Translated with: Jia<3
Lesser functionaries like clerks1 should not be confused with governmental officials. They were at the bottom of the hierarchy with no rank and were technically not considered officials. But they could write and count, and they were far more proficient in local law than the local officials, so they could dispose of all incriminating evidence and leave no traces for anyone to use against them whenever they oppressed, hoodwinked, and even extorted the local commoners. Furthermore, mutual cover-ups were prevalent, given the geographical limitations in place.
When Luo Mu initially arrived at Chazhou, there were plenty of matters he did not manage to work on, and one of the reasons was that he was impeded by the functionaries of Chazhou. The local administration not only affected the official’s political track record; sometimes, they could also become obstacles to the implementation of local policies.
The imperial court had assigned a Provincial Surveillance Commissioner to Zhongbo after the defeat of its troops, but Dunzhou had already lost the ability to control and hold the other five prefectures in check. Consequently, the corruption of local administrations in Zhongbo degenerated over the years to the point it was grim.
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Gao Zhongxiong had already been taken to a physician, and Zhou Gui was pacing the study. The advisors all sat in the partitioned area and waited silently with rapt attention for Shen Zechuan to speak. This matter concerned the screening of the functionaries, and it was also a question as to whether the yamen would be replacing its current yamen runners.
Zhou Gui spoke in a grave tone. “We were just discussing this matter yesterday, and things have gone awry today. That Old Man Xu is a yamen runner, and he has already obtained bribes over a dozen silver taels just for the screening of the functionaries alone. There are so many staff and subordinates from top to bottom in the yamen. If others are also conducting deals on this, then how many of the functionaries we employ as a result of this screening process will be truly of use?”
Yao Wenyu drank the tea and said nothing as he put the lid back on.
Anyone who was discerning could tell at a glance that this affair undoubtedly implicated Zhou Gui’s advisors. Old Man Xu was just a yamen runner, yet he dared to take advantage of the opportunity presented to make a quick buck. This would not have been doable for him at all, not unless someone was in communication with him from behind the scenes.
Yao Wenyu was Shen Zechuan’s advisor. If he were to speak up and ask for them to deal with the matter severely, he would be suspected of trying to supplant Zhou Gui’s advisors. In all the recent discussions, he had remained secure in the seat by Shen Zechuan’s side as his council, but he was a newcomer, and he could not compare in terms of seniority. The reputation of “Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo” had reached far and wide. Others treated him as an immortal when he had been beyond their reach, but now that he had fallen, they treated him as a live target. Criticism among peers was a minor affair, but if this led to friction between Shen Zechuan and Zhou Gui, it would be to the detriment of Cizhou.
“As the saying goes, every injustice has its perpetrator, and every debt, its debtor.” Shen Zechuan weighed his folding fan in his chair, his expression unreadable as he sat on the chair. “Whoever did it, just deal with said person in accordance with the standard procedure. The screening process is no small matter, and there is plenty at stake. We cannot end up hurting the various diligent and hardworking gentlemen because of paranoia.”
The advisors in the partitioned area did not dare make a sound, although a few inwardly let out sighs of relief. Shen Zechuan was in Cizhou; he still had to count on Zhou Gui’s power and influence, so it was only to be expected for him to handle the matter with care. It was still salvageable if the administration was corrupt, but it was obviously not a good time now. If they cracked down too hard and ended up implicating over half of Cizhou’s yamen by following the trail, then how were they going to get any work done when all the functionaries and subordinates’ positions have been emptied out?
Conversely, Zhou Gui was reluctant now. “Vice Commander, it is precisely because it’s no small matter that it has to be investigated! We cannot let people ruin the ethos of the yamen. If others were to imitate this behavior in the future, then it’s still the commoners who will suffer.”
“Of course, it has to be investigated. What I meant is for us to go by the book.” Shen Zechuan called for someone to steep the tea, then continued, “Old Man Xu has already been taken into custody. If Your Excellency doesn’t feel reassured, then, by all means, send someone you can trust to sit in and transcribe it down. With the Imperial Bodyguards conducting the trial, there will be results by tonight. Baseless accusations cannot be trusted, but conclusive evidence cannot be disregarded either. Whoever wants to violate the regulations of the yamen then will have to bear the responsibility for their actions. Wasn’t the newly transcribed penal laws just posted? This incident came at the right time; Your Excellency can set up court and hold the trial before the citizens of Cizhou. The more turbid the waters, the more they have to be sifted clear. But once the case concludes, we must never take inaccurate rumors for truth and jump to conclusions; the yamen does not do anything that will implicate the innocent.”
Zhou Gui said, “This matter must be taken as a warning.”
Shen Zechuan replied, “But of course; those who are lightly punished shall be dismissed from their position, and those who are severely punished shall be exiled to barren lands. If public sentiment runs high, an on-the-spot execution in the court can also serve to bring immense satisfaction to all.”
A crash rang out from the partitioned area, and the stunned gasps of the advisors suddenly rose.
Zhou Gui hurriedly asked, “What’s the matter?”
A few people responded, “Your Excellency, someone fainted!”
They initially assumed that Shen Zechuan meant to punish only Old Man Xu and show mercy to the rest of them, but who would have thought that Shen Zechuan wanted to make an example out of them. The Imperial Bodyguards were the ones presiding over the interrogation, so how could an old chap from the countryside like Old Man Xu withstand it? Not implicating the innocent meant not pursuing the matter for the others, but not a single one of the parties involved in Old Man Xu’s case this time was going to get away with it. The more those sitting in the partitioned area listened, the more seized with terror they became, so much that when Shen Zechuan uttered the four words’ on-the-spot execution’, one of them promptly passed out cold.
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It was a state of pandemonium in the study. On the other side, Gao Zhongxiong was grimacing in pain under the hands of the physician. After the physician left, he changed into a clean set of clothes with the help of the maidservants. He was one to keep himself in good health back in Qudu, so even if he was starving right now, he dared not gobble down his meal.
After he was done eating, the maidservants led Gao Zhongxiong to the courtyard. On the way there, he did not dare to look around. He knew Shen Zechuan was now residing in Cizhou, and he felt rather apprehensive. For someone who had given Han Jin counsel on the pursuit and capture of Xiao Chiye, coming to Cizhou could be said to be a risky, last-ditch move.
Gao Zhongxiong entered the courtyard and saw that the jasmine orange beyond the wooden railing of the covered walkway had all withered. No one had swept away the blanket of white petals on the ground; presumably, it was on the specific instruction of the master of the house to allow its natural fragrance to remain lingering in the air. Meanwhile, the green moss and gravelstone left along the edge of the pond bridge made it appear as though it was paved with a new, visually pleasing mattress.
Gao Zhongxiong ascended the stairs as he peeked at it, and in a moment of inattention, he nearly slipped. After he awkwardly braced himself up, he hurriedly bowed to the maidservants in front who were snickering behind covered mouths, sweating profusely as he repeated the bows.
Wind chimes dangled beneath the eaves. Ding Tao waited for Gao Zhongxiong to come over before he lifted the curtains for him and led him inside. Gao Zhongxiong did not know Ding Tao’s identity and so did not dare to offend him. Instead, he lifted the hem of his own robe, intending to stride in, only to realize that there was no threshold in this room.
The interior of the hall was bright and spacious, with no valuable ornaments. When Gao Zhongxiong was in Qudu, he often heard that Shen Zechuan kept company with Xi Hongxuan and the rest and was fond of extravagance, carrying small ivory fans on him all the time. Thus, he guessed that the owner of this residence was perhaps Zhou Gui.
Gao Zhongxiong sat upright, all prim and proper, his butt barely touching the edge of the chair as he focused and paid close attention to the signs of movement in the courtyard. A short moment later, he suddenly heard the sound of wheels from the courtyard. Ding Tao, who had been under the eaves, stepped out to greet, “Young Master.”
The curtain was lifted up, and Gao Zhongxiong promptly rose to his feet. However, the first one to enter was not Shen Zechuan or Zhou Gui, but a tall, unconventional bodyguard. This bodyguard did not look at Gao Zhongxiong. Instead, he leaned over to take over the wheelchair and pushed in a young master dressed in green with an overcoat draped over him.
Gao Zhongxiong was about to go by the propriety and kneel, but then, when he got a clear look at who was in the wheelchair, he could not help but gape with wide-opened eyes. Then he took a step back and exclaimed in shock, “Yao… Yuanzhuo!”
This exclamation put a frown onto the face of Shen Zechuan, who entered after the two. He removed his overcoat and made a beeline for the seat of honor.
Qiao Tianya pushed Yao Wenyu to the front, and the maidservants came forth to serve the tea. Yao Wenyu held the teacup in his hands and said with a neutral expression, “It has been a long time. I didn’t expect Shenwei to come to Cizhou too.”
For some reason, Gao Zhongxiong broke out in a cold sweat. He dabbed at his sweat and uttered a sound of acknowledgment. Not daring to continue looking Yao Wenyu in the eyes, he hastily paid his respects to Shen Zechuan. “Your, Your Excellency…”
Shen Zechuan found this man’s expression odd. After he took his seat, he said, “There’s no need to be so formal. Take a seat.”
How would Gao Zhongxiong dare to?
“Since Shenwei knows who the Vice Commander is, then there is no need for me to waste my breath.” Yao Wenyu initially wanted to introduce Gao Zhongxiong to Shen Zechuan, but on seeing how deathly pale Gao Zhongxiong was, he paused and changed his tone to soothe him. “Shenwei, don’t be afraid. I’m a living man.”
Gao Zhongxiong still did not dare to look up and merely repeated “yes.”
Shen Zechuan asked, “Yuanzhuo, what makes you say that?”
Yao Wenyu was succinct in his answer, “I had a chance encounter with Shenwei in Dancheng once. The poison and my injuries acted up simultaneously at that time and gave him a scare.”
But Gao Zhongxiong looked nervous. It was clearly not as simple as a chance encounter. After Yao Wenyu had his legs broken and left the capital, he went to Dancheng, where he received the care of Pan Yi and the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue. He was apparently poisoned in Dancheng, although he had never told anyone the story behind it.
Gao Zhongxiong, however, knew about it.
“I left Dancheng in such a hurry. Are the Commandant and Commandery Princess well?” Yao Wenyu asked.
At Yao Wenyu’s tone, Gao Zhongxiong gradually relaxed enough for him to answer smoothly, but he was still turned to the side and did not dare to look at Yao Wenyu. “Yes, they are both fine…”
Shen Zechuan could sense something from this exchange.
The maidservants had all retreated, while Ding Tao was striking the wind chimes for fun under the eaves. They clinked and clanked noisily, as if a gale was wreaking havoc. Qiao Tianya lifted the curtain to chase Ding Tao away, and it finally quietened down on the other side of the beaded curtain.
Yao Wenyu seemed neither happy nor unhappy to hear this piece of news. He set aside his teacup and broke the silence to say to Shen Zechuan, “When I arrived in Dancheng, the Commandery Princess was looking after me, but she is, after all, a married woman, and there were many areas that was inconvenient for her to intervene with. The Commandant thus sought out Pan Yuan, who was still living at home at that time. This Pan Yuan is the Commandant’s younger brother of common birth.”
Pan Yuan was an idler who loafed around all day. He was fond of gambling, but he was not a direct descendant of lawful birth from the Pan clan, so he could only rely on Pan Yi and his wife to repay the huge debt he owned. Pan Yi had him take care of Yao Wenyu, hoping that he could be inspired to “emulate the virtuous” and better himself. Furthermore, Pan Yuan had been very dedicated to taking care of their father in the past and could be considered a filial son.
At first, Pan Yuan could be said to be attentive. With Commandery Princess Zhaoyue’s exhortations, he did not dare to be shoddy in his treatment of Yao Wenyu. He did not have to do anything personally, either. All he had to do was watch the physicians and attendants to ensure that they were timely with the meals and medicine and that they were not loafing off on the job. But after time, Pan Yuan got tired and fed up with it and started to find excuses to venture outdoors to gamble.
“Pan Lin used a prisoner’s body as a decoy, but this move did not dispel Xue Xiuzhou’s suspicions. The Commandery Princess left in a hurry back then, and it was inevitable for there to be spies in her entourage.” Yao Wenyu continued. “The gambling den later came hounding Pan Yuan for payment, and Pan Yuan went into hiding all over. He did not dare to tell his family, so he often poured out his woes to me. But I was penniless, and I was in no position to help even if I wanted to.”
Gao Zhongxiong nodded. “Pan Yuan sought me out at that time to borrow money too. He said he had been forced into a corner. Despite selling off the fields belonging to his branch of the family, he still could not pay off his debt. I advised him to tell the Commandant as soon as possible before it was too late, but he simply refused to.”
Yao Wenyu did not speak again when Gao Zhongxiong spoke to this point.
Gao Zhongxiong continued, “In less than half a month, Pan Yuan suddenly came to me for a drink. He said his gambling debt had been fully paid off, as he had met a benefactor who had extended him help. I was worried he had been deceived by the gambling den, so I sounded him out during the feast about this benefactor. He only said this person was a Longyou merchant2 from Qudu who had asked him to run an errand for him.”
Another half a month passed. Yao Wenyu’s injuries not only did not heal, but had instead even deteriorated further. Commandery Princess Zhaoyue asked all the physicians at home, but Yao Wenyu’s condition showed no improvement. At that time, Pan Lin suffered a setback in Qudu, and even Pan Yi was impeached along with him. The issue at hand turned out to be about the Pan clan’s fields in Dancheng. Pan Xiangjie did not dare to speak up for his sons, fearful that the matter would snowball into disproportionate proportions. But even the Pan clan’s repeated concessions did not manage to stop this storm from blowing their way, and the imperial censors got so heated that they vehemently demanded Pan Lin to be suspended pending trial.
There was indeed an issue with the Pan clan, but that was a debt borne out of Pan Xiangjie’s greed. The reason Pan Lin bore the brunt of it was rather obvious—it was because he harbored Yao Wenyu. But he acted in a fit of pique at this injustice, adamant on fighting Xue Xiuzhuo till the end.
It did not take long for Pan Xiangjie to learn of the inside story. Fearing that the Pan clan would be implicated, he wrote a letter overnight to Pan Yi, who was in Dancheng, and demanded him to send Yao Wenyu back to Qudu as soon as possible. Pan Yi refused, and so Pan Xiangjie blew his top and subsequently became bedridden in illness, putting Pan Yi in a dilemma. At the same time, the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue noticed the oddness of Yao Wenyu’s condition and grew suspicious, so she bypassed the front hall and got her personal maid to call over a physician from outside the residence to take a look.
Yao Wenyu had no wish to get into the details. After a moment of silence, he merely said, “The Commandery Princess was worried that Qudu would use the matter of inspecting the fields as a pretext to come over and capture me. She initially wanted to send me to the manor that came as part of her dowry to recuperate, but there were problems with the medicine, and she could no longer trust the people in the Pan’s residence. So she prepared traveling expenses and entrusted someone with the task of sending me secretly to Jincheng, where my late teacher’s long-time friends still reside.”
But misfortune never comes singly. The people in his entourage saw that Yao Wenyu was not only seriously ill but also had both his legs broken, so after they left the city, they forgot all that the Commandery Princess Zhaoyue had entrusted to them and ran away with the traveling expenses and horse carriage under cover of the night.
That night, Yao Wenyu was thrown into the wilderness. All that remained other than the donkey was the cat. He used to sleep in the wild with mother earth as his pillow when he was wandering the mountains and plains, but the experience of it this time was completely poles apart. For the first time in his twenty-four years of life, he realized that he was nothing. He was a nobody once his reputation was stripped from him. Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo—it was at that moment Yao Wenyu loathed these words to the core. They were like humiliation branded deep into his bone marrow.
In the wilderness, Yao Wenyu broke down and cried inconsolably.
For his teacher, and for himself.
He refused to see anyone when he was in Dancheng, merely lying all day long on that bed shrouded in dimness. His legs were the ones that hurt, but his self-esteem was the one that had shattered. He had to face up to the fact that he was no longer able to take care of himself. All that carefree spirit of his had turned into a thing of the past. Such were his dreams for each sleep he took, and it remained the same when he woke.
He was broken through and through.
He still wanted to live.
- 胥吏 Throughout history, one of the most general generic designations for a class of personnel 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.
- 龙游商人 Longyou merchants, from the Longyou Group (龙游商帮), were famous merchants during the Ming and Qing dynasties for its operations in jewelry, book publishing, and paper-making industries.