The imperial edict permitting Huaibei to assist Huainan in clearing the accumulated salt batches reached Yangzhou before Fan Jin Chuan returned.
The imperial edict was sent directly to the Liang Huai Salt Distribution Commission yamen.
After receiving the edict, Wei Tong Xin was left aghast.
Thunderstruck, he trod after He Lun, who was welcoming the palace eunuch who had announced the edict, and mumbled a few courtesy remarks. He was supposed to prepare some wine and food to entertain, but the palace eunuch had another important task to complete. He disclosed that His Majesty had a verbal decree for Prince Wei, so he thus couldn’t stay long.
After the eunuch left, Wei Tong Xin came to his senses. “Why did His Majesty give such a decree? Is this to cut off the roots in Huainan?”
His tone of voice was so mournful that those who didn’t know would think that his father had died.
He Lun glanced at him. “You’re too much. You’ve lived most of your life and you can’t understand this? So much salt has accumulated in Huainan, yet shiploads of Huaibei salt are constantly transported out. Any person would understand what to do. From your perspective, the purpose of the edict is to cut off the roots in Huainan. From His Majesty’s perspective, all the land under heavens belongs to the monarch, so he can do whatever he wills. For him, is there any difference between Huainan and Huaibei?”
There was no difference!
The salt tax revenues would land on the Jianping Emperor’s grasp anyway. Regardless of whether you’re a white cat or a black cat, as long as you can catch a rat, you’re a good cat. Whoever could help the imperial court earn silver was the one with the most power.
“I know that you’re all still dreaming for the future to have clear skies, thinking that when the salt in Huaibei runs out, things will calm down. But, in reality! Haha!”
Wei Tong Xin’s face couldn’t stop twitching. Through gritted teeth, he riled, “Cut the sarcasm. If I’m not good, are you, Lord He, any better?”
He Lun glared at him. “Vice Prefect Wei, you’re impudent! Is that how you talk to your superior?!”
Wei Tong Xin spat on the ground and ultimately cast off his usually gentle and humble countenance. “Stop pretending to be noble and virtuous in front of me. Lord He, have you forgotten how you grabbed ahold of the garden on the outskirts of the city, as well as those 10,000 banknotes of silver?!”
The two leered at each other. However, in the end, it was He Lun who softened his tone in concession.
“Forgive my stern tone, I was impatient. Lord Wei shouldn’t say such hostile and heartless words. We’re now grasshoppers tied to one rope. You can’t abandon me, nor can I abandon you. Think about it; in the end, we’re officials appointed by the imperial court. As long as we still have our hats on our heads, we don’t need to worry about silver. Why must Lord Wei be so anxious? You messed up just for the sake of some gold and silver and ultimately put the cart before the horse.”
Wei Tong Xin wanted to fire out a retort, but he instead swallowed it down and strode away with a swing of his sleeve.
Only after he left did He Lun’s face contort.
“Unable to differentiate good from bad. He’s only a mere fifth-rank official, but he actually snarled at this official.”
That moment, a middle-aged man in a dark blue casual robe plodded out from the inner room.
“My Lord, although that imp’s influence is scant, the one above him is still that person.” The man made a gesture, and only then did He Lun toss aside the indignation on his face.
“Then as Advisor Ma sees it, what should this official do next?”
Advisor Ma stroked his beard and replied, “In fact, what my lord said before is correct. Since he is an official, he shouldn’t forget his own identity. Messing up for the sake of some gold and silver is really putting the cart before the horse.”
“But this official fears that that person will become a cornered dog who will soon jump over a wall. When that time comes, he might implicate and bite this official. What is he so anxious about, going so far as to be this terrified?!” This him referred to Wei Tong Xin. Saying that, He Lun slumped down on the chair beside the other person, looking rather displeased.
Advisor Ma remarked, “My lord hasn’t been in Yangzhou long enough, so you probably don’t know that this saying exists within the boundaries of Yangzhou——a salt merchant’s account book can be capable of buying even the gods.”
He Lun was stunned. “Account books capable of buying even the gods?”
“In fact, it’s merely a type of jocular appellation for how often salt merchants associate with officials. They’re seemingly bending and scraping to curry favor, but in reality, they’ve taken note of everything. Who among the officials have received their benefits, how much of which, and when they received it——they’ve all been kept into account. This account book is a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation and is never brought out in times of peace. Once taken out, it’s used to save lives in the event of a major ordeal.
“This year alone, the Huaibei side has repeatedly made moves, invariably striking everyone right where it hurts. Good deeds were unrecognized, and livelihood were obliterated. This time, if salt merchants rely only on their ancestral business, they won’t be able to move forward. Someone has probably fished out his account book from the bottom of the chest; otherwise, why would Lord Wei be so anxious?”
He Lun pinched his beard and was also a little distraught.
“Based on what you said, then this official——”
“Wealth are merely worldly possessions. Since my lord is here, it means that you are highly valued by His Majesty. As a courtier, you should be loyal to the monarch. But what does it mean to be loyal to the monarch? One must acknowledge that there only exists one monarch. His Majesty is still vigorous and hearty, so why should a single leaf obscure my lord’s eyes?”1
These few brief words actually chilled He Lun to the marrow and mucked him up into a dizzy spell, cacophony assailing his ears.
All officials regarded a salt official’s job to be lucrative, because they all knew that most of the silver were in their hands. The year the Jianping Emperor had appointed him as the salt distribution commissioner, he became the target of envy. At that time, he had also sailed to this place with the intent of sharing the monarch’s cares and burdens. However, when he first reached Yangzhou, the place’s wanton and extravagant allure completely enthused him.
Everyone else was all fishing, so why shouldn’t he fish? Not fishing meant that he could only progress through drudgery and sweat. Who even wanted to struggle? A profit-seeking official could last for at least a term, so in this short time, why shouldn’t he seek his own delights? As a result, he turned a blind eye to the chaos, let matters adrift, and swam with the stream. He even tolerated Wei Tong Xin because of the master behind him.
He recalled that when he first arrived in Yangzhou, he had caught wind of a passage circulating in the marketplace. A busybody had composed this passage mimicking Liu Yuxi’s ‘Inscription – The Crude Hut,’ and utilized it to deride the numerous malpractices of the salt distribution in Liang Huai.
It matters not the rank; if an official has fields, he gains status. It matters not the ability; if salt continues to exist, it grants profit. Merely a crude functionary, a long-lasting reputation his only advantage. Heaps of silk surround the records, turning them white; officials lower themselves to join the Go match, turning their faces green. In talk and laughter there are factory merchants, and among those coming and going there are ones dealing with salt workers. They need not play songs of farewell nor compose poems of separation. There are no penalty fees to grate the ear, only wine and women to console the body. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to distance oneself from the public hut; perhaps it’s the intoxication in the West bamboo pavilion. Confucius says, “What crudeness is there?” ①
When he first encountered it, shame had flustered him. Upon hearing it the second time, he soon believed that the lines were very reasonable.
His sense of shame slowly drifted away with the waves, until today, when he was given a timely warning. It made him feel as though he was rousing from a dream.
At some point, He Lun’s sweat had trickled down like raindrops, unconsciously dampening his robe.
“He-mou has received advice. Advisor has great wisdom! This official will return the gold and silver!”
Advisor Ma responded with a smile, “My lord doesn’t have to worry. You should naturally withdraw. If you can’t, don’t worry. Water that is too clear has few fish. His Majesty is wise and powerful. How can he possibly not understand? So my lord doesn’t need to be alarmed. Above all, the most important thing is to adapt to circumstances and to comprehend the current affairs.”
What did it mean to adapt to circumstances and to comprehend the current affairs?
When His Majesty didn’t want to deal with the Liang Huai Salt Administration, he just played the fool. Since he had already intended to deal with it, then they must not afflict themselves by persisting in useless resistance.
A long while later, He Lun bowed once again in gratitude. “Thank you, Advisor, for the reminder.”
“My lord is polite.”
Advisor Ma returned the salute and retreated of his own accord, leaving He Lun alone to ponder.
After returning to the small courtyard he was residing in, he called for his trusted servant.
“Deliver a message to Haizhou. Inform him that what I promised him has been done.”
The trusted servant dawdled for a while and peered at his master. His eyes insinuated his desire to speak, yet he remained unspeaking.
“What is it?”
“Master, this old slave really doesn’t understand why you promised to do such a thing for that man. After all, after all, it won’t benefit you in any way. Although you’re from Shaoxing, you and him are not even acquaintances. Why shoulder such a huge risk?”
“For matters that benefit both the country and the people, there is no need to ask for a reason,” Advisor Ma uttered with a smile.
There was something else he didn’t say. The Advisor, though minor his position was, had a heart for the country.
Feng Sheng finished reading the letter and tossed it into the small tray for washing writing brushes.
Water seeped through the paper and soon turned it transparent. The ink gradually melted away, staining the water.
“What is Young Master laughing at?” Zhi Qiu asked curiously.
“Not laughing at anything, just got another job done.”
As she was speaking, Dao Qi hurried in with a letter in hand.
“Young Master, Lord Fan sent a letter from the capital.”
Feng Sheng could only sit down again and open the letter to read it. This time, she did not discard it.
“What are you laughing at again, Young Master?”
Feng Sheng set the letter aside and nudged Zhi Qiu’s nose. “Your young master is going to be an official.”
“Be an official?” Zhi Qiu was a bit confounded.
Feng Sheng nodded her head.
Zhi Qiu was unable to utter a response. Feng Sheng was talking to Dao Qi, and then sent him out after a while. When she came back, only then did the other person voice out with a bit of hesitation, “Young Master, you mustn’t forget that you are our Miss. How can a young lady become an official? If someone finds out……”
Originally, Feng Sheng hadn’t considered such thoughts, but hearing that Zhi Qiu held such an opinion on the matter astounded her.
“Have you forgotten what this young master is here for?”
To reverse Master’s verdict. Did it also include becoming an official?
“That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be an official yourself, ah. Isn’t there still Lord Fan?” Zhi Qiu protested as she wrinkled her face.
“Lord Fan is Lord Fan, we are us. We can’t borrow Lord Fan’s hand forever. Besides……” Court Elder Song was Fan Jin Chuan’s mentor. The two had a tightknit relationship, and she was still unsure which side Fan Jin Chuan was on. Even if Fan Jin Chuan was on her own side, Feng Sheng couldn’t just dismiss what she herself wanted to do. When all was said and done, she really didn’t want to implicate Fan Jin Chuan.
Perhaps this kind of obscure guilt had been hidden too deeply. It wasn’t nonexistent, just that Feng Sheng deliberately ignored it.
Zhi Qiu warily glanced at her own miss and probed, “Young Master, can you tell that Lord Fan has you in his heart?”
The naughty girl’s question downright petrified Feng Sheng that she choked on her saliva. “What drivel are you saying?”
“Is that why you’ve been avoiding Lord Fan? Is that why you’re not willing to go to Yangzhou even though the lord has sent word several times? “
“Your young master is always busy. Where can I get the time to stroll around as I wish?” Feng Sheng hurried to the writing desk and pretended to neaten out the tabletop.
Zhi Qiu followed suit and stood beside her, saying, “Actually, this servant thinks Lord Fan and Miss are quite compatible. You can talk to each other all day without getting bored. Anyway, you are more compatible with him than with Fourth Young Master.”
“Pah! Pah! What’s wrong with you lass today? Why do you keep spouting nonsense?”
“Is it really nonsense? Or is it because of Miss Man’er?”
Feng Sheng’s hand paused, then she resumed tidying up.
“Alright, quit the nonsense. You know me well. How can I concern myself with love and romance? Wasn’t that what you told Zhi Chun? How come you’ve forgotten?”
“This servant……” Zhi Qiu was dumbstruck and unable to piece her words together.
“Alright, you leave first. I’ll read a book for a while. I still have to discuss some things with a few people later.”
After Zhi Qiu left, Feng Sheng sat behind the writing desk and picked up a book from the table.
After reading a page, she suddenly lost interest. She raised her head, leaned back against the chair, and covered her face with the book.
Lost in a daze, she drifted into slumber.
When she opened her eyes, she saw that it was Dao Qi who had stirred her awake.
The Huifang House was one of the most famous opera houses in Yangzhou.
Outside the theater, passersby could constantly hear the distinct opera singing and applause inside.
In a private room on the second floor, all the windows facing the stage hall were open, with window shutters placed on the side. Today, however, the windows’ bamboo curtains obstructed the scene, evident that the private room’s owner was not there to watch the opera.
Wei Tong Xin switched out his clothes and took a carriage to the opera house, where Jiang Fu was waiting for him.
After seeing Jiang Fu, he did not delay telling Jiang Fu that he had received the imperial edict.
His meaning was clear. The things he had promised the other party could no longer be fulfilled, and Jiang Fu obviously couldn’t accept this reality.
“You’re insane. This is an imperial edict! Do you know what an imperial edict is? I say, just calm down and don’t stir up trouble for the both of us. If you leave the green hills, you won’t be afraid of not having enough firewood. It’s not like Big Boss Jiang doesn’t understand, right?”
“Jiang-mou naturally understands. But don’t forget, Lord Wei, that Jiang-mou can’t run away, and neither can you. Jiang-mou is the head merchant, anyone can run away except me. If a problem occurs on my side, how does Lord Wei plan to explain to that person? Lord Wei, you didn’t get any less of Jiang-mou‘s official filial respect. You can’t always take silver and not work, can you?”
They had shed all pretenses of cordiality through this dialogue and had set even bygones aside.
In the past, Jiang Fu would not have been so impatient. However, since Huang Jin Fu’s business flourished after he sold off his ancestral certificate privileges and cooperated with Huaibei, several salt merchants under his hold were all tempted. On the surface, they still took him as their leader, but in reality, they were surreptitously making eyes at Huabei.
This year in particular, he earned not a single copper coin and lost so much profit instead of acquiring it. Now, this imperial edict was impelling them to assist Huaibei in cleaning up Huainan’s accumulated salt batches. This move was tantamount to forcing his subordinate salt merchants to veer towards Huaibei. Once things fell on the right track, what would be his use as the head merchant? As a great building on the verge of collapse, he could no longer remain unmoved and listless.
“Don’t use that person to pressure me, either. That won’t scare me anymore. Now, I’m not afraid to truthfully tell you that that person has already ordered someone to deliver us a message, asking us not to move too rashly.”
Hearing this, Jiang Fu was unable to maintain his demeanor. He could no longer restrain himself from lashing out.
“I don’t believe it. It’s impossible!”
Wei Tong Xin looked at him complacently. “Don’t believe me? If you don’t, then pass a message to the top yourself to confirm. You’re not without a way out.” If he hadn’t received a message from that person, he wouldn’t have come out to see Jiang Fu today, and he wouldn’t even have enough time to hide.
“They’ve handed us such a message, but it won’t affect your position. Whether you listen to it or not, it’s all up to you. Anyway, I’ve said this much. Alright, Big Boss Jiang, take your time watching the play. I have something else to do. I’ll leave first.”
A while after Wei Tong Xin made his exit, Jiang Fu was still without a solution, his mind in turmoil.
“Da Zhong, do you think that person really delivered such a message? He’s trying to wash his hands of the matter. Yes, yes, who is the other person? An imperial offspring, a descendant of the dragon and phoenix. This country will belong to that person in the future. Why make ourselves unhappy? There is nothing wrong with withdrawing when the situation is not right.”
Da Zhong was an old steward not a few years younger than Jiang Fu. His waist was often bent, so he was now somewhat hunchbacked. On his heavily wrinkled face, he wore an expression full of gloom.
“Master, this matter is not as grave as you think. It’s not for the monk’s sake, but for the Buddha’s sake. With the amount of silver we’ve offered as filial respect in the past, it’s impossible for him to completely stand aside and do nothing, so he’s also reluctant to give up. It’s just that the current situation isn’t too good, so let’s restrain ourselves for the time being. After all, those officials are pulling out the radish and bringing up the mud, and one thing will lead to another. However, this has nothing to do with us. Didn’t you listen to what Lord Wei said? It won’t affect your position, so whether or not you listen to him is all up to you.”2
“Their meaning is very clear. We shouldn’t even bother expecting the top to take action; however, they also won’t care about anything we do, as long as we don’t involve them.”
① An anonymous piece of writing made by someone satirizing the salt administration through parodying Liu Yuxi’s “Inscription – The Crude House” during the Qing Dynasty.*
* For the poem above, I used this translation for the actual poem as reference. I’m not gonna pretend that I completely understand the poem I translated, especially the last few sentences. I couldn’t find the English version of the satire anywhere, so I translated some of the lines a bit literally, constructing them into coherent phrases based on the format of the actual poem.
1 一叶障目: lit. eyes obscured by a single leaf (idiom); fig. not seeing the wider picture
2 不看僧面看佛面: not for the monk’s sake, but for the Buddha’s — out of deference to sb. else; do sth. out of consideration for sb. else
拔其萝卜带起泥: turnips when pulled out might have earth stuck to the body; one incident might lead to the occurrence of other relevant events.