Translated with: Jia<3
Shen Zechuan spoke with such confidence, as Chazhou was not a place that could be secured through sheer military might alone. During the reign of Yongyi, the Prefectures of Dunzhou and Duanzhou in Zhongbo were the richest and most prosperous. Back then, Shen Wei was in command of the garrison troops of the respective prefectures. He possessed both money and military forces, yet he still could not get rid of the bandits in Chazhou. Before Shen Zechuan made his way to Chazhou, Zhou Gui and the advisors in Cizhou had prepared a detailed report on Chazhou, and they all unanimously thought that the matter regarding Chazhou had to be dealt with strategically.
Cai Yu was indeed no Lei Changming. The biggest difference between the bandits in Chazhou and the bandits of Mount Luo was that while the bandits in Chazhou were still merely bandits, those in Mount Luo had banded together. They not only established their territory, but also had plans for expansion. It was clear that Lei Jingzhe, who was hiding behind Lei Changming, was no longer satisfied with being a bandit. He had the desire to entirely cast off his old self, while Cai Yu did not. Hence, they had to fight against those of Mount Luo, and scheme against those in Chazhou.
Luo Mu was perhaps not as devoted as Zhou Gui in serving the people, but since Shen Zechuan had tacitly assented to Kong Ling’s visit, that meant they needed Luo Mu. Having served as the Prefectural Prefect of Chazhou for over ten years, no one understood the ins and outs of Chazhou better than Luo Mu.
“Your Excellency was assigned to Chazhou during the reign of Yongyi, during which you have made many celebrated achievements and previously remonstrated with Shen Wei to suppress the bandits. However, Shen Wei thought Dunzhou was too far from Chazhou, and with Fanzhou between the two prefectures, it would be too inconvenient and a waste of money for the troops to travel long-distance. As the odds of success were too small, Shen Wei rejected the request.” Shen Zechuan did not even blink when he brought up Shen Wei’s name. “I noticed that Your Excellency’s position on governing affairs started to change from that moment on.”
Luo Mu waved his hand and said, “What illustrious achievement is there for me to speak of? The Vice Commander is speaking too highly of me. I have accomplished nothing after my arrival in Chazhou. During the reign of Yongyi, Chazhou was notorious for its bandits. That year, Qudu considered sending officials over, and Jiang Qingshan and I were among those who were assigned. When I came down here, I had plans to distinguish myself and show what I’m made of, but it was too difficult. “
Luo Mu’s expression gradually grew heavier.
“During the first two years, my objective was focused on reviving the garrison troops. Although Shen Wei did not approve, he did not stop me. The Ministry of War thought that it was feasible and increased Chazhou’s military spending according to the recommendations I made in my memorial, and from this, I had the Chazhou’s military garrison troops equipped. I was complacent then, wholeheartedly focused on suppressing the bandits. It was only when the fighting began for real that I realized it wouldn’t work at all. The bandits of Chazhou can be traced back way before the reign of Yongyi. There was already a group of bandits here in Chazhou long before the establishment of Chazhou’s garrison troops. Hezhou in its earliest times was not as prosperous as it is today, and back then, the Yan Clan had not made its fortune yet. The traders who used this route were mostly wealthy merchants from the Thirteen Cities of Juexi, and the bandits of Chazhou kidnapped these traders to make their living. By the time the Imperial Court took notice, it was already too late; the bandits had already planted their roots in Chazhou and developed into various gangs and factions.”
This caused the people of Chazhou to be exceptionally rowdy, as there were fewer rules and regulations compared to other places. Census registration1 proved to be the trickiest here, as pretty much half the people had been bandits before and were not considered decent citizens, so they could only be registered as military households. Back then, when the officials of the eastern palace discussed this matter in this place, they thought of having these people enlisted in the army so that these people could be part of a regular army. With military fields and a monthly salary, they could just about feed their families and maintain a livelihood, and there would be no need for them to become bandits and violate the law. At the same time, the officials could regulate the movement of the people, allowing them to stay in Chazhou to farm with peace of mind without creating trouble all around, in turn strengthening the Prefectural Prefect’s law enforcement capabilities.
However, the officials of the eastern palace had made a huge mistake. They were all talk and no action, taking strategies that Zhongbo had used in other prefectures and implementing them directly in Chazhou without adapting to local circumstances. The bandits of Chazhou became an official army, but the land was not this easy to cultivate. They followed the rules for merely a short while before they started to leech off the army salary while continuing to be bandits at the same time. They did not even need to feign diplomacy: they could just loot and plunder under the guise of catching bandits. They chased after themselves, forever going round in circles with the imperial court. It was difficult for the assigned Prefectural Prefect to resist the already well-established might of the bandits, and it wasn’t long before Luo Mu suffered losses and was dealt a ruthless lesson by the bandits.
And that was not just all. In the later periods, bandit chiefs like Cai Yu appeared in Chazhou. They spoke of the chivalry of the martial fraternity, and were also willing to spend money to finance and assist their like-minded brothers. Over time, their reputation spread, and they were much more popular and admired than all those stereotypical literati. The prefectural prefect was no more than an empty shell that existed in name only.
By the time Luo Mu spoke to this point, Shen Zechuan could more or less understand why Shen Wei had not been willing to deploy troops.
Because Shen Wei did not dare to.
Shen Wei was conferred the title of the Prince of Jianxing, which was just that—a nice-sounding title. In essence, there was no difference between him and a delegated official like Luo Mu; he was also an outsider. He initially did not approve or oppose Luo Mu’s proposition because he was adopting a wait-and-see attitude. If Luo Mu succeeded, then he could follow suit. If Luo Mu failed, he could then hold him accountable. He was not willing to step to the fore to offend the bandits in Chazhou, because he knew very well that compared to Luo Mu, Cai Yu and these people were the real “local officials” of Chazhou.
“But times are different now.” Shen Zechuan’s throat felt slightly hoarse, and he coughed a couple of times. “Cai Yu is currently living off the dividends from the Yan clan, and the money he makes are tears of blood, which bandits in power like them profit off the suffering of refugees. There is no lack of basic necessities like food and clothing in Chazhou, but people dying of starvation is a common sight outside Chazhou. Over time, the common folks will come to harbor resentment.”
“To tell the truth.” Luo Mu weighed up his options and said cautiously, “After the defeat of the Zhongbo Troops, the grain supply in Chazhou shrank to pathetic portions. Back then, the Grand Secretariat cleaned out the granaries in the various prefectures and transferred the grains to Juexi in the name of disaster relief. By all reasons, it was necessary to sign a receipt of loan with Zhongbo, but Shen Wei was dead, and Qudu never sent over a person to take charge. The six prefectures each handled their affairs in their own ways. It was an uphill task just to make a living, and they all had no energy to pursue the issue of food arrears—of course, they could not afford to pursue either. Recent years saw a rise in law-abiding families breaking the law in desperation. These were people who were starving and could see no way out, so they could only sink low and become bandits. Initially, the bandits in Chazhou led by Cai Yu were willing to provide financial assistance to the poor, but then, the Yan clan of Hezhou joined the fray, wanting to make use of Cai Yu’s influence and power to push out the Xi clan’s businesses in Zhongbo, and it is for this reason they came to buy and sell grains. They joined hands and made a big fortune out of it. Cai Yu is now sitting on a mountain of money, and he grew increasingly fond of hearing others buttering up to him as he ages. Gradually, he lost the chivalrous heart he used to have. He tore down the porridge booths2 and grain stores he had set up outside and settled down with peace of mind as the local overlord of Chazhou. Voices of resentments fill the streets of Chazhou. He is no longer the person he used to be.”
However, when the mighty fall, they still command more respect than the common man. Cai Yu still had some influence left in the south of Zhongbo and in the territory of Hezhou. That “pa” Yan Heru addressed him by also carried a lot of weight. It was hard for those small gangs Luo Mu had privately funded to make a mark. He could only remain anxious but helpless about Chazhou’s existing food shortage predicament.
A brief silence fell over the room. The partially opened windows offered a glimpse of the orange jasmine still adorned with the dew of rain. The sky was overcast. A long time had since passed, and Luo Mu was running out of time to remain here.
Despite the open windows, Shen Zechuan still found it stuffy. The teacup under the pulps of his fingers had gone cold. He voiced something contradictory to what was said earlier. “If Cai Yu is still on his guard, then he should understand that the so-called voices of resentments filling the streets are merely underhanded tricks by the other gangs. As his brother-in-law, Your Excellency can give him a reminder or two in this regard.”
Luo Mu was slightly taken aback. He did not understand what Shen Zechuan meant.
Shen Zechuan brushed the tea foam aside with the white jade-like lid of the teacup and said, “With Lei Changming’s death, Cai Yu is the great bandit whose name has spread far and wide in Zhongbo. This is the perfect moment when he is in high spirits. It doesn’t matter if it’s Chazhou or the Yan Clan; he will tolerate no one else getting a share of the spoils. What’s more, a man in his twilight years fears ‘not being the man he once was’ the most. If he were to think that the present wrath of the people was the underhanded work of the younger generations, he will definitely not let them off.”
It was then Luo Mu understood. He could not help but think to himself just how a ruthless move this was.
Shen Zechuan wanted to make Cai Yu regard public wrath as infighting between the gangs. He wanted him to think that there was someone inciting the others intentionally. Once Cai Yu thought this way, he would intensify his efforts to suppress the smaller bandits in order to tighten his grasp on the money in his hands. The small bandits were already discontented. If they were to be beaten down by Cai Yu again, then their thirty percent of discontent would balloon to seventy percent. As long as both sides bore a grudge against the other, it would be hard for them to join forces again. They might even clash and give tit for tat.
“The small gangs Your Excellency has previously funded in private can be of use here. Once each of them has been badly and brutally beaten by Cai Yu, you can give them a helping hand and a generous gift of grains. Get them to band together and become brothers that bond together in a time of adversity.” Shen Zechuan finished his tea and motioned for Qiao Tianya to refill it. He looked at Luo Mu and continued, “When the small come together, they will naturally become a force to be reckoned with. It’s just like a group of jackals hunting their prey. What we need to do is not to fight him head-on, but to add fuel to the fire and fan the flames.”
Hearing this gave Luo Mu the chills. He only had to drop Cai Yu a few hints, and he would be able to make Cai Yu destroy himself. The stratagem of sowing discord was not uncommon, but Shen Zechuan had only been in Chazhou for merely one night, and he was able to get such a clear handle on Cai Yu and Chazhou. Luo Mu could not help but recall Shen Zechuan’s original identity—the Imperial Bodyguards.
“Once we take Cai Yu out of the picture, we will be able to discuss the trading of grains between both prefectures in detail.” Shen Zechuan said calmly. “Your Excellency’s experience of having to endure shame and humiliation will become an edifying anecdote in Chazhou in the future. The fact that the commoners can fill their stomachs will be Your Excellency’s most distinguished political achievement. Even in other prefectures, you’d be a local official admired by all. Your Excellency Luo, please watch your step. Goodbye.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Soon after Luo Mu left, it started raining again.
Shen Zechuan rode the carriage back to the courtyard. When he stepped off the carriage and saw the overcoat over Qiao Tianya’s arm, he said, “The weather is still warm in the seventh month. There’s no need to go so far as to wear this… Why did you even bring this?”
Holding up the umbrella, Qiao Tianya said, “I wasn’t the one who thought of it. It was shifu who specifically gave the instruction.”
Shen Zechuan strode through the door. He had gotten Ge Qingqing, who was far away in Juexi, to purchase this courtyard under the guise of doing business. It wasn’t big, and was very old. The front porch was waterlogged, and there were not that many flowers or greenery planted in the yard.
“Ever since I arrived in Zhongbo, I’ve been neglecting my martial arts practice, and subsequently, I’ve made shifu worry. After going back, don’t bring up my illness to him.” As Shen Zechuan spoke, he looked back partially and smiled at Kong Ling. “It has also been hard on Mister Chengfeng this entire journey.”
Kong Ling hurriedly deflected the acknowledgement.
“I saw the lush orange jasmines bathed in the dew of rain planted by the windows earlier when I was sitting inside the house. They are very soothing on the eyes.” Shen Zechuan said offhandedly. “Let’s plant some in the residence after heading back.”
They had only just started up the stairs when they saw Fei Sheng, who had been waiting within, step out to greet them. Not daring to be sloppy in his tasks, he faced Shen Zechuan with a smile and greeted, “Master has returned at long last.”
Shen Zechuan asked, “Looks like you have good news to report?”
“Master is wise.” Fei Sheng lifted the drapes for Shen Zechuan. “Before I set off, I received the items the marquis sent someone to deliver over. I know they are important, so I did not dare to stop on the journey and hurried all the way back to deliver it to Master.”
This person loved to speak in such an ingratiating way. Qiao Tianya found it funny and laughed out loud behind them. He followed them in and teased, “I always find it interesting when Fei the Eleventh comes. Amusing. And fun.”
Shen Zechuan removed his outer wide-sleeved robe and said, “Let me see.”
Ignoring Qiao Tianya, Fei Sheng took the items over from his subordinate and presented it before Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan touched the leather bag; it was still cold.
“The marquis sent someone to deliver it back to the residence with the specific instructions to keep it chilled on ice. We don’t have any ice at home, so we had to borrow from Madam Zhou. A pity it wasn’t covered on the way back and melted not long after.”
Shen Zechuan was curious deep down, but he did not let it show before the others. He pinched the leather bag with his fingertips. It was filled with liquid inside. He opened it, but before he could see it, he caught a waft of a pungent smell.
On smelling it, Qiao Tianya, who was not that far away from them, asked, “Isn’t this milk?”
“That can’t be.” Fei Sheng said in puzzlement. “Why would the marquis send milk all the way from afar? It can’t be kept overnight.”
They looked at Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan did not mind the smell. The corner of his lips lifted slightly in a smile. Sensing their eyes on him, he looked askance at them and asked, “What?”
Who would dare to say anything else?
Shen Zechuan closed it and opened up another box. As expected, there were loose tea leaves within. He stood for a moment and let loose a soft sigh, thinking that he really understood Xiao Chiye all too well.
Milk was the same everywhere to the others. But to Xiao Chiye, milk from Libei was milk from Libei. It could never be replaced by milk from elsewhere. He saved his own portion, and despite knowing that it could not be stored for long, he still wanted to have it delivered to Shen Zechuan.
What if it was delivered on time and was still drinkable? They ought to try all the delicious food and beverages together.
That was what Xiao Chiye thought. The others did not understand, but Shen Zechuan knew it best.
- 黃冊 Huangce or yellow registers/yellow book served during the Ming Dynasty to provide basic data for taxation and recruitment based on the household’s classification according to their occupation. It was mainly divided into three categories: civilian, military, and craftsman.
粥棚 a food relief center providing handouts of food to the needy. Like a soup kitchen in modern times.