Jen exhaled his relief and lowered his hands to his aching knees. A large village, perhaps a small city even, before them. People. People to talk to. As much as he’d enjoyed talking to Sherme since they trekked along the Yuanwuling Gorge, he’d almost run out of things to say. He explained the empire—its past successes, its current failures and problems, and how one day he would solve them. In fact, Jen talked Sherme’s ear off, starting with the economy and the development of commercial organization. He explained the different types of functions of brokers and their roles; commission agents and their functions; the characteristics of commercial management and commercial wealth. That it, how it was supposed to work when the government did its job.
Of course, most of the time he explained the reasons for some of destitution they’d seen. He went deep into detail about Wang An-shih’s reforms, how people like Uncle Su fought him to the tooth and how, despite Uncle Su’s ability to convince the Empress Dowager Xuanren to repeal the Green Shoots program and forgive their debts, countless people still rotted in jail; how when Ssu-ma Kuang died, all the anti-reformers called back to court fell into their own factional disputes: Uncle Su’s Shu faction, Ch’eng-I’s Luo faction, and Liu Zhi’s Shuo faction—all began to fight one another much as they fought against Wang An-shih and all his petty men. However, after all these years since Xuanren initiated her Yuanren regency, the effects of the reforms continued to reverberate through the country. He even quoted Liu Zhi’s memorandum from seven years ago, asking why, when the benevolent had distinguished themselves from the petty men and right and wrong had been rectified, Heaven and Earth’s harmonious energies had not yet responded. The sentiment, Jen said, still applied today.
On the lighter side of affairs, Sherme learned how the paper industry boomed, how the government preferred paper from the mulberry tree; how the best mulberry trees grew in the Lizhou, Jingxi Nan, and Yongxing Circuits. “Uncle Su,” Jen said, “regarded paper from Lizhou the best in the whole empire.” On and on Sherme learned—silk, lacquer, copper and iron goods…who grew the best lychees (the Zhouxi Guan Circuit), oranges (“the finest are in the hills east and west of Lake T’ai”), so on, and so on, and on and…on.
But once they tuned west at the gorge’s southern rim, they’d spoken little more than sharing life anecdotes as they traversed a land that could not stand in any greater contrast to the Yuanwuling. There, hard sandstone aspired upward from the earth’s depths; here soft limestone dug toward those very same abysses—deep abysses, their bottoms unknown to light. Countless pools of unfathomable darkness everywhere—more pieces of shattered sky. How many stars did the old ones say fell into these gaping voids those thousands of years ago? How man scriptures did Wen-ch’ang lose that night? How many arrows fell from Shen’s quiver? And what about Nüwa’s lost children? How long did they cry before they realized the fell on deaf ears?
He’d considered those pillars great moralists, upright and virtuous men who understood their relationships to one another.
Now he walked amongst sharp-toothed limestone pinnacles and mamelons, cones and towers—a virtual stone forest of jagged teeth. Here the land waited to swallow him, much as the countless caves and karrens swallowed streams whole. Three days into this land, Sherme took Jen into a cave system replete with almost two miles of passages, champers as high as two-hundred and fifty feet. Calcite and gypsum glittering among stalactites and stalagmites, draperies as fine as royal silk. And in its midst did Jen finally understand. If noble men populated the gorge, the land over which he now crossed was a great mother. A mother black and dark—a land unpredictable where anyone or anything could be waiting around any turn.
Of course Jen knew the karst landscape dominated the southern empire and they’d traversed not even a quarter. Yet, neither the landscape itself nor its incalculable size caused Jen’s greatest consternation, for in the long, comfortable silences between he and Sherme, he entered a silent discussion regarding the differences in the two landscapes. When he began such, Sherme said, out of the blue and in reference to nothing, “almost there). The conversation had led him to an examination of his two “educations” and the longer the discussion lasted, the more he found himself embroiled in a heated debate. The pillars he associated with his schooling proper, the stone forest his training under Master. In the former, men led, women were led. The latter, on the other hand, desired union between the two.
While he’d long ascertained the difference between the two, such never bothered Jen until he met Sherme. If his thoughts were strings, they mirrored the way Sherme “guided:” up and down, back and forth, over and around until he found his thoughts knotted. And the further they walked, the more he pulled, the tighter the knots.
The obturator of a conversation crowded him to the point he lost sleep. A week into the land he woke with clammy hands and skin tender to the touch. Sherme again had bounded forward; Jen lost sight of him in the swarming landscape and found himself astricted in those very places he hated when he read books at Master’s. But whereas then he questioned the positions of individual authors, now he found himself tangled in a much larger question.
Which side was right: his schooling or his training?
For days on end under cinerea clouds, this weighing of both sides herniated Jen and after a week and a half, past countless knife-sharp karren, cone shaped hills, lakes and rivers, he could no longer hold both sides of the scales.
They’d passed through a small village: the debate had disturbed him to the point he couldn’t even enjoy the beautiful girls in their new dyed skirts and flowers in their hair, girls so pretty they needn’t trouble themselves with eyebrow pencils, girls phoenix-like in their grace, cooler than peonies and purple grapes, whose powdered breasts glistened with sticky moisture.
One the one hand, humans were humans and as far as his schooling went, he learned humanity, the pinnacle of creation, stood superior to the natural world. On the other hand, his training advised one to aspire toward naturalness itself. In the former, man changes nature; in the latter, nature changes the man. His inability to conclude outweighing either option, the teetering scales lost balance and shattered on the ground; in attempting to reassemble the broken pieces, he fashioned a scale of a different sort—a scale that forced upon him a question he dared never ask:
What am I?
And the attendant question—What am I not?