being polite.

“Loyang’s a fine town. The main streets have stone paving and there are many splendid villas, too. But there are also rough, rundown neighborhoods and these take up most of the town. It’s the same as elsewhere—the poor outnumber the rich.”

“That’s so,” sighed Liang.

“The rich are powerful and not always fair,” said Mingmei with some heat.

“Look,” said Hsi-wei, fishing the coin purse from his damp pack. He had already decided to give them all his money. “I can see you’re troubled. Your generosity is obvious but, as I said, I insist on paying. Perhaps this will help.”

“No, no,” said Liang, refusing the purse.

“Then put the money aside. For Tung. . . or Bao.”

“Money isn’t our problem, Mr. Chen,” said Mingmei, looking at the floor. “At least not yet.”

“Ah, so there is a problem.”

“Nothing to worry our honored guest.”

“Too late for that,” said Hsi-wei. “Please tell me.”

Liang explained. “The land here is good and this house is solid. We rent from Assessor Lai, the most important man in Kuyuan.”

“In the whole district,” added Mingmei.

“The rent is a little high but in the four years we’ve been here we’ve never been late in paying.”

“Assessor Lai himself has twice visited,” said Mingmei with some pride, “and had nothing but praise for how we’ve cared for his property. We’ve even made improvements.”

“We’ve extended the house and given the shed a new roof,” said Liang. “But,” he continued, “a week ago one of the Assessor’s servants showed up with a message from his master. He said we’re to be out of here by the end of the month.”            

“But why?”

Mingmei answered. “Everybody knows it’s because the wife of Assessor Lai has nagged him into giving our place to her useless nephew. That’s the long and the short of it.”

Liang wanted to be fair. “I don’t think Assessor Lai is a bad man. Only he is sometimes ruled by his wife.” He smiled at Mingmei, to show he did not mean to disparage the influence of all wives, just one.

Hsi-wei noted that Mingmei’s tone was bitter while Liang sounded defeated. “This is most unfortunate,” he said. “It isn’t right. I’d like to think about it a little. If you’ll allow me to stay a day or two, tomorrow I’ll buy some straw and make sandals; I can think well while I work. Perhaps I can come up with something to help.”

The Shins were too courteous to point out that an itinerant maker of straw sandals was unlikely to be able to resolve their difficulty with the Assessor. Instead, they made up a bed for Hsi-wei and told him he was welcome to stay as long as he liked.  

“Until the end of the month anyway,” Mingmei added, anxiously caressing her stomach.


The next morning’s weather was gloriously fair. Hsi-wei followed his usual procedure; he walked into the center of town and set up to take orders for straw sandals. Once he knew how much would be needed, he would buy straw, always plentiful and cheap. What was not customary was that he should proclaim the sale not only of sandals but of poems. The peasants in the market square found this funny. They certainly knew what poems were—indeed, no one could recite verses from memory with more feeling than a peasant—but they were, of course, illiterate. For them, poetry was an oral art; the poems they knew they had learned by heart as children.  

Hsi-wei, normally shy, soft-spoken, and secretive about his writing, shouted out: New straw sandals!  New poems! Fresh footwear and verses! All orders quickly filled! People gathered around, some to order sandals, as their old ones had been ruined by all the rain but more to make fun of the cobbler who was trying to sell them verses.

“Do these poems cost  more or less than the paper they’re written on?”

“Chiang here’s too embarrassed to ask, but he wants to know if you’ve got any poems that cure sciatica and impotence.”

Hsi-wei played along. A scene was what he was after and, before long, he got what he wanted. Two young men in formal robes were attracted by the crowd and the noisy laughter. They pushed their way to the front and demanded to know what was going on.

“This fellow’s offering us two buckets, only one of which has handles,” said one droll peasant.

“How’s that?” asked one of the officials.

Another explained. “He’s selling sandals, which can use, and poems, which we can’t.”


“Yes, sir. And he’s a sandal-maker.”

The two officials stepped right up to Hsi-wei.

“You’ve got books of poems?”

“No, sir,” said Hsi-wei. “Only sheets of paper. The poems written on them are my own.”

“Let’s have a look at one.”

Hsi-wei, thinking of his recent experience in Loyang, handed the official a copy of “Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan.”

The man began to read:

Weishan lies cool and still as a forgotten bowl of tea,

the moon immobile as a yellow disk embroidered

on a gown of black silk heavy with pearls. . .  

The man laughed and turned to his companion. “But this is ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan’!”

“Yes, sir,” said Hsi-wei.

The pair of officials exchanged a few words then turned to Hsi-wei. “Are you claiming to be Chen Hsi-wei?”

“Yes, sir. I am Chen Hsi-wei.”

One of the men threw Hsi-wei a couple of coins and went off with the poem.

Within an hour they were back with an imposing middle-aged man in a yellow silk robe and high black hat. Everybody made way for him.

“I am Assessor Lai,” the man announced to Hsi-wei, who made a respectful bow. He considered asking the grandee if he would care to order a pair of straw sandals then thought better of it. This was no time for jokes or to give offense.

“A great honor, Assessor Lai.”  

“Can you prove you’re the poet Chen Hsi-wei?”

“I don’t suppose it would be easy to do, sir. You might send for the First Minister in Loyang. I was his guest at dinner last week.”

“The First Minister?”

“Or Third Minister Kwan. I had the honor of spending two nights at his villa.”

The Assessor seemed nonplussed. “Describe them,” he demanded.

This Hsi-wei did in detail, and, for good measure, their villas, and then their wives as well.

“Your poems are becoming well known, Chen. People are talking about them. If what I’ve heard is true, you performed a service to the state and the reward was an education. They say you lived for some years in the capital.”

“Yes, all that’s true.”

“So why are you traveling around making straw sandals?”

“Ah, how can I explain? Someone of your station, sir, is justly considered an educated man. I, on the other hand, will never be more than a peasant with an education.”  

It was really this clever reply that convinced Assessor Lai that Hsi-wei was truly who he was. I can hardly do less than the First Minister in Loyang, he thought, and insisted that Hsi-wei be his guest during his stay in Kuyuan.

“I’m overwhelmed by your kindness, sir, but I already have comfortable lodgings for my brief sojourn.”

“Very well. But you must come to dinner. I insist. The gentry will be curious; they’ll want to meet you.  My wife in particular.”

Hsi-wei appeared to have compunctions. He pinched the sleeve of his jerkin. “I’m afraid I lack proper attire.”

Assessor Lai waved off this objection. “Suitable clothing will be provided.” He drew a servant to him. “I have pressing business now. Just tell this fellow where to deliver your robe. He will bring it and conduct you to my residence—let’s say at sundown. Is that agreeable, Chen?”

Hsi-wei bowed, as if giving in reluctantly.


There were eight guests at the banquet in addition to Hsi-wei. Assessor Lai’s wife, Pang, quickly found a way to inform him that she was a daughter of the Suo family. Even allowing for how the Shins’ story might have prejudiced him, Hsi-wei found the woman unprepossessing. He had seen her like in the capital, women of the Hundred Families who insisted on two things:  being the center of attention and having their own way. They typically overestimated the worth of a family name and underestimated actual achievement. Hsi-wei guessed that, in her view, Mrs. Lai outranked her husband.

Lai Pang looked at him dubiously but not, he sensed, because she questioned his identity.  Rather it was because she was torn between entertaining what passed in Kuyuan for a luminary and the exasperating fact that this celebrity was a peasant.

“Mr. Chen,” she said, “welcome to our home. I have invited a few of the most distinguished members of our little community. They would like to meet you. I hope you don’t mind?”

Hsi-wei bowed low, ill-at-ease in the stiff, too-large silk robe. He tried to appear as obsequious as Mrs. Lai doubtless expected him to be. “A great honor,” he mumbled.

At dinner he was seated between the Lais. People asked for details of his dangerous trip to the South during the wars, made famous by his poem on the subject, when he had carried the important message to General Fu inscribed on his scalp.

“Is the message still there?” one woman wished to know.

“I suppose it is, My Lady,” replied Hsi-wei. “However, you should have to shave off my hair to be entirely certain.”

This elicited general amusement.

“How did you come to write your first poem?” asked Mrs. Lai less from curiosity than to demonstrate her superiority by posing a serious question.

“That is no easy matter to explain,” said Hsi-wei to his hostess. “Late one night I was doing the copying my master assigned me to improve my wretched calligraphy. I had to write out one of the Eulogies of Shang from the Shih Ching. When I finished the piece I found myself still writing, writing something new, almost as if I had become one of the ancients. It was a very peculiar feeling.”

“Do you find writing poetry difficult?” asked Assessor Lai. “I could never manage it myself.”

“Sir, on my travels I encounter many people. One day, I met a skilled carpenter, a man much admired for his tables, and I asked him the same question. ‘Is it difficult for you to make your tables?’ The carpenter reflected for a moment then answered that he would be pleased if people said of his work that it was easy for him but, at the same time, that it was terribly difficult.”

After a moment of bewilderment, the Assessor laughed. Then everybody else did the same.

A carefully made-up woman of a certain age with lively eyes, one not concerned to appear serious nor particularly interested in poetry, asked just the question Hsi-wei had been anticipating.

“Mr. Chen, I understand you visited with the First Minister in Loyang last week.”

“That is so, my lady.”

“Poetry is well enough, but I wonder: did you hear any good stories in the capital?”


“You know. What people there are talking about.”

Assessor Lai drew smiles from his guests when he leaned toward Hsi-wei and said in a loud whisper, She means gossip.

“Well, as a matter of fact, there was a story. People at the First Minister’s banquet had a lot to say about it, too. Apparently, it’s the talk of the Court, a scandal.”

At the word scandal, everybody came to attention the way students do when the master says for example.

“A scandal?”

“I suppose so.  It has to do with the Duke of Shan, a noble from far in the South, and his wife.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Oh, do tell us the story.”

“Yes, what happened?”

The table fell silent, expectant, already pleased. Hsi-wei paused, then began the story.

“The Duke of Shan had a retainer, Quon Ju-yi, who was married to a beautiful woman named Niu. This Quon was universally respected as a brave and loyal warrior, scrupulously honest, and learned beyond his station—in short, an excellent man. By his merits, he rose in the Duke’s service until he was put in charge of the cavalry—the men and their pay, the horses and their provender, all their equipment, plus the maintenance of the barracks and stables. Quon carried out his duties punctiliously and the Duke was well pleased with him.”

“And the scandal?”

“Be patient. Didn’t he say Quon’s wife was beautiful?”

“It seems the Duke’s chief wife, whose family traced themselves all the way back to the Sung dynasty, had a nephew. This nephew was a useless fellow given to dissipations of all sorts. He had fallen into debt because of his free spending and gambling. The Duke’s wife determined that her nephew should have Quon’s job. Her husband, who knew nothing of this nephew’s character, nevertheless resisted, arguing that it would be unjust to remove the worthy Quon, even for a relative. But his wife persisted, ceaselessly nagging the Duke, pointing out the superiority of her family to his, reminding him of the size of her dowry, and bursting into tears. Finally she accused him of carrying on a liaison with Quon’s young wife, Niu. The Duke protested that this was not true, but his wife said she would believe him only if he sent Quon away and replaced him with her nephew, whose invented virtues she praised to the skies. In the end, to restore peace to his household, the Duke gave in and did as his wife insisted. He sent Quon away and replaced him with the nephew.”

“That was unwise,” said one of the men judiciously.

“I’ll bet his wife was jealous of that good-looking Niu,” one of the ladies commented with relish.

Hsi-we resumed. “Perhaps you can guess what happened next. Not only did the nephew make a mess of his duties, but he embezzled as well. He stole from the soldiers’ pay, sold the horses’ fodder and even some of the horses, and he failed to maintain the stables and barracks. He then bribed the Duke’s accountants to keep it all from their Master. In the end, of course, everything came out. The Duke was furious. He banished the nephew and put his first wife into the apartment of his lowest concubine whom then he married and put in her place.”

Hsi-wei could feel Lai Pang stiffening as he told this tale; her body seemed to give off heat. From the corner of his eye, he saw his host’s hands clench into fists. The rest of the company was delighted with his story and discussed it with gusto for nearly an hour after which the party broke up.

As he took his leave, Assessor Lai and his wife looked at Hsi-wei with uncertain frowns which he affected not to notice. After many profound bows accompanied by expressions of gratitude and admiration for the meal, the house, and the distinguished company, he promised to return the silk robe first thing in the morning.

“One thing, Mr. Chen,” said the Assessor.

“Yes, sir?”

“Where is it that you’re staying?”

“I have the honor to be accommodated by a most worthy family. Perhaps you know them? The Shins?”



Early the next morning, Hsi-wei made his way to the Assessor’s residence. The door was answered by the same servant who had guided him the previous evening. He said that his master Lai Zhong was already out and his mistress not yet up and dressed. Hsi-wei handed over the robe, neatly folded, brushed, and pressed by Mrs. Shin, and also a small bundle wrapped in burlap.

“I would be obliged if you could see that your Master receives this package.”

“Certainly, sir.”

The bundle contained two pairs of straw sandals and two sheets of paper. On one he had written a new poem; the other was a note to the Assessor and his wife.

Honored Sir and Madam,

I do not often have cause to regret my poverty but today is one of those occasions. There is little I can give you in recompense for your great kindness to me and what I have to offer is poor indeed: merely these two pairs of sandals and a poem. The sandals I made yesterday afternoon, the poem late last night. I beg you to accept these unworthy gifts with my thanks. I shall be leaving Kuyuan at sunrise and will always cherish the memory of your generous hospitality.                  

Chen Hsi-wei

The remainder of the day Hsi-wei spent completing the last three pairs of sandals and, with the aid of a local boy, delivering all the orders he had received. So, he was not at the Shins when Assessor Lai came in person to apologize and to withdraw his eviction order.

The poem Hsi-wei wrote for Lai Zhong and his wife Pang is the one that has become known as “Justice”:


Lord Zhang Siyu paced grumpily until

his second wife set things right with

no more than a small adjustment to his sash.

Meiling waited until her brother got up

to pee then moved her toy duck

to the right side of her yellow pillow.

Wu’s mother-in-law looked at what her son’s

new wife had done: nothing in its proper place.

Uncomplaining, she put all the pots to rights.

The world’s a wavering rope-walker whose

apparent stability is really the ceaseless

setting right of countless imbalances.


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