1636 The China Venture – Snippet 13

PART II: 1634

For the Temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be–

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea

Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay

Chapter 9

Tongcheng, China

Year of the Dog, Second Month (February 28-March 28, 1634)

The Fang family servants and tenants were lined up, waiting for orders, implements of destruction in hand. Fang Yizhi clapped his hands, bringing them all to attention. “The time we knew would come has at last arrived. It is necessary that we defend our lands against invaders. My father has appointed me to lead you. Each of you has his appointed task. Yong!”

“Yes, young master.”

“You are on red ant patrol. You must walk in a low crouch so you can see their holes. When you think you have found one, scatter cuttlefish bones nearby, to lure them out. Show no mercy! If you fail in your mission, the red ants will devour the tenderest shoots!”


“What are your orders, sir?”

“You are on snail and slug patrol. You may sleep during the day. At night, take a lantern and a bucket of saltwater and walk the crop rows; if you find a culprit, grab him with chopsticks and drop him into the bucket.”

“The rest of you, go about your normal gardening and farming tasks, but be vigilant for pests. Report anything unusual to me. “

Fang Yizhi clapped his hands twice. “Dismissed!”

Tongcheng, China

Year of the Dog, Third Month (March 29-April 26, 1634)

Fang Weiyi and her older sister Mengshi stood side-by-side in a horse drawn cart. They were on their way to the Yingjiang Temple in Anqing. “Yingjiang” meant “Greeting the River,” an apt name given its proximity to the Yangtze.

“I am so glad you can come and visit, Mengshi. You have been away from us, with your husband in Shandong, too long.” Shandong was the coastal province, north of Nanjing, that jutted into the Yellow Sea, like a ship’s prow, pointing toward Korea.

“I am so grateful that he lets me travel with him from one appointment to the next, rather than make me live at home with his mother. And that he received an emergency appointment in Jiangxi, to serve out the term of a commissioner who died unexpectedly.” Weiyi and Mengshi’s hometown of Tongcheng lay in Nan-Chihli, in the part sometimes called Anhui, whereas Jiangxi was the province south of Nan-Chihli. Mengshi’s husband Zhang Bingwen’s new job lay in Jiujiang, on the Yangtze, and midway between Anqing and Nanchang.

Zhang Bingwen had stopped in Tongcheng to pay his respects to Fang Kongzhao, his brother-in-law, and then hurried on to Jiujiang–his orders specified the date by which he must arrive there, and there had been some unexpected delays on the Grand Canal. And in any event, he knew he was being sent to clean up the mess left behind by the deceased official, and that it would only get worse if he delayed. But he didn’t want Mengshi to miss so good an opportunity to visit her family, so he left her in Tongcheng, with a couple of retainers to escort her to Jiujiang when she was ready to continue her journey.

“Mengshi, I am worried about Yizhi.”

“Yizhi? But I just saw him, he seemed to be in excellent health. He is out in the gardens in the day, and I saw him in a pavilion studying by torchlight some evenings ago.”

“He is still in the pavilion, but drinking too much, rather than studying,” Weiyi complained.

“But Yizhi has always been such a dutiful student….”

“He is still upset about failing the provincial examination last year. His spirits lifted briefly with the coming of spring, but that didn’t last.”

“Oh, my,” said Mengshi. “I understand now. The national examination is in session in Beijing right now–the exam he would have taken if he had passed the provincial one.” While women could not take the examinations, as women belonging to the family of a scholar-official they knew that one could not obtain a ranked official position without being a jinshi–a Presented Scholar. And that in turn meant passing the national and palace examinations.

Even a juren, a Recommended Man, could at best serve as a secretary to a ranked official, or perhaps an assistant police magistrate in a remote district. And Yizhi, having failed the provincial examination, wasn’t even a juren.

“I suppose he has friends taking the national examination now, too.”

“Yes, Chen Zilong from Songjiang. His second attempt, I believe. Others too, I’m sure.”

“If I had known,” said Mengshi, “I’d have invited him to join us on this visit to Yingjiang. Perhaps, in bowing to the Buddha, he would cleanse his soul.”

Fang Weiyi had begun visiting the temple many years ago, simply because a trip to a temple was an acceptable reason for a gentry woman to leave the house. After the death of her husband, her daughter, and her sister-in-law (Yizhi’s mother), her interest in Buddhism became more serious, and she sometimes created art, especially bamboo fans, that featured Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.

“I agree,” said Weiyi.

“And if that fails, perhaps we can get him to go to an opera. Perhaps one of Ruan Dacheng’s? He lives here in Anqing.”

“He does, Mingshi. I hear that Dacheng’s daughter Lizhen is trying to write an opera herself. Something about a love triangle.”

“Aren’t they all?” Weiyi laughed. “But more power to her.”

“So, how’s life in Tongcheng these days? Quiet as always?”

Weiyi frowned. “In our household, Yizhi’s future is our principal worry. But in Tongcheng at large, there have been some disquieting developments.”

Mingshi’s eyebrows rose. “Disquieting?”

“Abuse of temporary sons-in-law.” A temporary son-in-law was a freeman who was hired to work for a certain number of months or years in a household, and, as part of the deal, was married to an unfree maidservant of that household. The more liberal landowners permitted the temporary son-in-law to redeem his wife, and any child borne while she was a slave, but some would refuse to accept any payment and, if the hireling fled with his family, treat him as a runaway bondservant and send government agents or thugs after him.

“And for every bondservant who’s mistreated, there’s another that glories in the landlord’s legal protection and extorts payments from those without such protection. And of course, the landlord gets blamed for the bondservant’s misdeeds.”

“Surely Kongzhao does not tolerate such behavior in the Fang clan.”

“No, he doesn’t. But there may be Fangs who misbehave surreptitiously, and in any event, we’re not the only gentry family in Tongcheng.”

“Well, I hope people come to their senses before there’s a bondservant uprising like the one in Macheng four years ago.”

Mengshi shuddered delicately.