The title, raging waves, also refers to a critical or desperate situation.
Wei Huaigu was sent to prison to be placed on trial, while Yang Cheng of the Provincial Administration Commission of Juexi was also apprehended by the Imperial Bodyguards and taken to the imperial prison. This was a major case in the year of Tianchen, and the entire court of civil and military officials was watching. Shen Zechuan moved very quickly. From the confession submitted by Yang Chen, he found out that Wei Huaigu had been reselling military provisions for profits ever since the fourth year of Xiande.
Using his position as the Minister of Revenue, Wei Huaigu would buy military provisions from Yang Cheng each time he supervised the handling of the military provisions. Then he resold it at a higher price to Xi Hongxuan, who then separately sent these military grains via sea and land towards the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo and Xuhai to make a huge profit off them. In this way, he split the land tax among the commoners’ fields in the thirteen cities of Juexi and let the common folk down there bear the tax
“Since you’ve already been doing this for so long, then why was it only this time that you were pricked by your conscience into reporting Wei Huaigu through the relay report?” Shen Zechuan looked through Yang Cheng’s confession.
Yang Cheng had been in the imperial prison for a few days. He lowered his head and said, “This time, moldy grains were used to fill it up; it’s not the same as before. Libei is going to fight a war. These grains would be the poison that causes the death of the soldiers at the frontier pass if they were sent over. I was afraid that something bad would really happen to the Hereditary Prince of Libei.”
There were no other people at the sides of the table. Xiao Chiye, who was sitting in the shadows, said out of the blue, “You are so certain that these foods will reach the mouth of the Hereditary Prince?”
Yang Cheng shifted his arms uneasily. His lips turned pale as he said, “That’s what I was afraid of. Although I’m greedy for wealth, I don’t want to cause anyone to lose their lives.”
“Don’t be afraid.” Shen Zechuan cast a glance at Xiao Chiye and softened his tone at Yang Cheng, “This place may be the imperial prison, but this is a case that is personally supervised and tried by His Majesty. If you have anything to say, you can voice them all out here.”
The contrast between both of them was stark. Yang Cheng gulped down his saliva. He was already a little dazed from the non-stop interrogation all night. He muttered, “I didn’t know it. I didn’t—”
“What didn’t you know? Shen Zechuan asked gently.
“I didn’t know that something would really happen to the Hereditary Prince of Libei…” Yang Cheng began to choke with sobs as he spoke. “I didn’t know… I was worried the Libei Armored Cavalry would suffer a defeat because of this and let the Biansha Cavalry assault their way in once again.”
Xiao Chiye bent over slightly, his body like a vicious beast whose shadows loomed over Yang Cheng’s face. He said in a frosty voice, “So you know this batch of military provisions can lead to the defeat of the Libei Armored Cavalry. Yet you still had them sealed and loaded up the carriages. You deserve to die.”
Yang Cheng grew terrified under Xiao Chiye’s gaze. Stumped for words, he cried incoherently, “Your Lordship… I plead guilty. I, I deserve to die…”
“You won’t die.” With compassion brimming in his expressive, upturned eyes on his jade-like handsome face, Shen Zechuan said, “The main perpetrator is Wei Huaigu in this case. He used his position to coerce you, and there was nothing you could do. I understand these difficulties of yours. His Lordship understands it as well. Yang Cheng, you entered government service in the era of Yongyi. You have been an official in Juexi for half of your life, and you have made your way up to the post of Assistant Administration Commissioner. You are a capable man, as assessed from the Qudu’s inspection. Now that Jiang Qingshan has left Juexi to be transferred to Zhongbo as a provincial governor, the position of the Provincial Administration Commissioner of Juexi will be vacant. Going by age and experience, you will be the first choice for recommendation when the Ministry of Personnel is deliberating over it. You see, your future was supposed to be bright, and yet you forfeited it all for that bit of money. It’s not worth it.”
Hunching over, Yang Cheng sobbed.
“I heard that you were from Baimazhou in your early years. Your family was poor, and you lost your father at the age of six. Your siblings and you were single-handedly raised by your mother alone. She sent you and your brothers to school and spent most of her life enduring hardships. She finally waited for the day you became an official and had your own residence, yet you committed such a grave mistake.” Shen Zechuan was particularly compassionate as he continued, “From today onwards, she’ll be left all alone and forsaken, and she still has to endure scorns and curses because of this case. How can you be so heartless?”
Yang Cheng could not help himself and burst out crying. He was a scholar to begin with, and he knew of propriety, justice, integrity, and honor.1 He was the most filial in serving and attending to his mother’s needs back at home. Covering his face with both hands, he cried, “I have made such an inhumane mistake. I’m too ashamed to see her again!”
“This case is still not closed. Whether you will be executed or not is still up for debate.” Xiao Chiye threw down the confession and looked askance at him. “Since you still know to be ashamed, then you still have a shred of conscience left. All the questions I’m going to ask you next will not be recorded in the confession. If you answer truthfully, I’ll think of a way to preserve your life so that your old mother may live her remaining years in peace and comfort. But if you dare to prevaricate in an attempt to fob me off, then I’ll immediately have you publicly beheaded at the foot of Duancheng’s city gate as a warning to the rest. With one relay report, you gave Wei Huaigu away and ruined many people’s golden rice bowl.2 You are a man in the trade, so you understand best what fate awaits those widows and orphans. Without me to vouch for you, the lives of everyone in your family will be in imminent danger.”
Yang Cheng cried for a long time. When he stopped, Shen Zechuan personally held out a cup of hot tea to him. He wiped his tears hastily and repeatedly said his thanks. With both hands holding the tea, he fell silent for a long while before he said, “Your Lordship’s willingness to protect me… is a great life-saving kindness. I don’t dare to ask to re-enter government service as an official again; all I wish for is to be sent into exile. This case implicates way too much. It’s not something that can be clearly explained in a short time. I’ll tell Your Lordship about it slowly.”
“Ever since the first year of the era of Xiande, the state treasury has been depleting in substantial amounts. The Ministry of Revenue’s accounts are all messed up. Hua Siqian, as the Grand Secretary of the Grand Secretariat, collaborated with Pan Rugui to approve many projects that squandered away public funds. For example, Linlang Garden in Qinzhou. Most of them weren’t really built for real. These gardens were merely just a pretext to pass through the Grand Secretariat’s examination and gain its approval so that everyone could draw out money from the state treasury together. The collusion between officials and merchants for illegal gains was something everyone in the palace knew. The money really flowed like water flowing into these people’s pockets.”
“In the fourth year of Xiande, Wei Huaigu dragged me into this. I’ll be honest, Your Lordship. I know these money shouldn’t be touched, but I had no choice. When local officials like us enter the capital, the Pan and Hua factions will take turns to call on us and ask for ‘ice respect’. No doubt you would have also heard of the widely-spread practice of spending money to get a promotion those few years. The noble clans have the dignity of a noble clan to uphold. Those who are truly held back by all these ‘ice respect’ and ‘coal respect’3 are officials from humble backgrounds like me. Without money, we can’t enter the central administration. Without money, we won’t have a job to do.”
“That year, Juexi faced a locust plague, and not a single grain was reaped from the thirteen cities. It was Jiang Qingshan who did all he could to shoulder this responsibility and save our lives. He forcibly opened up the commercial granaries to release food aid relief to the commoners, and this was how the situation did not deteriorate into a famine. It was also because of this that Jiang Qingshan became the thorn in the flesh of the prominent businessmen in Juexi. Qudu also knew this at that time. The debtors hunted him down to his residence, and his mother even had to weave fabrics to pay off the debt even at her age. But what debt was he repaying? We all know it very well that he was repaying the debt on behalf of the imperial court. But there was one thing that no one else but those of us from the Provincial Administration Commission of Juexi knew, and that was, the defeat of the Zhongbo troops was too timely.”
“Why do I say that? The state treasury was empty at that time, and Juexi had faced a calamity. Libei and Bianjun Commandery still had to deal with the Biansha Cavalry. The harvest of Hezhou further down was dismal too. People from the various areas were already starving to death at the beginning of the year. The Ministry of Revenue was forced into a corner, but they had no way to provide aid reliefs to the various areas because the state treasury had already been emptied out. Hua Siqian had to give the various regions an explanation, and Hai Liangyi of the Grand Secretariat was also looking into the accounts. In no time, Hua Siqian was caught between a rock and a hard place. This matter put him in a terrible fix. At that time, the Hua Clan in Dicheng sold their manor, and it was the Xi Clan who took over. We all know that Hua Siqian wanted to backfill the state treasury by doing this; he wanted to cover up the matter. But a vacuum of that size was not something he alone can fill in, and so, Hua Siqian began to collect his debt from the others.”
“I don’t know if Hua Siqian got his money back. But it was at this juncture that the Biansha Cavalry suddenly launched an assault at Chashi River. Duanzhou’s garrison troops suffered a crushing defeat, and Shen Wei withdrew and holed himself up like a tortoise, leading to Zhongbo’s defeat one after another. Libei Armored Cavalry and Qidong Garrison Troops came from both sides to provide reinforcements. It was at the gate of Qudu that they stopped the Biansha Tribes from penetrating deeper. But although the homeland was reclaimed, the massacred cities had already turned into deserted ones. And Juexi’s subsequent resupply of relief grains were precisely the grains of the Six Prefectures of Zhongbo.”
Shen Zechuan abruptly rose to his feet. He stood in the darkness without saying a word.
Xiao Chiye’s heart went icy as well. He and Shen Zechuan had made so many assumptions in the past, but it had never occurred to them that the defeat of the Zhongbo troops might be to fill up the empty granaries at the back and pay off the debt for Hua Siqian and the officials who were caught in a difficult position owing to the state treasury investigation.
“That was more than 100,000 people.” Shen Zechuan stupefyingly supported himself on the table and looked ahead as he said in a hoarse voice, “That was… That was the lives of 40,000 soldiers… Do you know what you are talking about…”
Shen Zechuan was caught off-guard by these words. He spent six years convincing himself that these people possibly died in the struggle for power. These vivacious people, these young lives—all of them existed once, like Ji Mu. Duanzhou was the first door in. They all died so tragically. The singing reverberating in Chashi sinkhole was Shen Zechuan’s nightmare for a lifetime.
The defeat of Zhongbo troops led to countless of victims. No one went to collect the bodies of the soldiers who died in battle. Blood inundated the dreams of survivors.
In this oppressive atmosphere, Yang Cheng held his head and said, “The filling of military grains this time really made me afraid. Zhongbo still had the chance to be rescued, but Libei can only rely on the reinforcement from Luoxia Pass. Once the Biansha Cavalry breaches Libei, I’ll become a sinner condemned through the ages!”
“The defeat of Zhongbo troops and the arrival of the Biansha Cavalry were too coincidental! Hanshe Tribe’s transfer of their troops south was not a coincidence; it was because they received news.”
In that case, Hanshe Tribe’s encounter with Xiao Jiming at the Hongyan eastern mountain range this time was definitely no coincidence either. There were people everywhere in Qudu, Zhongbo, Libei, and even Qidong, to pass information to the Twelve Tribes of Biansha. They raise the Twelve Tribes of Biansha like they were raising a jackal so starving it would lap up everything. And when necessary, they would let it into the territory to gobble up all the traces that could not be wiped clean.
“I don’t know if there is anyone else in the central administration who is still doing such a thing.” Yang Cheng said fearfully. “But it’s really a close call this time… There are already reserves in the state treasury, and the Grand Secretariat is also carrying out stringent audits on the Ministry of Revenue’s accounts. It’d be selling out the state if the Biansha Cavalry is released into our territory again. I don’t know… I don’t dare to bet on it. There are people monitoring my private correspondences, so I could only inform Qudu through the relay report!”
“Since you want to report Wei Huaigu…” Shen Zechuan suddenly lifted up Yang Cheng. “Why did you affix it with the Ministry of Revenue’s tag when you sent out the urgent relay report? The very first moment this report enters Qudu, it would land in Wei Huaigu’s hands!”
Yang Cheng lost his grip on the teacup. Under the sound of the porcelain cup shattering, he said in a trembling voice, “No, no! I had it affixed with the Ministry of Justice’s tag!”
Shen Zechuan was stunned.
Looking fearful, Yang Cheng said in disbelief, “I’d no doubt die if this report were to land in Wei Huaigu’s hands! I know that the Minister of Justice, Kong Qiu, is a courageous one. He isn’t born from a noble clan, so he will definitely not put it off or cover it up for Wei Huaigu. That’s why I triple-checked before dispatching it that it was the Ministry of Justice I tagged!”
“We’ve been had.” Xiao Chiye grasped hold of Shen Zechuan in support. The expression in his eyes was ruthless. “Wei Huaigu isn’t the culprit this time. When Wei Huaigu received the relay report, he knew that someone had already read the content. This was a silent coercion—he had to turn himself in!”
- 礼义廉耻 propriety, justice, integrity, and honor, also known as the four social bonds.
- 金饭碗 golden rice bowl; a well-paid and secure job.
- 冰敬 ‘Ice Respect’ and 炭敬 ‘Coal Respect’, together with ‘Departure Respect’, are objectionable practices of ‘Three Respects’ during the Qing Dynasty. ‘Ice Respect’ refers to the bribe money officials outside the capital used to bribe the officials in the capital during summer-time, while ‘Coal Respect’ refers to bribes made during winter-time.