When Fan Jin Chuan and his people crossed the Salt Distribution Commission yamen‘s threshold, several eyes were on them.
These days, he was quite stationary and merely acclimatized himself to the changes. Who would have thought that this person was not at all in a hurry to tussle with his duties and instead spent an entire day foraging for old accounts in the Salt Distribution Commission yamen?
Wei Tong Xin observed him from the tail of his eye and chuckled in his heart. Someone came over to report, but he only waved his big hand and dismissed, “Let this Lord Fan go and look. No need to restrain him.”
The major accounts contained no flaws. As for the detailed accounts, they had accumulated in two storehouses, their contents spanning more than ten years. The officials in charge of sorting out the account books couldn’t even figure them out, let alone Fan Jin Chuan, so none believed that he could.
It was better to give this lord something to do than to have him tossing about everywhere.
All had deemed that this lord would eventually grow bored maundering after a few days. Contrary to their expectations, not only did he not grow weary of it, but he also incorporated it in his daily routine. Now, in Fan Jin Chuan’s everyday schedule, apart from three staple meals and the necessary rest, he would invite people to discuss official business in the morning and rummage through old accounts in the afternoon. Every now and then, he would summon people over to inquire about salt affairs and some other state of affairs.
Fan Jin Chuan’s behavior actually wasn’t that difficult to comprehend. Despite his righteous and impassioned words on the memorial he had submitted, if someone familiar with salt affairs analyzed its contents, he would be able to deduce that the above mentioned matters were merely superficial, offering no detailed solution to the problem. Thus, he himself had to scour for the details. The scope of involvement behind this Liang Huai Salt Administration was tremendous. Even if he dragged Wei Tong Xin, who had been vice prefect for about six or seven years, to assist him in calculating the detailed accounts, he might still be unable to grasp all aspects of it.
Reform by fighting or killing officials wouldn’t solve the problem. To reform poor governance, he needed a thorough grasp of all its facets so he could later on devise methods that were truly effective. Otherwise, Fan Jin Chuan would face the Jianping Emperor’s roaring, and the imminent reform of the Liang Huai Salt Administration would become a huge joke.
After pondering about this, those who were still a little panicked by this point gradually slackened.
He Lun had also recovered from his illness, and from time to time, he would grace Fan Jin Chuan a visit for a little drink, chipping in ideas and so on. Those salt merchants were similarly no longer as anxious nor as agitated. The ones that ate, ate; the ones that drank, drank; and those actors that performed continued to perform. Who among them had never endeavored strong winds and great waves? Compared to those above, the ones below had panicked. Panicking despite the above’s lackadaisical attitude made their ancestors lose too much face, so they quickly let go.
On the eleventh month, light drizzles continuously enshrouded Yangzhou, rendering a more tender and sentimental scenery than one could imagine.
During the third month in Yangzhou, flowers bloomed in full, and light fog mantled the city. Everyone believed the third month to be the most beautiful, with misty willows and exquisite flowers illustrating the abundant splendour of spring. However, the beauty of Yangzhou lay in its bones. The wanton and indulgent life this place signified seeped deep into one’s bones, expected of a city bustling with excitement and bedlam all year round.
This time, Feng Sheng, along with over ten Jinyiwei, ventured to Huaibei with a paper warrant from Fan Jin Chuan.
Liang Huai salterns were divided into north and south. The south of the Huai River was called Huainan, and the north of the Huai River was called Huaibei.
The Salt Distribution Commission had three divisions. The Taizhou Division and Tongzhou Division belonged to Huainan, and only the Haizhou Division belonged to Huaibei. The Haizhou Division was originally stationed in Huai’an, but was later transferred to Haizhou.
There were only three salterns under the Haizhou Division: Banpu Yard, Zhongzheng Yard, and Linxing Yard.
Huaibei salterns were more severely affected by floods than Huainan salterns. Water from the salt river would flow through the Shuangjin sluice in the upper reaches of the Qingjiang river bank. It would penetrate the sea through six dams, such as the Liwu Barrier and Yize. If there was too much water, the current would easily breach these six dams and bequeath disaster to the common people. On the contrary, if there wasn’t much water, the common people would block the sluice gates to irrigate farmland and force water to flow eastward for this purpose.
Moreover, the Yellow River’s spasmodic route diversions caused local rivers to silt up, but the government was reluctant to dredge these rivers, as it hindered them from investigating and suppressing smugglers. As time passed, the three salterns in Huaibei only released a shipment of salt a year. After the autumn harvest, the water route for grain transport would be dredged once yearly, and the ships transporting grain to the capital would course through this dredged river. The Shuangjin sluice would be opened, and Huaibei’s salt ships would take the North Canal downstream to rush the transport to accomplish their task for the year.
This was why the Huainan region was the Liang Huai Salt Administration’s backbone, while Huaibei was nothing more than a name and had been very bleak in the recent years.
Feng Sheng journeyed to the place, and they first visited the Haizhou Division.
Unlike the Taizhou Division, just from its facade, one could see that the Haizhou Division was in desolate straits. The walls had cavities where bricks were supposed to be, the tiles under the eaves were missing a few pieces, and the originally black lacquered entrance door was already mottled.
There was no one guarding the gate, so they marched straight in. Accustomed to the scenery of the salt affairs yamen, greeted with such a sordid exterior made Feng Sheng uncomfortable at first glance.
It wasn’t until they stood in front of the hall for a while that someone scampered out to welcome them.
“I was especially appointed by Lord Fan, the local commander of the Liang Huai Salt Circuit Reform. This humble person’s surname is Fang, and my official position is not worth mentioning, merely a subofficial functionary consigned to inspect the Haizhou Division. This is Tong baihu of the Jinyiwei, who will assist in this inspection.”
With Feng Sheng’s words, the other party had already deciphered something at the mention of Lord Fan and the Jinyiwei. He politely instructed them to wait for a moment and hastened inside to invite someone over.
Shortly after, a middle-aged man dressed in an official robe rushed out. As soon as he stood still and composed himself, another person arrived.
The man to first arrive donned on an official robe of a sixth-rank official. His trousers were rolled up to under his knees, and on his feet were muddy cloth shoes. If one paid no heed to his official robes, he looked merely like an old farmer. In actuality, this person was the second assistant salt controller of the Haizhou Division.
“Are you Second Assistant Zou?”
“This old one’s surname is precisely Zou. Lord Fang, forgive me for not meeting you outside.”
“This humble person is just a mere subofficial functionary and cannot be addressed as a lord.”
“So long as you’re sent by the official superiors, you’re all lords. Please come in and take a seat.”
This Second Assistant Zou himself resembled nothing like an honorable official of the imperial court. To appear in such a way was disgracing the guests. He invited Feng Sheng and the others to sit, his demeanor neither survile nor overbearing. After everyone settled down, the official who had just arrived first introduced himself. His surname was Li, and he was the deputy second assistant salt controller of the Haizhou Division, a seventh-rank official.
The two sides conversed for a while, and their discourse was harmonious. Feng Sheng frankly conveyed her intentions, and Second Assistant Zou responded with a warm welcome. Fang Feng Sheng couldn’t help but sigh with emotion as she concluded that coming to Huaibei this time was the right choice.
Feng Sheng and the others had come a long way, so it was reasonable to say that it should be time to set up a meal, especially since noon was close ahead. However, Second Assistant Zou seemed to have no such intention at all. That deputy second assistant surnamed Li beside him incessantly cast him pointed looks, but he didn’t even seem to catch sight of it.
Feng Sheng couldn’t help but feel a little awkward, hesitating for a moment before soliciting, “Is there a place for us to stay for the time being? We had a long journey and are a little tired.”
“There is naturally a place for you to stay. Lord Fang, wait a moment. This official will order someone to arrange it.”
After waiting for a cup of tea’s time,1 Feng Sheng and the others were ushered away to be settled. Only when Haizhou Division’s people left did Feng Sheng discover that this Second Assistant Zou really planned to disregard their meals.
She didn’t really mind, but——
“Is that man surnamed Zou just going to leave us hanging?” Tong baihu frowned.
Slightly embarrassed, Feng Sheng conjectured, “Perhaps Lord Zou doesn’t know much about these unnecessary and overelaborate formalities. His official robes are old-fashioned, simple and plain. The tea for guests was also extremely ordinary. I think his family isn’t that well-off.”
“He won’t even offer us coarse tea and scanty meals? Even ordinary people know etiquette, so don’t say he doesn’t know.”
Well, Feng Sheng didn’t know how else to explain it.
Right this moment, an old servant emerged from outside and halted at the bottom of the steps. “Two lords, the master has prepared coarse tea and scanty meals and is inviting you two to please come and eat.”
Speak of the devil and he doth appear.2 The two people looked at each other and ambled along with this old servant.
The food in the hall truly were the epitome of ‘coarse tea and scanty meals,’ much like the dishes of ordinary people. The dishes were placed in several large coarse porcelain bowls. Second Assistant Zou offered Feng Sheng and the other to first take their seats, when an old woman in an apron strode out with a bowl of dishes.
Second Assistant Zou said, “My old wife cooked the food. Please don’t dislike it.”
Even if they disliked it, they couldn’t say it to her face, ah.
Once all the dishes were neatly served, Feng Sheng and Tong baihu picked up their chopsticks for a taste. The dishes were quite flavorful, though not quite like delicacies and dainties. The distinct taste of home was nonetheless top-notch, and the portions were plenty.
Tong baihu was born in the army. He most detested how all literati ate and drank in small cups and bowls. His chopsticks assailed the food once, and half a plate of food immediately vanished. Such portions very much suited his tastes.
“Just now, Deputy Second Assistant Li kept complaining about how unsophisticated this host official is. In truth, this official also wanted to be extravagant and was about to book a table across the street to entertain the two lords. Unfortunately, with this limited salary, it’s already difficult to support the family. Ordinarily, my son and I need to farm to trade for some rice and grain. Thus, this one can only aggrieve the two lords by eating such simple meals. There’s wine, but it’s personally brewed. It isn’t high-class, but it has a mellow aroma, and its taste should suffice.”
All who practiced martial arts were fond of good wine. Tong baihu took a sip and immediately squinted until his eyes shut tightly.
It was indeed good enough wine!
Just because of this wine, his dissatisfaction with Second Assistant Zou instantly dissipated like smoke in thin air.
Feng Sheng pried, “Second Assistant Zou must not blame me for asking too much. Lord Second Assistant is a sixth-rank official, with an annual salary of a hundred taels. If you only eat light meals, with only a few family members, there should be more than enough silver. Why go as far as to farm to trade for grain and rice?”
When Second Assistant Zou smiled, the wrinkles on his old face slightly deepened. “Did Lord Fang only consider the expenses of one family and not the expenses of the various parts of this divisional yamen? The imperial court appoints only a few officials, but doesn’t this large divisional yamen also require manpower? Even if this old one repeatedly cuts back, this old one is still unable to make ends meet.”
“Could it be……” Feng Sheng swallowed the rest of the words.
“Lord Fang wants to ask why not charge those salt merchants for official floating fees, or ask them for benefits?”
Feng Sheng’s face was blushing with shame. For the most part, she had been following the county’s local customs for a long time. In her mind, there were only very few officials who were not greedy. Fan Jin Chuan was a rare exception. However, this exception, under her persuasion, had also turned a blind eye to subordinates who were secretly fishing for subsidies and whatnot.
Nothing else could be done about it. To want a horse to run but not eat grass was simply absurd, and no such thing existed anywhere. If you wanted others to be loyal to yourself, you had to feed them first. You couldn’t starve the people working for you.
“Let’s not mention how desolate the Huaibei salterns are now, it’s already been reduced to about three salterns in the recent years. Every year, there’s only one shipment of salt. This old one doesn’t have enough means to stop doing business for a year. However, every year that this one does do business, it also eats up a year’s earnings. Even if this one covets a few silver taels, it’s better not to meddle, so as to avoid dirtying a clear reputation.”
After Feng Sheng tasted the wine, she praised, “Elder lord has great wisdom!”
Second Assistant Zou sipped a mouthful of wine and countered, “This isn’t called great wisdom, but merely a fool’s foolish means. It’s precisely because I was sent down this place. If I transfer to Taizhou or Tongzhou, those two divisions, seeing mountains and seas of silver and salt, I also won’t dare guarantee that I won’t be greedy.”
“Elder lord speaks quite interesting words,” Tong baihu said.
After such an outburst, the three of them had a very spirited conversation. Afterwards, Second Assistant Zou probed Feng Sheng about the true purpose of her trip, and Feng Sheng laid it bare for him.
“Isn’t elder lord lamenting about the bleakness of this place? I made this trip precisely for this reason.”
“For this reason?” Second Assistant Zou repeated and suddenly asked, “Do you have the ability to cut open mountains and dig rivers?”
“Can you keep the people upstream from clogging the river and diverting water to the east?”
“Do you have the power to keep the sea from rising and the sky from raining?”
“Since that’s the case, how dare Lord Fang utter a lot of empty words!” These words were a little too impolite.
Feng Sheng objected, “Whether or not they’re empty words, if Lord Zou continues to watch until the end, won’t my lord know then?”
“Then this old one will wait and see.”
After their meal, Feng Sheng and Tong baihu returned to their respective residences.
Tong baihu was about to excuse himself from Feng Sheng and return to his room, when Dao Qi and a person from the Jinyiwei walked in.
Dao Qi said, “Young Master, this yamen didn’t arrange meals for us. Should this lowly one send someone out to buy some food?”
Tong baihu cast a meaningful glance at his own subordinate, and the other returned a look of helplessness.
“That one surnamed Zou is really stingy as hell,” Tong baihu couldn’t resist spitting out.
Feng Sheng laughed in spite of herself and shook her head. She ordered Dao Qi, “Ask someone to buy food, and go eat when he comes back.” After a pause, she added, “Have someone go and procure some meat, vegetables, rice and grain. We might have to open our own fire the following days.”
Feng Sheng and her party settled down at the Haizhou Division.
She was not at all idle, and while understanding the local situation with Second Assistant Zou, she never forgot to take her people out to explore the topography and terrain and such.
After living in this place for a considerable period of time, she found that this Second Assistant Zou had no other shortcomings aside for being stingy. He was straightforward, upright, and quite affable. Even his old wife was a woman of great wisdom, although she often appeared slow-witted. Dao Qi’s and their cooking were too unpalatable, so they all relied on Madam Zou and her daughter-in-law to handle their meals. Feng Sheng occasionally exchanged a few words with her, and her every phrase was like a gem, brimming with wit.
She had observed that, although the Zou family were poor and destitute, they were content and constantly happy, comepletely different from those officials Feng Sheng had previously encountered. No matter how powerful and wealthy they were, once the stormy waves beset, they would tremble in trepidation, fearing that once they fell in disgrace, their whole family would be doomed.
As such, Feng Sheng hesitated about what she should do next. When Haizhou would undergo an earthshaking change, it was bound to affect the life of the Zou family.
This was nevertheless merely a momentary lament. When the battle wheel had already been pushed forward, it was impossible to stop.
Feng Sheng requested Second Assistant Zou to transfer manpower from the subordinate salterns and chose a place to build a salt pond. This time, she brought a group of salt workers from Huainan. The salt solar evaporation method was nearly at its peak after repeated trials by the people underneath. Even Fan Jin Chuan thought that Feng Sheng was elaborative on this undertaking to compel the Jianping Emperor to do something about the Liang Huai Salt Circuit. Little did they know that this was not the only case.
She laid out this move, in fact, to target Huaibei.
There were a lot of silt areas in Huaibei. Although several floods plagued the area, it was completely different from the floods in Huainan due to its topography. Torrents caused the floods in Huaibei, while storms caused the floods in Huainan. Therefore, Huaibei, which was constantly afflicted by torrents, was more suitable for the salt solar evaporation method.
This, Feng Sheng knew because of that old farmer who had cursed the corrupt officials and lambasted the heavens for its lack of benevolence amidst the heavy rain that certain day.
That old farmer was not merely an old farmer. He was once a local waterway circuit official who braved through the entirety of Huainan and Huaibei to resolve the floods blighting the people on both sides of the river for years. Unfortunately, his ideas were too scrupulous and not worthy of the world, to the extent where others ostracized and even disparaged him. He ultimately resigned to becoming an old farmer relying on farming for a living.
One wouldn’t normally expect a regular old farmer to be able to say such words, nor would he have such big guts to do so.
Feng Sheng had burgeoned the salt solar evaporation method mostly because of him.
Now that Huaibei was used as a testing site, if this method yielded great results, they could alleviate situation in Huaibei. Alleviating Huaibei’s situation meant that there was a greater opportunity to reform the Liang Huai Salt Circuit. Therefore, Feng Sheng’s trip shouldered a huge role.
The old farmer appeared towards the end of Chapter 30. I remember reading a comment for that chapter on jjwxc asking, “How can a farmer be this eloquent and succinct?” Well, now the author answered that haha.
1 Around 10 to 15 minutes or so.