When Fang Feng Sheng saw Zhi Chun in her room, it finally dawned on her why Fan Jin Chuan acted so oddly on their way back.
However, she merely shrugged it off and assumed he would mull over it for days. Contrary to her expectations, at dawn the next day, Fan Jin Chuan scouted her to patrol the tax collection yielded from the autumn harvest. The county yamen was short of manpower, so he dragged Fang Feng Sheng along with him.
Feng Sheng didn’t refuse.
Fan Jin Chuan took Xiao Qi, while Feng Sheng had Uncle Yu, and with two other yamen runners, the six of them rolled out of the county yamen.
The waterways in Taizhou were densely populated. They first climbed on a boat. They would then board a carriage once they reached the area.
Nestled in the boat, they marveled at the salt ships weaving about. From time to time, ships from the Military Inspectorate would intercept some passing ships for a random inspection.
Because of Gou Qing, Fang Feng Sheng was now quite distinguished in the Military Inspectorate. Upon seeing her, they didn’t impede her journey and flatly waved their hands to let her pass. They then told her that the boss mustn’t find out, otherwise, they might as well just skin themselves.
Fang Feng Sheng swayed her fan in acknowledgement and flashed them a smile, but Fan Jin Chuan’s face inexplicably darkened.
“Worthy Brother, let’s have a match.”
There was still half a day to go before they arrived at their destination, so Fan Jin Chuan had set up the Go board.
Feng Sheng approached the low table and plopped down. One person played white, while the other played black. In an artless, ‘you come, I go’ fashion, their Go match commenced.
“Worthy Brother is no longer young. Has your family arranged a marriage match for you?”
Feng Sheng was nineteen this year. This was also what she had told Fan Jin Chuan. In Great Zhou, men and women married early. Nineteen without a marriage, even for a man, was somewhat late.
“None.” After a pause, Feng Sheng asked without lifting her head, “Does Brother Fan have a marriage match?”
Neither did Fan Jin Chuan, who was still twenty-three.
“A man of character should first establish his career and then start a family. When he hasn’t yet established himself, how can he support others?”
“I share the same sentiment.”
This response stunned Fan Jin Chuan speechless.
“In fact, it’s not that this brother doesn’t have a marriage match. Mother had arranged a match for me in the countryside, but I was busy with my affairs. Furthermore, someone from the woman’s family had died, and she had to observe mourning. It was thus delayed until now. Aren’t the elders in Worthy Brother’s family in a hurry?”
“I no longer have any elders in my family.”
Fan Jin Chuan was utterly shocked. Flustered and abashed, he stammered, “I never before thought I would bring up Worthy Brother’s heartbreaking matters.”
Feng Sheng put down a white Go piece and replied indifferently, “It’s only natural to be born, grow old, get sick, and die.”
Speaking to this point, he naturally couldn’t continue. Fan Jin Chuan’s intention to attempt persuading Worthy Brother to ‘return to the right path’ promptly dissipated.
Noon quickly fell, and they finally reached a port.
It appeared to be a port used specifically to park ships for external trade turnover. The shore was quite lively, and on it were bamboo sheds stationed by the Military Inspectorate. There were several ships parked along the shore, all of which were either civilian or salt ships. In fact, there was not much distinction between local civilian ships and salt ships. It was only that there was a flag on the salt ship.
This flag was a one-time flag issued to the salt ship when it had departed from the saltern, with a colossal word ‘salt’ imprinted on it, as well as other markings. Fang Feng Sheng had observed that most of the salt ships ferrying to Tai Dam had five markings on them, indicating that they had passed through five checkpoints from the saltern to the dam.
This port seemed to be one of the checkpoints.
As the group trod ashore, one of the yamen runners scurried out to survey for a carriage, while Fan Jin Chuan and the others just stood there to wait.
There at the Military Inspectorate’s bamboo shed, a few ordinary soldiers stood outside, glaring at the passing pedestrians like a tiger watching his prey. Within the shed, three men in brown hemp clothes were in animated conversation with one of the leaders. The little boss’s face was riddled with impatience, until a man slipped him a pouch. He weighed it in his hand before he nodded in satisfaction and waved them away.
Not long after, a few men hurried out to board the ship, which slowly sailed away. On the ship’s flag, there was an additional seal imprint.
Fan Jin Chuan was dumbfounded. “This is dereliction of duty. They didn’t even do a spot check. Why were they permitted to pass the blockade?” Saying that, his stance implied he would readily charge to the bamboo shed, but Fang Feng Sheng yanked his arm back to thwart him.
“Maybe before we arrived, their ship had already been randomly checked,” Feng Sheng speculated.
“Those people just now clearly stuffed that man with silver!”
“Don’t meddle in affairs that are not part of your position. To expose a thief, one must catch him in the act. Even if the silver could be considered evidence, they would’ve hidden it away. Do you want to search them? Besides, the Military Inspectorate is a separate entity. They’re not under the local government.”
The accompanying yamen runner behind them supplemented, “My lord, there really is no need to be surprised. This kind of thing is rampant in Taizhou. Although it’s not quite the proper road, it more or less still is. As the saying goes, the king of hell is easy to meet, but the little devils are everywhere and are hard to ward off. The salt ships transported from the salterns have to go through so many checkpoints, and everywhere they have to pay filial respect in material form, so as not to cause trouble. Salt merchants do not lack silver, nor do they care about it.”
“So they’re just allowed to eat their fill?”
The yamen runner laughed dryly and ceased to respond, but he had an expression of ill-concealed envy, perhaps wishing he could turn into a person from the Military Inspectorate.
“No wonder the Liang Huai Salt Administration has been reporting a salt stagnation to the authorities for several years in a row. Why would it stagnate? For no other reason than inflated salt prices. These baseless high prices were conjured out of thin air, perhaps because these vermin sucked them dry.”
Feng Sheng was confounded hearing that from Fan Jin Chuan, not expecting him to have a grasp of such matters. She had originally thought it was beneath him to eat the five grains of the human world.1 Even though she had knowledge of some of the finer details, she nevertheless had to make queries from all sides after setting foot on Taizhou.
She couldn’t help but recall her initial conjectures as to why Fan Jin Chuan was sent down a place like Taizhou.
Great Zhou classified the prefectures, provinces, and counties under its rule into four ranks: Chong, Fan, Pi and Nan. Among them, Chong was for those with frequent traffic; Fan for those with numerous complicated local government affairs; Pi for those with exorbitant overdue grain taxes, and; Nan for those whose social customs bore a great divide and whose criminal cases were excessive.
Taizhou precisely accounted for three: Fan, Pi, and Nan. It was feasible to say that a person with no experience as a local official should not have been allowed to sit in such a position. Yet, this job was pressed on him.
Could it be that Fan Jin Chuan was sent here as a metaphor2, perhaps because His Majesty was already dissatisfied with the chaos in the Liang Huai Salt Administration? Or could it be something else?
Regardless of the reason, Fang Feng Sheng felt a slight surge of excitement.
This was mainly because her father’s case had long been concluded, and all other parties, without exception, shunned it as taboo. She had once thought that investigating from the root would be simpler, but arriving here, she realized that there was no suitable entry point.
She befriended Gou Qing strictly for this reason. She had assumed that, through him, she could make discreet inquiries about bits of information, but Gou Qing was undoubtedly not a vegetarian.3 Thus, she was completely ignorant about other matters except for those floating on the surface.
The carriage had arrived.
Feng Sheng dragged Fan Jin Chuan away. “Brother Fan, there’s no point being indignant about this. It’s not too early, so let’s hurry up and depart.”
Only then did Fan Jin Chuan restrain his ire and hopped on the carriage.
The yamen in every province and county had insufficient manpower, so each had a designated number of tax captains responsible for grain tax collection.
Generally, the tax captains were selected from rich families who owned numerous farmlands in various regions, and were capable of paying more taxes in kind. Ordinary farmers and small families did not have such resources, and were thus incapable of grain tax collection and escort.
The administrative region Taizhou belonged to had a large area with some interspersed farmlands. Under its jurisdiction were several towns including Hai’an, Anxiang, Zhentong, Gangkou, Jiangyan, Doumen, Fancha, and more. This time, Fan Jin Chuan and his entourage stopped off Hai’an Town, which was regarded as one of the more important towns appertaining to Taizhou.
Hai’an Town was teeming with noise and excitement, different from the average town. The salterns here were probably where the salt ships were stopped to turnover. Along the way, restaurants, tea shops, and inns stood in great numbers.
The group of people traveled lightly, searching for a restaurant to have a meal.
After eating, they drove to the south of the town.
The Song family, the tax captain in charge of the area around Hai’an, was south ten li from the town.
Whenever it was time to collect the grain tax, the tax captain would inform the local village head in advance. The village head would then convey the message to the villagers. Customarily, there was a designated time and place to pay the grain tax. The place this time, needless to say, was at the large drying yard fronting the Song Family’s house, where they would station there for three days.
Three days were a little brief, but enough for nearby farmers to haul in grain tax, albeit in quite a tight schedule. Days for tax payment usually persisted from morning to night unimpeded, with no room to sleep a wink or even take a momentary rest. Some farmers arrived at dawn to queue, only for their turn to finally come in the afternoon.
When Fan Jin Chuan and his party arrived, the Song family’s drying yard was busy. On its periphery were parked many ox and donkey carts. Some of the farmers had none of those, so they relied on able men who mounted poles on their shoulders to lift the grain.
They alighted their carriage beforehand and trudged in on foot. As they were garbed in common people’s clothes, they eluded unwanted attention.
“How much more have you added this time to make it enough?”
A farmer, who seemed to have just paid his taxes, swayed out and was immediately surrounded by a few inquisitive people.
The man gestured with his hand, and the few men around him instanteneously clicked their tongues in disdain.
One of the old men pressed his throat to amplify his tone and said, “That’s fine. It’s been said that there’s a new lord in the county, and that the new lord cherishes and protects the common people. I guess the Song family is afraid of attracting trouble this time. This year is already much less than last year. In previous years, they overproduced by at least this much.”
A young man bewailed, “We work ourselves to death to farm, to the point where a drop of sweat would separate into eight petals upon its fall. Those men sure are good. They exert no effort but have the gall to deny us, farmers, that top layer of grain.”
“Shut it. Who told you not to be the tax captain? If you were the tax captain, you would surely be like those big masters who do nothing but sit there and stare as others pay the grain,” someone mocked.
Naturally, this also reached the ears of Fan Jin Chuan and his party. Fan Jin Chuan was about to advance their way to pry further, but Fang Feng Sheng jerked him away and veered him forward to the crowd.
The two of them shuttled about until they reached the front. There was a long table on the vacant lot, on which were brush, ink, paper and ink stone, and behind the table sat a middle-aged man attired in a satin casual robe.
There were a few people standing a short distance away from the long table. In front of them were dou, hu4 and other instruments used to calculate the grain. Two farmers wearing coarse brown hemp clothes were pouring grain into the hu, supervised by men beside them.
The hu was shaped like a wine cup, with a small mouth and a large bottom. There were five dou for one hu, and ten dou for one dan. Since the farmers paying taxes were abounding, it was impossible to weigh all their grain, so the most convenient method of measure was by dou and hu.
The grain had already been poured over the hu, but the supervisor beside him insisted to continue until the pile became a protruding cone. They had originally thought it was over, but who would have thought that the person in charge would lift the hem of his robe, take a few steps back, and with a ‘hey’ sound, kick the hu with his big foot?
With the impact of gravity, the grain, which had piled up to a pointed cone, collapsed in front of the naked eye. Lots of grain were shaken out of the hu and scattered on the ground. None seemed to care about the grain that spilled, so the old farmer could only order his son to open the grain bag and resume pouring grain into the hu until it once again piled high into a cone.
“Go over there and make your mark!”
As for the people from the Song family, there were four men designated to carry the piled-up hu to the side to bag it. One person swept the grain that were strewn on the ground. The four people in charge of bagging used copper rulers to smooth out the overflowing grain. Another person would catch the grain that poured down, pack it with the grain swept from the ground, and then place it aside. Apparently, the extra grain were the Song family’s proceeds.
“What are they doing? They’re enriching their own pockets by making farmers pay more taxes!” Fan Jinchuan was riled.
“This is called kicking the hu and pouring to a cone. It’s said that this hu-kicking skill can’t be done by ordinary people. It takes years and years of practice. Kicking the hu packs the grain tighter. As for pouring to a cone, my lord has seen it,” Fang Feng Sheng elaborated.
Agitated and enraged, Fan Jin Chuan pushed aside the people in front of him and was about to accost them, but Feng Sheng seized his arm and tore him away from the crowd.
“What are you doing?”
“These vermin exploiting common people in public can’t serve as a warning to others if we don’t deal with them.”
“All right, don’t add to the trouble,” Feng Sheng pulled him along and whispered, “I’ve made a visual assessment. The two farmers paid a total of three dan of grain tax, and the extra grain was about three dou. Bagging and escorting grain all inevitably have losses, which aren’t the Song family’s responsibility. That extra grain could count as compensation. There are also human and material resources utilized for escort, as well as benefit fees stuffed to various places. Like those people earlier discussed, the Song family is indeed merciful this time.”
“They’re plundering other people’s property in public, and you still call them merciful?”
“I can’t bear seeing such shameful practice, either, but there’s nothing we can do to keep it from pervading. If you want people to work for you, will you keep them from benefiting? The only solution would be for the county yamen to handle the grain tax collection. However, even if people from the yamen take care of it, it would still be hard to prevent this from happening. Can you personally keep an eye on every single place? Can you escort the grain tax on your own? Can you turn yourself into a hundred people? No! So just don’t overdo it and turn a blind eye. Water that is too clear has few fish.”5
“This is bad governance. Why is it that Worthy Brother Fang speaks so indifferently?”
“You’ve just said it’s bad governance. Just like I said when we first came here, why doesn’t anyone do anything about it? It’s because they can’t!”
“I can’t control everyone, but I can at least control myself. As long as I see it, I will take care of it!” Saying that, Fan Jin Chuan once again marched into the crowd and yelled at them to stop. Because of his abrupt outburst, the crowd was in an uproar.
Fang Feng Sheng didn’t know what to say other than helplessly curse the pedant under her breath, and then followed into the crowd.
Because of Fan Jin Chuan’s appearance, the subsequent grain collection grew awkward.
With such a dark-faced evil star sitting here, who would dare kick the hu and pour the grain to a cone again unless they didn’t want their feet? Master Song cursed incessantly in his heart, but had to ingratiate himself with a smile plastered on his face.
This awkwardness prolonged into the afternoon, until a commotion arose in the crowd.
The overall atmosphere of this novel is a bit cold. The focal point is the imperial court, and the characters’ emotions are unclear. In fact, I’m quite knowledgeable about what majority of the readers are fond of reading. I also know how to cater to the readers’ interests. However, this time, I’m abandoning all those, because this one will write what I’ve wanted to write all along. Even though I know it’s quite cold, I’m still quite willful about this. Although cold, I still want to write it well for self-fulfillment.
Readers have been asking who the male lead is. I honestly don’t know, and I’m not just saying this to make the comment section lively. It’s because I don’t know who Fang Feng Sheng will fall in love with. I’ll leave it for her to decide herself.
In addition, the female lead has learned a lot. She is actually growing up and is integrating what she has seen and learned into her own matters. She will one day grow into a towering tree, much like Brother Gouzi. Brother Gouzi has experienced two lifetimes. In his previous life, he was an old fox. He saw a lot and knew a lot. After his rebirth, he becomes a fine person. He will remain as such, so long as he stands upright, won’t turn dark, and will hardly take shortcuts. She is different.
This is an author’s note that I forgot to include in Chapter 27, so I inserted it here. Brother Gouzi is the male lead in one of the author’s works entitled, 《家养小首辅》, which I liberally translated as ‘Raising the Young Senior Grand Secretary,’ but is known as ‘The Little First Grand Secretary in My House’ on Novel Updates. I will be picking it up to translate in the future!
I also quite agree with the author. I’m extremely fond of somewhat realistic court and political intrigue with a bit of slice of life, even if the romance is secondary to the plot. I feel that it’s a very niche and quite unpopular sub-genre of Ancient Chinese webnovels, but I’m persevering to translate it anyway.
1 五谷: five grains, e.g. millet, soybean, sesame, barley, rice or other variants
Daoists don’t eat the five grains because grains make one fart. Losing any form of air (气) means losing life energy, life vitality, etc. Intercourse included since sperm is also one of the vital energies for men. So most Daoists try to control their breathing, abstain from women, and don’t eat any gassy food. The original saying is 不食人间烟火: lit. not eating the food of common mortals; fig. placing oneself above the common populace. Also used as a satire, referring to the people who know nothing about the pain and suffering of mortals in the human world.
2 I had thought it might be related to his name, which translates to the following:
范 (Fan) – pattern; model; example
晋 (Jin) – to move forward; to promote; to advance
川 (Chuan) – river; creek; plan; an area of level
Could be interpreted as something along the lines of, ‘example of moving (the rivers) forward,’ so it would make sense if the Emperor wanted to send him there to move forward the salt stagnation. Thinking of it this way, his name is the perfect metaphor.
3 不是吃素的: lit. not a vegetarian; not to be trifled with; not to be reckoned with
4 斛 (hú): ancient measuring vessel; fifty liters; dry measure for grain equal to five dou
斗 (dǒu) dry measure for grain equal to ten 升 (sheng) or one-tenth of a 石 (dan)
They look something like this:
5 水至清则无鱼: Water that is too clear has few fish (idiom); You cannot expect everyone to be squeaky clean.; Don’t be too picky!