Translated with: Jia<3
When Lu Yizhi left Cizhou the following day, Shen Zechuan had Fei Sheng join her entourage with the Imperial Bodyguards and instructed him to escort her into the territory of Qidong. Official business that had yet to be finalized yesterday still had to be discussed further, and so everyone settled back into their respective seats in the study with the windows open.
“This is the new document from last night for the Vice Commander’s perusal, if you may.” Zhou Gui presented the papers on the table, “We initially separated the registered citizens from the undocumented refugees and increased the severity of punishments, but during the discussion with Yuanzhuo this morning, he proposed we continue keeping both groups together and not govern them separately.”
“Post the notice up, and the issue of household registrations will be easily resolved.” Yao Wenyu let out a couple of coughs. “It’ll be unsuitable if we take the extra move of segregating them; it’ll create unhappiness among the commoners who are newly registered, as well as make it difficult for the yamen to differentiate between the old and new when they carry out their duties.”
After reading through it, Shen Zechuan nodded. “It’ll be a disaster waiting to happen too if anyone tries to fish in troubled waters when the time comes. Since this matter is settled, the only issue left for us to handle before the end of the year is that of the surveyance of fields. The current land records of the fields in Cizhou were all measured during the reign of Yongyi; they’re too outdated.”
“Cizhou has been reclaiming wastelands for three years in a row, and in truth, the acreage of land has seen a significant increase. We ought to have re-surveyed the land last year, but manpower was lacking then, and Lei Changming was driving us into such a corner; that’s why it has been delayed until now.” Zhou Gui calculated the time. “This task has to be completed before the end of the year, or errors will inevitably arise once the snow thickens.”
Cizhou now had plenty of yamen runners and constables, but capable government clerks and other lesser functionaries1 were few and far between. The advisors were mostly in charge of deliberating over official matters and were not responsible for the transcription of official documents, let alone sending them down to survey the lands. The yamen had a manpower shortage, and so did Shen Zechuan.
“After the registration and classification of households, screen them on the spot. As long as they are literate, record them down on file first for future use, regardless of whether they are locals from Cizhou or non-natives from Dancheng.” When Shen Zechuan spoke to this point, he looked around the advisors. “If someone has committed a crime in the past, we won’t be able to find out if he doesn’t declare it to us, so we have to be prudent during the screening and vetting process. Some may well see it as a business too, and it’s inevitable that there will be people who attempt to curry favor with those in authority for personal gain. However, I trust that the various gentlemen here are all men of integrity who can distinguish between the crafty and the virtuous and do the right thing when it comes down to it.”
Given how frankly he had said it, who would still not understand? The seated advisors who were initially smoking their pipes all rose to their feet noisily. A few of them looked embarrassed, no longer daring to jest around again.
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The advisors were all Zhou Gui’s honored guests with free access to the governmental office. Most of them were addressed as “mister”, with their daily needs provided by Zhou Gui. There were only two ways that they could earn some spare cash. The first was to provide literary services, and the second was to attend the banquets of the local squires and elders, where they would be able to obtain monetary rewards from the household’s masters. But now that they were in charge of recording the registrations and screening the lesser functionaries, there was no doubt some among the current flood of refugees into Cizhou would be thinking of pulling strings and sneaking them bribes on the sly.
Gao Zhongxiong was one of the unlucky ones.
After Han Jin was taken as prisoner, Gao Zhongxiong did not dare to return to Qudu for fear that Han Cheng would pursue the matter, so he relied on his connection to his maternal uncle in Dancheng and remained in Dancheng as Pan Yi’s advisor. At first, Pan Yi had the intent to entrust him with heavy responsibility, but many of the plans and strategies he put forth were impractical theories that only looked good on paper, and so Pan Yi gradually gave him the cold shoulder. Bullied and humiliated by the servants in the Pan’s residence, he had no choice but to return to his uncle’s house. But when it rains, it pours, and his uncle fell to his death one night while in a drunken stupor. Gao Zhongxiong was a scholar who was too physically weak to carry out practical work, and his auntie, disdaining him for being useless, found an excuse to send him back to Yuzhou.
Gao Zhongxiong felt ashamed to return home to face his elders and fellow townsfolk, so he thought of selling calligraphy and paintings to rent a few acres of low-yield land and do an imitation of a carefree immortal leading a simple and virtuous life far from the struggle for power and wealth. But who knew? He had not even worked in the field a couple of times after saving enough money to buy it when the field was forcibly seized by the local despot from the Fei clan. Gao Zhongxiong went to the yamen to lodge a complaint, and on that very same night, he was stopped by some men in the alley and beaten up. Even his house was robbed. Without a penny to his name, he was driven to the streets and reduced to beggary. He wanted to return to Yuzhou, but he had no traveling expenses. Left without an alternative, he fled Dancheng with the other refugees and came to Cizhou, hoping to try his luck.
“Old Man Xu,” Gao Zhongxiong stood reservedly outside the door and hurriedly called out when he saw the man coming out. “Any news about the matter from the yamen?”
To think he used to be an outstanding personage back in Qudu, but now, he had to humble himself when speaking to others. He wanted to ingratiate himself with the other man, but he was unwilling to overdo it due to his pride. However, standing fixed in place made him look rather out of place.
The yamen runner with the surname Xu brandished his yamen paddle2 and shooed Gao Zhongxiong to a side. It was only when he turned back and could no longer see the interior of the yamen that he reproached Gao Zhongxiong in a hushed tone, “What are you doing here?”
Gao Zhongxiong felt so humiliated from the admonishment that he could not lift his head. He clenched his sleeves and forced a smile when he managed to raise his head again. “I passed by the wine store ahead earlier, and I brought some over for you to quench your thirst. Here, have some.” He presented the wine with both hands, continuing only when he saw the other man’s expression softened some. “I’ve been in Cizhou for a few days. About that matter I spoke to you about the last time—”
“That matter? That matter?” Yamen runner Xu drank the wine and denied it after wiping his mouth. “What matter?”
“About getting a job in the yamen.” Gao Zhongxiong did not lift his hand to wipe away the spittle on his face. “Please do me a favor and pass a message to the various advisors. Just say that I was formerly a student from Qudu who has received the Chief Surveillance Bureau, Cen…”
“Oh, that matter. That can be easily arranged!” Yamen runner Xu moved in closer. “Prepare three taels of silvers, and I’ll buy a few packs of tobacco for the various gentlemen. You’ll be able to get past this hurdle then!”
Gao Zhongxiong was stunned for a moment, his expression a mixture of joy and sorrow. “I’ve already given it all to you. I have no more money.”
Yamen runner Xu instantly turned hostile. The old man said, “How can you do anything without money? You think the gentlemen live on vegetables? They’ll only acknowledge cold hard cash! If I hadn’t taken pity on you and was willing to help you out, how could these silvers have been enough? No way it would have been enough!”
Gao Zhongxiong hastily tugged on yamen runner Xu’s arm. “I’ve already given you a total of seven taels of silver in all. You must have some news…”
“You want to get in through the use of connections, but you can’t bear to part with your money.” Yamen runner Xu threw the wine gourd into Gao Zhongxiong’s arms and stretched his neck out to spat at him, his words contemptuous, “You know, even when you pee or shit, you still have to undo your belt!”
All of Gao Zhongxiong’s money had been cheated out of him by yamen runner Xu, and since he had been hanging out with the group of refugees all day, he was as filthy as a beggar. As he looked at yamen runner Xu’s mug now, he recalled the humiliation he experienced in Dancheng. In a fit of anger, he charged towards yamen runner Xu without a care, threw him one tight slap, and yelled, “Since you didn’t do what I asked, give me back my money!”
Yamen runner Xu could not have imagined that Gao Zhongxiong would dare to hit him. He pointed at the tip of Gao Zhongxiong’s nose. “You, you! A despicable cheapskate like you dares to hit me?!”
As they exchanged blows, yamen runner Xu swung his yamen paddle at Gao Zhongxiong’s waist, kicked him over to the ground, and whacked away at him viciously. Gao Zhongxiong, a mere scholar who had been starving for days, felt a stab of intense pain on his waist as one of the blows landed on an undetermined bone in his body. He rolled on the floor, covering his head as he attempted to dodge the blows, crying so hard he was out of breath. Even so, he still shouted, “Are you human? You cheated me out of my money. Are you still human?!”
With more people crowding over, yamen runner Xu did not dare stir up a big commotion, lest the yamen came to investigate. He tossed aside his yamen paddle and straddled on top of Gao Zhongxiong, then gripped his face by the jaw and shoved a towel used for wiping sweat into his mouth to gag him. Gao Zhongxiong was howling as he struggled, so yamen runner Xu slapped him ruthlessly multiple times until Gao Zhongxiong’s ears were ringing and his vision blurred; even the corners of his mouth were bleeding.
“I’m on official business here!” Yamen runner Xu shouted to the crowd around him, “This son of a bitch is a thief from Dancheng. I caught him the last time. To think he still dares come and seek revenge today!”
A sound escaped from Gao Zhongxiong’s throat as yamen runner Xu dragged him by the collar towards the yamen’s entrance. The side of his cheek scraped against the ground, bloodied by the gravel. He reached his hand out towards those before him in a plea for help.
Yamen runner Xu kicked Gao Zhongxiong a few more times on the chest and abdomen. As yamen runners, they were the most adept at running around detaining and summoning people for questioning—teaching a frail scholar like Gao Zhongxiong a lesson was simply a piece of cake. As long as he dragged Gao Zhongxiong in today and kept the latter gagged while he processed the latter with a thievery charge, he could throw him in jail. By then, all he had to do was to give the wardens he was on familiar terms with a heads-up, and Gao Zhongxiong would have it coming for him. Whether or not he could survive past the eighth month would all depend on yamen runner Xu’s mood!
At the same time the commotion was ongoing, Zhou Gui was returning with Shen Zechuan from the fields on the outskirts of the city. The horse carriage had been obstructed midway along the path, and he thought it was yet another instance of the refugees causing trouble.
Shen Zechuan did not say a word. Zhou Gui hurriedly stepped off his own carriage and hoisted up the hem of his robe as he pushed through the crowd and asked, “What’s going on? Who is kicking up a ruckus by the entrance of the yamen?!”
Yamen runner Xu immediately replied, “To answer Your Excellency, I’ve caught a thief! He not only refuses to submit, but even hits others!”
For the past few days, Zhou Gui had been perturbed over the lack of public order in the city. He furrowed his brow at hearing this. “Even so, that’s no way to handle the situation. What do you mean by beating up others in the streets? That’s not right!” He took a glance at Gao Zhongxiong. He initially intended to chastise him and educate him on the proprieties and morals. However, he remembered that Shen Zechuan’s horse carriage was still obstructed at the back. They could not afford a delay, so he said, “Hurry and bring him in. Give him a proper trial once he has been cleaned up.”
Upon hearing this, Gao Zhongxiong started struggling with all his might and attempted to spit out the towel in his mouth.
Yao Wenyu was currently discussing the reviews of the clerks and other lesser functionaries over these few days with Shen Zechuan. The carriage had remained stuck for a long time with no signs of movement. Qiao Tianya returned and lifted a corner of the curtain to report to Shen Zechuan. “Master, they’re still making a ruckus. Let’s take a detour.”
Shen Zechuan pushed the curtains higher with his folding fan and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“They’re saying it’s a thief; the yamen runner arrested him on the streets.” Qiao Tianya shifted his body slightly to give way. “I didn’t see any calluses on his hands; he seems to be a scholar.”
Yao Wenyu, who rarely enjoyed being in noisy places now, looked over together with them. The area ahead was swarming with a crowd of people; he could see nothing at all.
“Let’s take a detour.” Shen Zechuan released the drapes and let it fall. “Head straight to the Zhou’s residence. There are still people waiting in the study. We have to discuss the matter of the mutual market before the hour of you.”
Qiao Tianya ordered the carriage driver to turn the horses around. As they were turning, they suddenly heard a heartbreaking wail from ahead. “You people are forcing me to my death! What kind of yamen is this?! Oh heavens, do you have to reduce me, Gao Zhongxiong, to such straits?!”
Yao Wenyu abruptly lifted the drapes and said to Qiao Tianya, “Hold on, that person is Gao Zhongxiong, whose essays Cen Yu have given pointers to before.” He then looked towards Shen Zechuan. “He’s the student who led three thousand students from the Imperial College to denounce Pan Rugui that rainy night. Vice Commander, this person is of use to us!”
- 胥吏 Throughout history, one of the most general generic designations for a class of minor staff who performed the more menial tasks in all governmental units and had no ranked civil service status, though at times they could be promoted into official status for meritorious service.
水火棍 a red and black rod or paddle used by yamen underlings in the past.