The tiny cottage at the edge of Sanli Village—away from the villagers’ noisy houses and busy clan shrines and next to the cool pond filled with lily pads, pink lotus flowers, and playful carp—would have made an ideal romantic summer hideaway for some dissolute poet and his silk-robed mistress from nearby bustling Yangzhou.
Indeed, having such a country lodge was the fashion among the literati in the lower Yangtze region in this second decade of the glorious reign of the Qianlong Emperor. Everyone agreed—as they visited each other in their vacation homes and sipped tea—that he was the best Emperor of the Qing Dynasty: so wise, so vigorous, and so solicitous of his subjects! And as the Qing Dynasty, founded by Manchu sages, was without a doubt the best dynasty ever to rule China, the scholars competed to compose poems that best showed their gratitude for having the luck to bear witness to this golden age, gift of the greatest Emperor who ever lived.
Alas, any scholar interested in this cottage must be disappointed for it was decrepit. The bamboo grove around it was wild and unkempt; the wooden walls crooked, rotting, and full of holes; the thatching over the roof uneven, with older layers peeking out through holes in the newer layers—
—not unlike the owner and sole inhabitant of the cottage, actually. Tian Haoli was in his fifties but looked ten years older. He was gaunt, sallow, his queue as thin as a pig’s tail, and his breath often smelled of the cheapest rice wine and even cheaper tea. An accident in youth had lamed his right leg, but he preferred to shuffle slowly rather than using a cane. His robe was patched all over, though his under-robe still showed through innumerable holes.
Unlike most in the village, Tian knew how to read and write, but as far as anyone knew, he never passed any level of the Imperial Examinations. From time to time, he would write a letter for some family or read an official notice in the teahouse in exchange for half a chicken or a bowl of dumplings.
But that was not how he really made his living.
The morning began like any other. As the sun rose lazily, the fog hanging over the pond dissipated like dissolving ink. Bit by bit, the pink lotus blossoms, the jade-green bamboo stalks, and the golden-yellow cottage roof emerged from the fog.
Tian stirred but did not wake up. The Monkey King was hosting a banquet, and Tian was going to eat his fill.
Ever since Tian was a little boy, he has been obsessed with the exploits of the Monkey King, the trickster demon who had seventy-two transformations and defeated hundreds of monsters, who had shaken the throne of the Jade Emperor with a troop of monkeys.
And Monkey liked good food and loved good wine, a must in a good host.
Tian ignored the knocking. He was about to bite into a piece of drunken chicken dipped in four different exquisite sauces—
You going to answer that? Monkey said.
As Tian grew older, Monkey would visit him in his dreams, or, if he was awake, speak to him in his head. While others prayed to the Goddess of Mercy or the Buddha, Tian enjoyed conversing with Monkey, who he felt was a demon after his own heart.
Whatever it is, it can wait, said Tian.
I think you have a client, said Monkey.
The insistent knocking whisked away Tian’s chicken and abruptly ended his dream. His stomach growled, and he cursed as he rubbed his eyes.
“Just a moment!” Tian fumbled out of bed and struggled to put on his robe, muttering to himself all the while. “Why can’t they wait till I’ve woken up properly and pissed and eaten? These unlettered fools are getting more and more unreasonable . . . I must demand a whole chicken this time . . . It was such a nice dream . . .”
I’ll save some plum wine for you, said Monkey.
Tian opened the door. Li Xiaoyi, a woman so timid that she apologized even when some rambunctious child ran into her, stood there in a dark green dress, her hair pinned up in the manner prescribed for widows. Her fist was lifted and almost smashed into Tian’s nose.
“Aiya!” Tian said. “You owe me the best drunk chicken in Yangzhou!” But Li’s expression, a combination of desperation and fright, altered his tone. “Come on in.”
He closed the door behind the woman and poured a cup of tea for her.
Men and women came to Tian as a last resort, for he helped them when they had nowhere else to turn, when they ran into trouble with the law.
The Qianlong Emperor might be all-wise and all-seeing, but he still needed the thousands of yamen courts to actually govern. Presided over by a magistrate, a judge-administrator who held the power of life and death over the local citizens in his charge, a yamen court was a mysterious, opaque place full of terror for the average man and woman.
Who knew the secrets of the Great Qing Code? Who understood how to plead and prove and defend and argue? When the magistrate spent his evenings at parties hosted by the local gentry, who could predict how a case brought by the poor against the rich would fare? Who could intuit the right clerk to bribe to avoid torture? Who could fathom the correct excuse to give to procure a prison visit?
No, one did not go near the yamen courts unless one had no other choice. When you sought justice, you gambled everything.
And you needed the help of a man like Tian Haoli.
Calmed by the warmth of the tea, Li Xiaoyi told Tian her story in halting sentences.
She had been struggling to feed herself and her two daughters on the produce from a tiny plot of land. To survive a bad harvest, she had mortgaged her land to Jie, a wealthy, distant cousin of her dead husband, who promised that she could redeem her land at any time, interest free. As Li could not read, she had gratefully inked her thumbprint to the contract her cousin handed her.
“He said it was just to make it official for the tax collector,” Li said.
Ah, a familiar story, said the Monkey King.
Tian sighed and nodded.
“I paid him back at the beginning of this year, but yesterday, Jie came to my door with two bailiffs from the yamen. He said that my daughters and I had to leave our house immediately because we had not been making the payments on the loan. I was shocked, but he took out the contract and said that I had promised to pay him back double the amount loaned in one year or else the land would become his forever. ‘It’s all here in black characters on white paper,’ he said, and waved the contract in my face. The bailiffs said that if I don’t leave by tomorrow, they’ll arrest me and sell me and my daughters to a blue house to satisfy the debt.” She clenched her fists. “I don’t know what to do!”
Tian refilled her teacup and said, “We’ll have to go to court and defeat him.”
You sure about this? said the Monkey King. You haven’t even seen the contract.
You worry about the banquets, and I’ll worry about the law.
“How?” Li asked. “Maybe the contract does say what he said.”
“I’m sure it does. But don’t worry, I’ll think of something.”
To those who came to Tian for help, he was a songshi, a litigation master. But to the yamen magistrate and the local gentry, to the men who wielded money and power, Tian was a songgun, a “litigating hooligan.”
The scholars who sipped tea and the merchants who caressed their silver taels despised Tian for daring to help the illiterate peasants draft complaints, devise legal strategies, and prepare for testimony and interrogation. After all, according to Confucius, neighbors should not sue neighbors. A conflict was nothing more than a misunderstanding that needed to be harmonized by a learned Confucian gentleman. But men like Tian Haoli dared to make the crafty peasants think that they could haul their superiors into court, and could violate the proper hierarchies of respect! The Great Qing Code made it clear that champerty, maintenance, barratry, pettifoggery—whatever name you used to describe what Tian did—were crimes.
But Tian understood the yamen courts were parts of a complex machine. Like the watermills that dotted the Yangtze River, complicated machines had patterns, gears, and levers. They could be nudged and pushed to do things, provided you were clever. As much as the scholars and merchants hated Tian, sometimes they also sought his help, and paid him handsomely for it, too.
“I can’t pay you much.”
Tian chuckled. “The rich pay my fee when they use my services but hate me for it. In your case, it’s payment enough to see this moneyed cousin of yours foiled.”
Tian accompanied Li to the yamen court. Along the way, they passed the town square, where a few soldiers were putting up posters of wanted men.
Li glanced at the posters and slowed down. “Wait, I think I may know—”
“Shush!” Tian pulled her along. “Are you crazy? Those aren’t the magistrate’s bailiffs, but real Imperial soldiers. How can you possibly recognize a man wanted by the Emperor?”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken. If one of them hears you, even the greatest litigation master in China won’t be able to help you. You have trouble enough. When it comes to politics, it’s best to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
That’s a philosophy a lot of my monkeys used to share, said the Monkey King. But I disagree with it.
You would, you perpetual rebel, thought Tian Haoli. But you can grow a new head when it’s cut off, a luxury most of us don’t share.
Outside the yamen court, Tian picked up the drumstick and began to beat the Drum of Justice, petitioning the court to hear his complaint.
Half an hour later, an angry Magistrate Yi stared at the two people kneeling on the paved-stone floor below the dais: the widow trembling in fear, and that troublemaker, Tian, his back straight with a false look of respect on his face. Magistrate Yi had hoped to take the day off to enjoy the company of a pretty girl at one of the blue houses, but here he was, forced to work. He had a good mind to order both of them flogged right away, but he had to at least keep up the appearance of being a caring magistrate lest one of his disloyal underlings make a report to the judicial inspector.
“What is your complaint, guileful peasant?” asked the magistrate, gritting his teeth.
Tian shuffled forward on his knees and kowtowed. “Oh, Most Honored Magistrate,” he began—Magistrate Yi wondered how Tian managed to make the phrase sound almost like an insult—”Widow Li cries out for justice, justice, justice!”
“And why are you here?”
“I’m Li Xiaoyi’s cousin, here to help her speak, for she is distraught over how she’s been treated.”
Magistrate Yi fumed. This Tian Haoli always claimed to be related to the litigant to justify his presence in court and avoid the charge of being a litigating hooligan. He slammed his hardwood ruler, the symbol of his authority, against the table. “You lie! How many cousins can you possibly have?”
“I lie not.”
“I warn you, if you can’t prove this relation in the records of the Li clan shrine, I’ll have you given forty strokes of the cane.” Magistrate Yi was pleased with himself, thinking that he had finally come up with a way to best the crafty litigation master. He gave a meaningful look to the bailiffs standing to the sides of the court, and they pounded their staffs against the ground rhythmically, emphasizing the threat.
But Tian seemed not worried at all. “Most Sagacious Magistrate, it was Confucius who said that ‘Within the Four Seas, all men are brothers.’ If all men were brothers at the time of Confucius, then it stands to reason that being descended from them, Li Xiaoyi and I are related. With all due respect, surely, Your Honor isn’t suggesting that the genealogical records of the Li family are more authoritative than the words of the Great Sage?”
Magistrate Yi’s face turned red, but he could not think of an answer. Oh, how he wished he could find some excuse to punish this sharp-tongued songgun, who always seemed to turn black into white and right into wrong. The Emperor needed better laws to deal with men like him.
“Let’s move on.” The magistrate took a deep breath to calm himself. “What is this injustice she claims? Her cousin Jie read me the contract. It’s perfectly clear what happened.”
“I’m afraid there’s been a mistake,” Tian said. “I ask that the contract be brought so it can be examined again.”
Magistrate Yi sent one of the bailiffs to bring back the wealthy cousin with the contract. Everyone in court, including Widow Li, looked at Tian in puzzlement, unsure what he planned. But Tian simply stroked his beard, appearing to be without a care in the world.
You do have a plan, yes? said the Monkey King.
Not really. I’m just playing for time.
Well, said Monkey, I always like to turn my enemies’ weapons against them. Did I tell you about the time I burned Nezha with his own fire-wheels?
Tian dipped his hand inside his robe, where he kept his writing kit.
The bailiff brought back a confused, sweating Jie, who had been interrupted during a luxurious meal of swallow-nest soup. His face was still greasy, as he hadn’t even gotten a chance to wipe himself. Jie knelt before the magistrate next to Tian and Li and lifted the contract above his head for the bailiff.
“Show it to Tian,” the magistrate ordered.
Tian accepted the contract and began to read it. He nodded his head from time to time, as though the contract was the most fascinating poetry.
Though the legalese was long and intricate, the key phrase was only eight characters long:
The mortgage was structured as a sale with a right of redemption, and this part provided that the widow sold her cousin “the crops above, and the field below.”
“Interesting, most interesting,” said Tian as he held the contract and continued to move his head about rhythmically.
Magistrate Yi knew he was being baited, yet he couldn’t help but ask, “What is so interesting?”
“Oh Great, Glorious Magistrate, you who reflect the truth like a perfect mirror, you must read the contract yourself.”
Confused, Magistrate Yi had the bailiff bring him the contract. After a few moments, his eyes bulged out. Right there, in clear black characters, was the key phrase describing the sale:
“The crops above, but not the field,” muttered the magistrate.
Well, the case was clear. The contract did not say what Jie claimed. All that Jie had a right to were the crops, but not the field itself. Magistrate Yi had no idea how this could have happened, but his embarrassed fury needed an outlet. The sweaty, greasy-faced Jie was the first thing he laid his eyes on.
“How dare you lie to me?” Yi shouted, slamming his ruler down on the table. “Are you trying to make me look like a fool?”
It was now Jie’s turn to shake like a leaf in the wind, unable to speak.
“Oh, now you have nothing to say? You’re convicted of obstruction of justice, lying to an Imperial official, and attempting to defraud another of her property. I sentence you to a hundred and twenty strokes of the cane and confiscation of half of your property.”
“Mercy, mercy! I don’t know what happened—” The piteous cries of Jie faded as the bailiffs dragged him out of the yamen to jail.
Litigation Master Tian’s face was impassive, but inside he smiled and thanked Monkey. Discreetly, he rubbed the tip of his finger against his robe to eliminate the evidence of his trick.
A week later, Tian Haoli was awakened from another banquet-dream with the Monkey King by persistent knocking. He opened the door to find Li Xiaoyi standing there, her pale face drained of blood.
“What’s the matter? Is your cousin again—”
“Master Tian, I need your help.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “It’s my brother.”
“Is it a gambling debt? A fight with a rich man? Did he make a bad deal? Was he—”
“Please! You have to come with me!”
Tian Haoli was going to say no because a clever songshi never got involved in cases he didn’t understand—a quick way to end a career. But the look on Li’s face softened his resolve. “All right. Lead the way.”
Tian made sure that there was no one watching before he slipped inside Li Xiaoyi’s hut. Though he didn’t have much of a reputation to worry about, Xiaoyi didn’t need the village gossips wagging their tongues.
Inside, a long, crimson streak could be seen across the packed-earth floor, leading from the doorway to the bed against the far wall. A man lay asleep on the bed, bloody bandages around his legs and left shoulder. Xiaoyi’s two children, both girls, huddled in a shadowy corner of the hut, their mistrustful eyes peeking out at Tian.
One glance at the man’s face told Tian all he needed to know: It was the same face on those posters the soldiers were putting up.
Tian Haoli sighed. “Xiaoyi, what kind of trouble have you brought me now?”
Gently, Xiaoyi shook her brother, Xiaojing, awake. He became alert almost immediately, a man used to light sleep and danger on the road.
“Xiaoyi tells me that you can help me,” the man said, gazing at Tian intently.
Tian rubbed his chin as he appraised Xiaojing. “I don’t know.”
“I can pay.” Xiaojing struggled to turn on the bed and lifted a corner of a cloth bundle. Tian could see the glint of silver underneath.
“I make no promises. Not every disease has a cure, and not every fugitive can find a loophole. It depends on who’s after you and why.” Tian walked closer and bent down to examine the promised payment, but the tattoos on Xiaojing’s scarred face, signs that he was a convicted criminal, caught his attention. “You were sentenced to exile.”
“Yes, ten years ago, right after Xiaoyi’s marriage.”
“If you have enough money, there are doctors that can do something about those tattoos, though you won’t look very handsome afterwards.”
“I’m not very worried about looks right now.”
“What was it for?”
Xiaojing laughed and nodded at the table next to the window, upon which a thin book lay open. The wind fluttered its pages. “If you’re as good as my sister says, you can probably figure it out.”
Tian glanced at the book and then turned back to Xiaojing.
“You were exiled to the border near Vietnam,” Tian said to himself as he deciphered the tattoos. “Eleven years ago . . . the breeze fluttering the pages . . . ah, you must have been a servant of Xu Jun, the Hanlin Academy scholar.”
Eleven years ago, during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor, someone had whispered in the Emperor’s ear that the great scholar Xu Jun was plotting rebellion against the Manchu rulers. But when the Imperial guards seized Xu’s house and ransacked it, they could find nothing incriminating.
However, the Emperor could never be wrong, and so his legal advisors had to devise a way to convict Xu. Their solution was to point at one of Xu’s seemingly innocuous lyric poems:
The first character in the word for “breeze,” qing, was the same as the name of the dynasty. The clever legalists serving the Emperor—and Tian did have a begrudging professional admiration for their skill—construed it as a treasonous composition mocking the Manchu rulers as uncultured and illiterate. Xu and his family were sentenced to death, his servants exiled.
“Xu’s crime was great, but it has been more than ten years.” Tian paced beside the bed. “If you simply broke the terms of your exile, it might not be too difficult to bribe the right officials and commanders to look the other way.”
“The men after me cannot be bribed.”
“Oh?” Tian looked at the bandaged wounds covering the man’s body. “You mean . . . the Blood Drops.”
The Blood Drops were the Emperor’s eyes and talons. They moved through the dark alleys of cities like ghosts and melted into the streaming caravans on roads and canals, hunting for signs of treason. They were the reason that teahouses posted signs for patrons to avoid talk of politics and neighbors looked around and whispered when they complained about taxes. They listened, watched, and sometimes came to people’s doors in the middle of the night, and those they visited were never seen again.
Tian waved his arms impatiently. “You and Xiaoyi are wasting my time. If the Blood Drops are after you, I can do nothing. Not if I want to keep my head attached to my neck.” Tian headed for the door of the hut.
“I’m not asking you to save me,” said Xiaojing.
“Eleven years ago, when they came to arrest Master Xu, he gave me a book and told me it was more important than his life, than his family. I kept the book hidden and took it into exile with me.
“A month ago, two men came to my house, asking me to turn over everything I had from my dead master. Their accents told me they were from Beijing, and I saw in their eyes the cold stare of the Emperor’s falcons. I let them in and told them to look around, but while they were distracted with my chests and drawers, I escaped with the book.
“I’ve been on the run ever since, and a few times they almost caught me, leaving me with these wounds. The book they’re after is over there on the table. That’s what I want you to save.”
Tian hesitated by the door. He was used to bribing yamen clerks and prison guards and debating Magistrate Yi. He liked playing games with words and drinking cheap wine and bitter tea. What business did a lowly songgun have with the Emperor and the intrigue of the Court?
I was once happy on Fruit-and-Flower Mountain, spending all day in play with my fellow monkeys, said the Monkey King. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been so curious about what lay in the wider world.
But Tian was curious, and he walked over to the table and picked up the book. An Account of Ten Days at Yangzhou, it said, by Wang Xiuchu.
A hundred years earlier, in 1645, after claiming the Ming Chinese capital of Beijing, the Manchu Army was intent on completing its conquest of China.
Prince Dodo and his forces came to Yangzhou, a wealthy city of salt merchants and painted pavilions, at the meeting point of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal. The Chinese commander, Grand Secretary Shi Kefa, vowed to resist to the utmost. He rallied the city’s residents to reinforce the walls and tried to unite the remaining Ming warlords and militias.
His efforts came to naught on May 20, 1645, when the Manchu forces broke through the city walls after a seven-day siege. Shi Kefa was executed after refusing to surrender. To punish the residents of Yangzhou and to teach the rest of China a lesson about the price of resisting the Manchu Army, Prince Dodo gave the order to slaughter the entire population of the city.
One of the residents, Wang Xiuchu, survived by moving from hiding place to hiding place and bribing the soldiers with whatever he had. He also recorded what he saw:
One Manchu soldier with a sword was in the lead, another with a lance was in the back, and a third roamed in the middle to prevent the captives from escaping. The three of them herded dozens of captives like dogs and sheep. If any captive walked too slow, they would beat him immediately, or else kill him on the spot.
The women were strung together with ropes, like a strand of pearls. They stumbled as they walked through the mud, and filth covered their bodies and clothes. Babies were everywhere on the ground, and as horses and people trampled over them, their brains and organs mixed into the earth, and the howling of the dying filled the air.
Every gutter or pond we passed was filled with corpses, their arms and legs entangled. The blood mixing with the green water turned into a painter’s palette. So many bodies filled the canal that it turned into flat ground.
The mass massacre, raping, pillaging, and burning of the city lasted six days.
On the second day of the lunar month, the new government ordered all the temples to cremate the bodies. The temples had sheltered many women, though many had also died from hunger and fright. The final records of the cremations included hundreds of thousands of bodies, though this figure does not include all those who had committed suicide by jumping into wells or canals or through self-immolation and hanging to avoid a worse fate. . . .
On the fourth day of the lunar month, the weather finally turned sunny. The bodies piled by the roadside, having soaked in rainwater, had inflated and the skin on them was a bluish black and stretched taut like the surface of a drum. The flesh inside rotted and the stench was overwhelming. As the sun baked the bodies, the smell grew worse. Everywhere in Yangzhou, the survivors were cremating bodies. The smoke permeated inside all the houses and formed a miasma. The smell of rotting bodies could be detected a hundred li away.
Tian’s hands trembled as he turned over the last page.
“Now you see why the Blood Drops are after me,” said Xiaojing, his voice weary. “The Manchus have insisted that the Yangzhou Massacre is a myth, and anyone speaking of it is guilty of treason. But here is an eyewitness account that will reveal their throne was built on a foundation of blood and skulls.”
Tian closed his eyes and thought about Yangzhou, with its teahouses full of indolent scholars arguing with singing girls about rhyme schemes, with its palatial mansions full of richly-robed merchants celebrating another good trading season, with its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants happily praying for the Manchu Emperor’s health. Did they know that each day, as they went to the markets and laughed and sang and praised this golden age they lived in, they were treading on the bones of the dead, they were mocking the dying cries of the departed, they were denying the memories of ghosts? He himself had not even believed the stories whispered in his childhood about Yangzhou’s past, and he was quite sure that most young men in Yangzhou now have never even heard of them.
Now that he knew the truth, could he allow the ghosts to continue to be silenced?
But then he also thought about the special prisons the Blood Drops maintained, the devious tortures designed to prolong the journey from life to death, the ways that the Manchu Emperors always got what they wanted in the end. The Emperor’s noble Banners had succeeded in forcing all the Chinese to shave their heads and wear queues to show submission to the Manchus, and to abandon their hanfu for Manchu clothing on pain of death. They had cut the Chinese off from their past, made them a people adrift without the anchor of their memories. They were more powerful than the Jade Emperor and ten thousand heavenly soldiers.
It would be so easy for them to erase this book, to erase him, a lowly songgun, from the world, like a momentary ripple across a placid pond.
Let others have their fill of daring deeds; he was a survivor.
“I’m sorry,” Tian said to Xiaojing, his voice low and hoarse. “I can’t help you.”
Tian Haoli sat down at his table to eat a bowl of noodles. He had flavored it with fresh lotus seeds and bamboo shoots, and the fragrance was usually refreshing, perfect for a late lunch.
The Monkey King appeared in the seat opposite him: fierce eyes, wide mouth, a purple cape that declared him to be the Sage Equal to Heaven, rebel against the Jade Emperor.
This didn’t happen often. Usually Monkey spoke to Tian only in his mind.
“You think you’re not a hero,” the Monkey King said.
“That’s right,” replied Tian. He tried to keep the defensiveness out of his voice. “I’m just an ordinary man making a living by scrounging for crumbs in the cracks of the law, happy to have enough to eat and a few coppers left for drink. I just want to live.”
“I’m not a hero either,” the Monkey King said. “I just did my job when needed.”
“Ha!” said Tian. “I know what you’re trying to do, but it’s not going to work. Your job was to protect the holiest monk on a perilous journey, and your qualifications consisted of peerless strength and boundless magic. You could call on the aid of the Buddha and Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, whenever you needed to. Don’t you compare yourself to me.”
“Fine. Do you know of any heroes?”
Tian slurped some noodles and pondered the question. What he had read that morning was fresh in his mind. “I guess Grand Secretary Shi Kefa was a hero.”
“How? He promised the people of Yangzhou that as long as he lived, he would not let harm come to them, and yet when the city fell, he tried to escape on his own. He seems to me more a coward than a hero.”
Tian put down his bowl. “That’s not fair. He held the city when he had no reinforcements or aid. He pacified the warlords harassing the people in Yangzhou and rallied them to their defense. In the end, despite a moment of weakness, he willingly gave his life for the city, and you can’t ask for more than that.”
The Monkey King snorted contemptuously. “Of course you can. He should have seen that fighting was futile. If he hadn’t resisted the Manchu invaders and instead surrendered the city, maybe not so many would have died. If he hadn’t refused to bow down to the Manchus, maybe he wouldn’t have been killed.” The Monkey King smirked. “Maybe he wasn’t very smart and didn’t know how to survive.”
Blood rushed to Tian’s face. He stood up and pointed a finger at the Monkey King. “Don’t you talk about him that way. Who’s to say that had he surrendered, the Manchus wouldn’t have slaughtered the city anyway? You think lying down before a conquering army bent on rape and pillage is the right thing to do? To turn your argument around, the heavy resistance in Yangzhou slowed the Manchu Army and might have allowed many people to escape to safety in the south, and the city’s defiance might have made the Manchus willing to give better terms to those who did surrender later. Grand Secretary Shi was a real hero!”
The Monkey King laughed. “Listen to you, arguing like you are in Magistrate Yi’s yamen. You’re awfully worked up about a man dead for a hundred years.”
“I won’t let you denigrate his memory that way, even if you’re the Sage Equal to Heaven.”
The Monkey King’s face turned serious. “You speak of memory. What do you think about Wang Xiuchu, who wrote the book you read?”
“He was just an ordinary man like me, surviving by bribes and hiding from danger.”
“Yet he recorded what he saw, so that a hundred years later the men and women who died in those ten days can be remembered. Writing that book was a brave thing to do—look at how the Manchus are hunting down someone today just for reading it. I think he was a hero, too.”
After a moment, Tian nodded. “I hadn’t thought about it that way, but you’re right.”
“There are no heroes, Tian Haoli. Grand Secretary Shi was both courageous and cowardly, capable and foolish. Wang Xiuchu was both an opportunistic survivor and a man of greatness of spirit. I’m mostly selfish and vain, but sometimes even I surprise myself. We’re all just ordinary men—well, I’m an ordinary demon—faced with extraordinary choices. In those moments, sometimes heroic ideals demand that we become their avatars.”
Tian sat down and closed his eyes. “I’m just an old and frightened man, Monkey. I don’t know what to do.”
“Sure you do. You just have to accept it.”
“Why me? What if I don’t want to?”
The Monkey King’s face turned somber, and his voice grew faint. “Those men and women of Yangzhou died a hundred years ago, Tian Haoli, and nothing can be done to change that. But the past lives on in the form of memories, and those in power are always going to want to erase and silence the past, to bury the ghosts. Now that you know about that past, you’re no longer an innocent bystander. If you do not act, you’re complicit with the Emperor and his Blood Drops in this new act of violence, this deed of erasure. Like Wang Xiuchu, you’re now a witness. Like him, you must choose what to do. You must decide if, on the day you die, you will regret your choice.”
The figure of the Monkey King faded away, and Tian was left alone in his hut, remembering.
“I have written a letter to an old friend in Ningbo,” said Tian. “Bring it with you to the address on the envelope. He’s a good surgeon and will erase these tattoos from your face as a favor to me.”
“Thank you,” said Li Xiaojing. “I will destroy the letter as soon as I can, knowing how much danger this brings you. Please accept this as payment.” He turned to his bundle and retrieved five taels of silver.
Tian held up a hand. “No, you’ll need all the money you can get.” He handed over a small bundle. “It’s not much, but it’s all I have saved.”
Li Xiaojing and Li Xiaoyi both looked at the litigation master, not understanding.
Tian continued. “Xiaoyi and the children can’t stay here in Sanli because someone will surely report that she harbored a fugitive when the Blood Drops start asking questions. No, all of you must leave immediately and go to Ningbo, where you will hire a ship to take you to Japan. Since the Manchus have sealed the coast, you will need to pay a great deal to a smuggler.”
“So long as that book is with you, there is nowhere in China where you’ll be safe. Of all the states around, only Japan would dare to defy the Manchu Emperor. Only there will you and the book be safe.”
Xiaojing and Xiaoyi nodded. “You will come with us, then?”
Tian gestured at his lame leg and laughed. “Having me along will only slow you down. No, I’ll stay here and take my chances.”
“The Blood Drops will not let you go if they suspect you helped us.”
Tian smiled. “I’ll come up with something. I always do.”
A few days later, when Tian Haoli was just about to sit down and have his lunch, soldiers from the town garrison came to his door. They arrested him without explanation and brought him to the yamen.
Tian saw that Magistrate Yi wasn’t the only one sitting behind the judging table on the dais this time. With him was another official, whose hat indicated that he came directly from Beijing. His cold eyes and lean build reminded Tian of a falcon.
May my wits defend me again, Tian whispered to the Monkey King in his mind.
Magistrate Yi slammed his ruler on the table. “Deceitful Tian Haoli, you’re hereby accused of aiding the escape of dangerous fugitives and of plotting acts of treason against the Great Qing. Confess your crimes immediately so that you may die quickly.”
Tian nodded as the magistrate finished his speech. “Most Merciful and Far-Sighted Magistrate, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You presumptuous fool! Your usual tricks will not work this time. I have iron-clad proof that you gave comfort and aid to the traitor Li Xiaojing and read a forbidden, treasonous, false text.”
“I have indeed read a book recently, but there was nothing treasonous in it.”
“It was a book about sheep herding and pearl stringing. Plus, some discussions about filling ponds and starting fires.”
The other man behind the table narrowed his eyes, but Tian went on as if he had nothing to hide. “It was very technical and very boring.”
“You lie!” The veins on Magistrate Yi’s neck seemed about to burst.
“Most Brilliant and Perspicacious Magistrate, how can you say that I lie? Can you tell me the contents of this forbidden book, so that I may verify if I have read it?”
“You . . . you . . .” The magistrate’s mouth opened and closed like the lips of a fish.
Of course Magistrate Yi wouldn’t have been told what was in the book—that was the point of it being forbidden—but Tian was also counting on the fact that the man from the Blood Drops wouldn’t be able to say anything either. To accuse Tian of lying about the contents of the book was to admit that the accuser had read the book, and Tian knew that no member of the Blood Drops would admit such a crime to the suspicious Manchu Emperor.
“There has been a misunderstanding,” said Tian. “The book I read contained nothing that was false, which means that it can’t possibly be the book that has been banned. Certainly Your Honor can see the plain and simple logic.” He smiled. Surely he had found the loophole that would allow him to escape.
“Enough of this charade,” the man from the Blood Drops spoke for the first time. “There’s no need to bother with the law with traitors like you. On the Emperor’s authority, I hereby declare you guilty without appeal and sentence you to death. If you do not wish to suffer much longer, immediately confess the whereabouts of the book and the fugitives.”
Tian felt his legs go rubbery and, for a moment, he saw only darkness and heard only an echo of the Blood Drop’s pronouncement: sentence you to death.
I guess I’ve finally run out of tricks, he thought.
You’ve already made your choice, said the Monkey King. Now you just have to accept it.
Besides being great spies and assassins, the Blood Drops were experts at the art of torture.
Tian screamed as they doused his limbs in boiling water.
Tell me a story, said Tian to the Monkey King. Distract me so I don’t give in.
Let me tell you about the time they cooked me in the alchemical furnace of the Jade Emperor, said the Monkey King. I survived by hiding among smoke and ashes.
And Tian told his torturers a tale about how he had helped Li Xiaojing burn his useless book and saw it turn into smoke and ashes. But he had forgotten where the fire was set. Perhaps the Blood Drops could search the nearby hills thoroughly?
They burnt him with iron pokers heated until they glowed white.
Tell me a story, Tian screamed as he breathed in the smell of charred flesh.
Let me tell you about the time I fought the Iron Fan Princess in the Fire Mountains, said the Monkey King. I tricked her by pretending to run away in fear.
And Tian told his torturers a tale about how he had told Li Xiaojing to escape to Suzhou, famed for its many alleys and canals, as well as refined lacquer fans.
They cut his fingers off one by one.
Tell me a story, Tian croaked. He was weak from loss of blood.
Let me tell you about the time they put that magical headband on me, said the Monkey King. I almost passed out from the pain but still I wouldn’t stop cursing.
And Tian spat in the faces of his torturers.
Tian woke up in the dim cell. It smelled of mildew and shit and piss. Rats squeaked in the corners.
He was finally going to be put to death tomorrow, as his torturers had given up. It would be death by a thousand cuts. A skilled executioner could make the victim suffer for hours before taking his final breath.
I didn’t give in, did I? he asked the Monkey King. I can’t remember everything I told them.
You told them many tales, none true.
Tian thought he should be content. Death would be a release. But he worried that he hadn’t done enough. What if Li Xiaojing didn’t make it to Japan? What if the book was destroyed at sea? If only there were some way to save the book so that it could not be lost.
Have I told you about the time I fought Lord Erlang and confused him by transforming my shape? I turned into a sparrow, a fish, a snake, and finally a temple. My mouth was the door, my eyes the windows, my tongue the statue of the Buddha, and my tail a flagpole. Ha, that was fun. None of Lord Erlang’s demons could see through my disguises.
I am clever with words, thought Tian. I am, after all, a songgun.
The voices of children singing outside the jail cell came to him faintly. He struggled and crawled to the wall with the tiny barred window at the top and called out, “Hey, can you hear me?”
The singing stopped abruptly. After a while, a timid voice said, “We’re not supposed to talk to condemned criminals. My mother says that you’re dangerous and crazy.”
Tian laughed. “I am crazy. But I know some good songs. Would you like to learn them? They’re about sheep and pearls and all sorts of other fun things.”
The children conferred among themselves, and one of them said, “Why not? A crazy man must have some good songs.”
Tian Haoli mustered up every last bit of his strength and concentration. He thought about the words from the book:
The three of them herded dozens of captives like dogs and sheep. If any captive walked too slow, they would beat him immediately, or else kill him on the spot. The women were strung together with ropes, like a strand of pearls.
He thought about disguises. He thought about the way the tones differed between Mandarin and the local topolect, the way he could make puns and approximations and rhymes and shift the words and transform them until they were no longer recognizable. And he began to sing:
The Tree of Dem herded dozens of Cap Tea
Like dogs and sheep.
If any Cap Tea walked too slow, the Wood Beet
Or else a quill, slim on the dot.
The Why-Men were strong to gather wits & loupes
Like a strand of pearls.
And the children, delighted by the nonsense, picked up the songs quickly.
They tied him to the pole on the execution platform and stripped him naked.
Tian watched the crowd. In the eyes of some, he saw pity, in others, he saw fear, and in still others, like Li Xiaoyi’s cousin Jie, he saw delight at seeing the hooligan songgun meet this fate. But most were expectant. This execution, this horror, was entertainment.
“One last chance,” the Blood Drop said. “If you confess the truth now, we will slit your throat cleanly. Otherwise, you can enjoy the next few hours.”
Whispers passed through the crowd. Some tittered. Tian gazed at the bloodlust in some of the men. You have become a slavish people, he thought. You have forgotten the past and become docile captives of the Emperor. You have learned to take delight in his barbarity, to believe that you live in a golden age, never bothering to look beneath the gilded surface of the Empire at its rotten, bloody foundation. You desecrate the very memory of those who died to keep you free.
His heart was filled with despair. Have I endured all this and thrown away my life for nothing?
Some children in the crowd began to sing:
The Tree of Dem herded dozens of Cap Tea
Like dogs and sheep.
If any Cap Tea walked too slow, the Wood Beet
Or else a quill, slim on the dot.
The Why-Men were strong to gather wits & loupes
Like a strand of pearls.
The Blood Drop’s expression did not change. He heard nothing but the nonsense of children. True, this way, the children would not be endangered by knowing the song. But Tian also wondered if anyone would ever see through the nonsense. Had he hidden the truth too deep?
“Stubborn till the last, eh?” The Blood Drop turned to the executioner, who was sharpening his knives on the grindstone. “Make it last as long as possible.”
What have I done? thought Tian. They’re laughing at the way I’m dying, the way I’ve been a fool. I’ve accomplished nothing except fighting for a hopeless cause.
Not at all, said the Monkey King. Li Xiaojing is safe in Japan, and the children’s songs will be passed on until the whole county, the whole province, the whole country fills with their voices. Someday, perhaps not now, perhaps not in another hundred years, but someday the book will come back from Japan, or a clever scholar will finally see through the disguise in your songs as Lord Erlang finally saw through mine. And then the spark of truth will set this country aflame, and this people will awaken from their torpor. You have preserved the memories of the men and women of Yangzhou.
The executioner began with a long, slow cut across Tian’s thighs, removing chunks of flesh. Tian’s scream was like that of an animal’s, raw, pitiful, incoherent.
Not much of a hero, am I? thought Tian. I wish I were truly brave.
You’re an ordinary man who was given an extraordinary choice, said the Monkey King. Do you regret your choice?
No, thought Tian. And as the pain made him delirious and reason began to desert him, he shook his head firmly. Not at all.
You can’t ask for more than that, said the Monkey King. And he bowed before Tian Haoli, not the way you kowtowed to an Emperor, but the way you would bow to a great hero.
© 2013 by Ken Liu.
Author’s Note: For more about the historical profession of songshi (or songgun), please contact the author for an unpublished paper. Some of Tian Haoli’s exploits are based on folktales about the great Litigation Master Xie Fangzun collected by the anthologist Ping Heng in Zhongguo da zhuangshi (“Great Plaintmasters of China”), published in 1922.
For more than 250 years, An Account of Ten Days at Yangzhou was suppressed in China by the Manchu emperors, and the Yangzhou Massacre, along with numerous other atrocities during the Manchu Conquest, was forgotten. It was only until the decade before the Revolution of 1911 that copies of the book were brought back from Japan and republished in China. The text played a small, but important, role in the fall of the Qing and the end of Imperial rule in China. I translated the excerpts used in this story.
Due to the long suppression, which continues to some degree to this day, the true number of victims who died in Yangzhou may never be known. This story is dedicated to their memory.