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THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION


Vlas Doroshevich

THREE CHINESE TALES

Translated by John Dewey

(from Glas 14)

Rewards

People do like to make a lot of noise at court, despite the fact that protocol decrees complete silence. The following incident took place at one time in Beijing.The Emperor Yuan Hozan awoke late one morning, in a bad mood. Summoning his Chief Eunuch, he said: "This morning I have slept too late to hear the reports of my counsellors and issue decrees concerning the government of the country. What is more, I have missed morning prayers, so that now the souls of the ancestors will be displeased and angered and will no doubt visit misfortunes both upon China and myself. And all these disorders in heaven and on earth have come about because there was some animal or other out in the palace grounds all last night, making a noise just outside my window and keeping me awake."
"I wonder if a tiger could have got into the grounds somehow?" said the Chief Eunuch, trembling all over.
But the Emperor replied with a shrug: "You always dream up bugbears and demons where none exist. This was no tiger: the noise it made was much quieter."
"Then perhaps it was a donkey?" exclaimed the Chief Eunuch. "They also make a most disagreeable noise!"
"No," remarked the Emperor after some thought, "It was not the noise a donkey makes. I know what that sounds like. This was much, much quieter. The creature made a noise like this - I noted it well."
And the Emperor demonstrated the sound made by the unknown creature.
"Very well," said the Chief Eunuch. "I shall have all our scholars summoned to the palace immediately. Let them draw upon the sum total of their learning, let them search through books ancient and modern and resolve what manner of creature it was!"
With these words he departed, bowing innumerable times, then calmly returned to his quarters, where he drank tea and lay on his bed. Some three hours later he appeared before the Emperor once more. "Proving themselves equal to their calling, the scholars have solved the riddle," he announced. "That creature which kept you from your sleep, o Son of Heaven, is known to scholars under the name of frog, and is one of the most cunning creatures to be found upon the earth. It lives in the grass, and to avoid capture has deliberately affected minute proportions, extreme speed of movement, and green colouring!"
"Indeed! Under these circumstances it will be very difficult to catch the creature in the grass," said the Emperor. "Nevertheless it is my earnest wish that you should attempt just that. Catch it, destroy it - in effect, do whatever is necessary so that I may sleep, pray and conduct the affairs of state."
"As you can see, o Son of Heaven, the execution of your wish is well-nigh impossible!" exclaimed the Chief Eunuch. "Nevertheless we shall make every effort, drawing upon all the resources of energy and intellect at our disposal, and our love and devotion to yourself will perhaps enable us to fulfil the task with honour!"
"I thank you in anticipation of that!" said the Emperor, touched by these words. "Let it be known to all that I shall make it my business to reward the diligence of each and every one."
Bowing the appointed number of times, the Chief Eunuch made his exit and told the lowest-ranking eunuch: "There is a frog in the palace grounds. Give the command for it to be caught and destroyed!"
The lowest-ranking eunuch passed on the command to the palace Major-Domo, who passed it to the Head Gardener, who passed it to the Superintendant of Roses, who passed it to the Head Waterer. The Head Waterer summoned the labourer Tun Li and told him: "Go and catch a frog!"
Tun Li went out into the palace grounds, caught a frog which was hopping along one of the paths and, holding it by its hind legs, hit its head against a stone. Then he took the frog to the Head Waterer and laid it at his feet. "There you are, sir," he said.
The Head Waterer took the frog to the Superintendant of Roses, who took it to the Head Gardener, who took it to the Major-Domo, who took it to the lowest-ranking eunuch, who took it to the Chief Eunuch and announced: "Here is the frog, caught and destroyed."
"Goodness gracious no!" said the Chief Eunuch. "That would be far too straightforward!" And he had the largest gong sounded to summon together all the palace retinue: huntsmen, guards, soldiers, eunuchs and priests.
A fearful tumult arose.
Looking out of his window, the Emperor saw the Master Huntsman go past and marvelled at his weapons. Clad in armour, the Master Huntsman had as many as ten daggers bristling from his belt. He was wearing two swords, one at his right side and the other at his left in case the first one broke. In one hand he held a spear with red feathers, and in the other a bow fashioned from ebony, its string stretched fearsomely taut. Over his shoulders were slung two quivers filled with arrows. On one of the quivers was written in bold characters: 'Do not touch! Poisoned arrows!' and on the other: `May be touched. Non-poisoned arrows'.
He was followed by the other huntsmen marching in ranks, who proceeded to cordon off the grounds of the palace. There was a huntsman standing with his bow drawn behind every bush.
The guards occupied the palace, taking up positions with weapons drawn by every door and window in case the creature, startled by the hue and cry, should take it into its head to dart into the palace. As a further precaution a detachment of soldiers was drawn up in battle formation in the courtyard.
In the temple the priests offered up prayers to the gods for a successful outcome to the hunt.
The eunuchs comforted the Emperor's tearful wives in the inner chambers and told them stories.
In the midst of all this tumult the Emperor walked up and down, encouraging the various groups of retainers with promises of rewards to come.
So passed the whole day.
And when night fell upon the earth, engulfing the flowers in the palace gardens in darkness so that only the fragrance told of their presence, the air was suddenly rent by a thunderous cry of victory.
The Chief Eunuch came running in to the Emperor, prostrated himself and exclaimed: "The frog has been slain!"
After him came six eunuchs bearing a massive gold platter on which lay a little green frog with a white belly, its head smashed in.
"Most remarkable!" cried the Emperor. "How on earth could they see such a tiny creature in the dark?"
"All thanks to diligent effort," replied the Chief Eunuch, kow-towing before the Emperor. "As you can see, it was no easy task," he continued with a sigh. "Of course, I had overall responsibility for bringing all these people together and deploying them to their various tasks. Even so I cannot in all honesty claim the whole credit for this glorious frog hunt myself. Everyone worked conscientiously - all the palace staff without exception."
The Emperor frowned. "No, not everyone!" he remarked. "This afternoon, as I was going around the palace gardens and various outbuildings to inspect my huntsmen, guards and soldiers, I observed one idle fellow dressed in the clothes of a simple labourer. While everyone else was engaged in hunting the creature, this fellow was lying on his stomach, warming his back in the sun. Find out his name for me immediately!"
The Chief Eunuch ran off to do the Emperor's bidding.
The man in question was none other than Tun Li. After catching the frog and delivering it to the Head Waterer, he had lain down in the sun and remained there for the rest of the day.
He was soon identified, and the Chief Eunuch hurried back to the Emperor to report: "The idler's name is Tun Li!"
"How could he just lie there like a pig wallowing in mud while everyone else was working so hard to catch the frog?" exclaimed the Emperor angrily.
"Because idleness and indolence are second nature to him!" replied the Chief Eunuch with a shrug. "One can expect no more of these common folk. What do they care about anything? Habitual slackers and scrimshankers, who like nothing better than a good lie-down! Anything they do they turn into an excuse for a holiday."
"Very well!" exclaimed the Emperor. "I shall know how to reward each in accordance with his merits."
And he scattered favours about him with a generous hand. The Chief Eunuch was awarded the governorship of the richest province for three years, together with all its revenues.
The other eunuchs each received a golden robe for comforting the emperor's wives during the crisis.
The priests were showered with money for the efficacy of their prayers, and more sacrificial victims were placed at their disposal than they normally received in the course of a whole year.
The Master Huntsman had all his weapons set with precious stones.
All the other huntsmen received gifts of costly weaponry, as did the guards who had protected the palace during the hunt.
Even the scholars, quite unexpectedly for them, were rewarded, some receiving additional tassels for their hats, others the Tunic of Merit, and others still the title of Mandarin.
As for Tun Li, he was ordered to be given fifty strokes on the soles of his feet with bamboo sticks 'for sloth, idleness and inactivity during the hunt for the frog'. This punishment, which he received lying down, was administered by the Head Gardener, while the Chief Eunuch stood by and counted the strokes.
Strange indeed are the ways of the world.
"Often he who is lying down should be standing, while the one standing is he who should be lying down," as the Chinese proverb has it.

 

Rain

The Son of Heaven, the Emperor Li Woa (may his name outlive the universe!) stood at the window in his porcelain palace. He was young and therefore kind-hearted. Surrounded by opulence and splendour as he was, he always had a thought to spare for the poor and unfortunate.
It was raining. The rain fell in steady torrents. The heavens were weeping, prompting trees and flowers too to shed their tears.
His heart pierced with sadness, the Emperor exclaimed, "I pity those who do not even have a hat to wear in the rain!"
And turning to his Chamberlain, he said: "I should like to know how many such wretches there are in my city of Beijing."
"Light of the Sun!" replied Ziong Hiziang, falling on his knees and bowing his head. "Can anything be impossible for the Ruler of Kings? Even before the sun has set, o Father of the Dawn, you shall be told that which it is your pleasure to know!"
The Emperor smiled graciously, and Ziong Hiziang ran as fast as he could to the First Minister, San Qisan.
He arrived quite out of breath and in his haste did not even manage to complete all the salutations due to the First Minister.
"The Joy of the Universe, our most gracious Sovereign, is gravely concerned," he announced, still panting. "He is concerned about people who walk about Beijing in the rain without hats and wants to know by the end of today how many there are!"
"But there are hordes of that riff-raff!" replied San Qisan. "However..."
And he sent for Pai Hiwo, the Governor of Beijing.
"Bad news from court!" he declared when Pai Hiwo bowed his head to the ground as a sign of attention. "The Ruler of our Lives has noticed certain breaches of public order."
"What?" Pai Hiwo cried out in horror. "But what about the well-shaded ornamental gardens which screen the palace from Beijing?"
"I really don't know how it happened," replied San Qisan, "but His Majesty is gravely concerned about ruffians walking around in the rain without hats. He wants to know by the end of the day how many characters of this sort there are in Beijing. See to it!"
A minute later Pai Hiwo was shouting at his underlings: "Fetch that aged cur Huar Ziong here immediately!"
And when, white with fear and trembling, the Commandant of the City Guard threw himself at Pai Hiwo's feet, the mandarin poured a torrent of abuse on his head.
"Scoundrel, wastrel, filthy traitor! Do you want to see us all sawn in half, yourself included?"
"Tell me the cause of your anger," begged Huar Ziong, quaking uncontrollably at the mandarin's feet, "so that I may comprehend the words of comfort addressed to me. Otherwise I fear I shall fail to understand the language of your wisdom!"
"Aged cur, better suited to guarding a herd of swine than the greatest city in the world! The Emperor himself has called attention to the disorder you have allowed to take hold in the city: ruffians roaming the streets without hats to wear, even when it rains! See that you let me know by evening how many of these characters are left in Beijing!"
"Everything shall be done exactly as you command!" replied Huar Ziong, striking the floor three times with his forehead. A moment later he was stamping and shouting at the city guards, who had been summoned by the deafening notes of a gong.
"Scoundrels, half of whom I shall hang, only to roast the rest of you over coals! So this is what you call maintaining order in the city! Allowing ruffians to roam the streets in the rain without hats on! I want everyone wearing not even the simplest of rush hats arrested within the hour1!"
The city guards set about implementing his order, and for the next hour the hunt was on in the streets of Beijing.
"Arrest that man! Catch him!" shouted the guards in hot pursuit of all those without hats.
They dragged them from behind fences, from gateways, from houses, or wherever they had taken refuge like rats chased by a cook intent on using them to make chow mein.
One minute before the hour was up everybody in Beijing without a hat was standing in the courtyard of the city jail.
"How many are there?" asked Huar Ziong.
"Twenty thousand, eight hundred and seventy-one!" replied the guards, bowing down to the ground.
"Executioners!" ordered Huar Ziong.
Half an hour2 later twenty thousand, eight hundred and seventy-one decapitated Chinese lay in the courtyard of the city jail.
And twenty thousand, eight hundred and seventy-one heads stuck on pikes were paraded around the city for the edification of the populace.
Huar Ziong went back to report to Pai Hiwo. Pai Hiwo informed San Qisan. San Qisan told Ziong Hiziang.
By now it was evening. The rain had stopped. A passing breeze brushed the trees, shaking a cascade of diamonds down onto the fragrant flowers sparkling and blazing in the rays of the setting sun. The whole garden was a mass of brilliant colour and fragrance, and Li Woa, the Son of Heaven, stood at the window in his porcelain palace, entranced by this magical picture.
Yet even now, being young and kind-hearted, he did not fail to spare a thought for the unfortunate.
"By the way," he said, turning to Ziong Hiziang, "you were going to find out for me how many people in Beijing do not even have a hat to keep the rain off."
"The Ruler of the Universe's wish has been carried out by his servants!" Ziong Hiziang replied, bowing low.
"Well, how many are there? Be sure to tell me only the truth!"
"In the whole of Beijing there is not a single Chinese without a hat to wear when it rains. I swear that what I say is the absolute truth!"
And Ziong Hiziang raised his hands and bowed his head in affirmation of a sacred oath.
The good Emperor's face was lit by a happy, joyful smile.
"O happy city! O happy land!" he cried. "And how happy I am that under my rule the people enjoy such prosperity!"
Everyone in the palace was happy to see the Emperor so happy.
And San Qisan, Pai Hiwo and Huar Ziong were all awarded the Order of the Golden Dragon for showing such fatherly concern for the needs of the common people.

 

The Emperor's First Outing

Throughout his blessed life the Emperor San Yanki (may he be an example to us all!) had a particular passion for travelling and acquiring new knowledge.
All the same he reigned successfully for 242 moons3 without ever even managing to see Beijing. This was in no way for lack of desire on his part, of course.
Every day the Emperor would announce to his First Plenipotentiary Minister Zhuar Fucian: "Today I shall go out and see Beijing."
The First Minister would kow-tow before the Emperor and hurry off to give the necessary orders.
The palace guard and musicians would appear, palanquins and banners would be assembled, and the mandarins would mount their horses.
The First Minister would report: "Everything has been prepared for the execution of your will, o Son of Heaven!"
And the Emperor would go to take his seat in the palanquin.
At this point, however, something was always bound to happen.
It might be the Chief Astronomer emerging from the throng of courtiers to fall on his face and announce: "Ruler of the Universe, one minute from now the most fearful thunderstorm will break over Beijing, bringing torrential rain and hailstones the size of the swallows' eggs Your Majesty is so fond of. A terrible whirlwind will blind everyone, making it impossible to see. Any palanquin out in the streets at that moment would find itself in a most unenviable position. It would be blown into the air, spun around, swept up to the clouds and then hurled back to earth with such violence that of course anyone in it would not survive for an instant. Today this fearful hurricane will rage over the whole of Beijing, except for your palace and gardens, which the heavens themselves dare not assail. Thus it is written in the stars and recorded in our books, O Joy of the Universe."
Or the Court Historian might step forward, bow down before the Emperor and declare: "Master of the Earth! Permit me to remind you that today happens to be the anniversary of the death of your great ancestor Huar Zingzun, who lived twelve thousand moons ago, and that popular tradition requires you to remain closeted in the palace on this day and, outwardly at least, give yourself up to sorrowing."
Or again it might be the Chief Eunuch who would come running towards the Emperor, fling himself violently to the ground and announce: "Master of the Rivers, Seas and Mountains! A new slave girl has just been brought in, and never before have I witnessed such beauty! She is truly a flower, a freshly picked flower! It will be cause for regret if you delay seeing her even for an instant. Just come and look for yourself!"
So the royal progress through Beijing would be postponed.
When he had reigned auspiciously for 242 moons, however, and the 243rd had begun, the Emperor San Yanki declared: "Enough! This has gone too far! I know who is behind these machinations: that wily fox Zhuar Fucian! But now let him do his worst - I shall see Beijing, and that's that!"
After first paying some servants to ensure their loyalty, he told them: "Strike the great gong used to proclaim the death of emperors. Start wailing and lamenting as loud as you can. Call out: `The Emperor is dead!' Tear your clothes and claw at your faces - you will be paid for all this."
Then he lay down on a high couch which the servants had prepared to his instructions.
The servants did as he had bidden. They beat the great gong and announced to the courtiers who, their faces deathly pale, came running at the sound: "The Light of the Sun has gone out; the Joy of the Universe is transformed to grief: the Fount of Wisdom, our Emperor, was dining, when suddenly, in the middle of his meal, he passed away!"
The palace filled with lamentation and intrigue.
The First Plenipotentiary Minister grovelled at the feet of San Yanki's successor, saying: "Son of Heaven, I will initiate you in all the complexities of governing the country. Put your trust in me!"
Tradition dictated that the first ceremony to be performed was the emptying of the 'basket of wishes' next to the Emperor's throne.
In fact there was only one slip of paper in it, and on this the deceased Emperor had recorded a single wish: "I desire to be buried on the same couch I shall be found lying on in the palace. Let no-one dare to touch my body or even come near."
The wish of a deceased emperor being considered sacred, his instructions were followed.
He was carried to the imperial cemetery, borne aloft above the crowds on the same couch he had lain on in the palace. It was a magnificent, glittering procession, with everyone dressed in white.
The streets of Beijing were thronged with people who had gathered to see an emperor, even if it was a dead one, in the flesh.
The priests chanted, the courtiers sobbed, the ordinary folk made their comments; while high above them all the Emperor lay on his couch and, peeping through one half-open eye, saw Beijing.
"Goodness, what pigs the Chinese are!" he thought as he lay there, observing the city. "How can they live under those roofs with so many holes in them? Even then it wouldn't matter so much if they had warm clothing on in case it rains, yet they go about in rags and tatters. But listen: what is it they are shouting?"
Having seen as much as he wanted for the moment, he listened instead.
The citizens of Beijing were calling out: "Yah! You palace fox, Zhuar Fucian! Now there's an end to your robbery and pillaging! When the new Emperor cuts your head off, you'll have to go into the next life without it! And when it is put on display for public vilification, we shall spit on it! Never again shall you steal the clothes off our backs!"
"Aha! So that explains their appearance!" the Emperor thought to himself. "Just you wait, you villain!"
By this time the procession had reached the imperial cemetery. The people were sent away, leaving only the courtiers to stand at the graveside.
Roaring with laughter, the Emperor raised himself on his couch.
"Ha, ha, ha! Wasn't that an excellent joke I played on you all? Well, Zhuar Fucian, was there no hurricane during my tour of Beijing?"
All the courtiers had turned pale, but palest of all was Zhuar Fucian; they were all trembling, yet it was Zhuar Fucian who trembled the most.
"What do you wish to do now?" he asked the Emperor.
"First of all," replied San Yanki, "to return to the palace and reclaim my throne. After that we shall see."
Zhuar Fucian looked around helplessly at the other courtiers.
The Court Historian stepped forward. "That is out of the question!" he exclaimed. "We must live in accordance with the traditions of our ancestors. Yet there is no precedent in history for an emperor dying and coming back to life again. It is quite unheard of. It could unleash the most fearful disasters and popular unrest on a vast scale. Quite frankly, it could mean the end of China itself!"
The First Master of Ceremonies also spoke up. "Quite out of the question!" he exclaimed. "Everything is governed by protocol, yet this is in complete breach of all protocol. What has been done cannot be undone: the funeral has taken place, and most importantly, the basket of wishes has been opened, which according to protocol may be done only after the death of an emperor. Now it has been opened, quite clearly you are dead. In any case there is no form of protocol for the return of an emperor from the cemetery to his throne. And who will observe the sacred laws in our country if we ourselves are the first to set protocol aside? That really could spell the end for China!"
"Indeed, the end of China, no less!" also spoke up the Chief Priest. "It is contrary to all the holy laws of our heavenly religion. These state that when an emperor dies he becomes a god. However, a god cannot be an emperor. The emperor must be mortal: he must govern the country, fearing the wrath of heaven. But what would a god be afraid of? What assurance could there be that he would govern justly? This could lead to general discontent and anarchy. The religious laws have been violated! The end is in sight for China!"
With a heavy heart the Emperor looked around at his courtiers.
"Very well!" he said. "If the country really is faced with such disaster, there is nothing for it. Bury me. I cannot wish for the end of China."
"It was ill-advised to have undertaken this trip, o Joy of the Universe! I always maintained it would bring you misfortune!" said Zhuar Fucian as he threw in the first shovelful of earth.
Impressed by this example of Zhuar Fucian's perspicacity, San Yanki's successor kept him on as his First Minister and granted him even more powers.
As a first step Zhuar Fucian had the Court Historian, First Master of Ceremonies and Chief Priest beheaded. As he said himself, they were all far too wily for their own good.

_______________________________

1 A Chinese half hour is twenty minutes.
2 A Chinese hour is forty minutes.
3 20 years and 2 months.