Stretch and pull did the north wind drape a bolt of cotton clouds across the sky; bit by bit did it tug too hard that morning, tearing ragged holes as a moth eats the old unworn robe. Tornadoes of early light poured through the rolling, voticose clouds, and stitched the mountains in gold and silver; the Valley of the Yellow Dragon’s pools glimmered glossy as cicada wings, iridescent at a blackbird’s throat feathers. Freshly painted indeed, as if Lu Pan himself dipped the flat end of his divine brush and, like his old friend, the sharp-tongued Mi Fu, dabbled the landscape in blobs of turquoise and green, orange and yellow.
Having bathed in the salubrious steaming waters the previous evening, Jen, now dressed in the trousers and tunic of a commoner, followed Sherme over the tortuous travertine surface.
More holes in the clouds did the moth chew. Jen slipped on his overcoat, for as much as the sun shone through, the north wind drove the warmth south and, much as he’d done when they finally reached the Silk Road, Sherme hopped from higher pools to lower pools with the same dipterous feet, leaving Jen to manage the obstacles the valley threw at him on his own. More difficult than the mountain’s ignoble and often treacherous terrain, the valley’s soft incline proved more trying of his patience, for whereas the mountain forced him to watch his step, zigzagging his way down was relatively more straightforward compared to this tangled, diastalic mess.
Here he might follow a thin line of stone around a pool (in places no wider than his foot) only to arrive back where he started, at a dead end, or a steep drop anywhere from fifteen to twenty feet. In places where he might climb down, the wet stone offered him no hold with which he could assure himself a safe descent. Losing count of how many times he had to double back, he bothered not to even keep track of how many times he slipped on the smooth calcite.
A maze sans walls, the Valley of the Yellow Dragon quickly lost its appeal; the way he twisted and turned, he might as well be caught in the dragon’s intestines. No telling how long it would take for the dragon to shit him out.
On a positive note, the time alone gave Jen ample space to investigate the valley’s principle and he found himself thinking about the government. He would backtrack his mind, only to find his thoughts again on the empire and all its problems. Maybe that was it. Maybe the valley and the government, at least in its current floundering state, shared the same principle. The government, like the valley, nothing but a tangled mess. More than fifty years ago when the factions fought for control, Ou-yang Hsiu said superior men defend the Way and righteousness. They practice sincerity and loyalty. Petty men, on the other hand, he said, value only personal gain and will stop at nothing to outgain the other. Petty men squabbled with one another. Since petty men deviate from the Way, they lead emperors astray.
The most current and acrimonious problems, of course, began twenty-three years ago when Emperor Shenzong appointed Wang An-shih, that bull-headed premier, as his Senior Grand Councilor. Not long thereafter, An-shih appointed his great horde of men like Tseng Pu, his brother-in-law Shieh Chingwen, his son-in-law Tsai Pien, and Uncle Su’s greatest enemy Chang Chun. Favoring self-righteous and self-satisfied men like himself, An-shih staffed the government with those who agreed with him and banished those who did not. And therein did the empire fall into a state of pathological atrophy with Wang An-shih’s New Policies.
Jen considered Ssu-ma Kuang’s interpretation of the eleventh and twelfth hexagrams after Shenzong died eight years ago. He said the transition from Shenzong’s rule to Xuanren’s regency represented a fork in the road between order and chaos, between peace and peril. Kuang had long accused Wang An-shih and his cronies of hiding the empire’s problems from Shenzong, blinding him from the fact the commoners toiled away in utter destitution and misery under the New Policies.
Jen also considered Ch’eng-I’s interpretation of the very same hexagrams. While semblable in criticism to Ssu-ma Kuang, Ch’eng-I focused his understanding on the factions. When the eleventh hexagram ascended, superior men held power and peace would reign. But when the twelfth exerted its influence, the petty men, unworthy of promotion, would throw the empire into chaos.
Either way, Jen sentenced both interpretations correct, for as Uncle Su said, for over twenty years countless people sold their houses and farms, they sent away their daughters and wives to work as servants, they even drowned themselves in rivers and hung themselves.
All because they could not pay their taxes.
All because of Wang An-shih’s reforms. And as Fu Pi warned the emperor twenty-two years ago, the empire’s wealth did concentrate among the very few at the top and the vast tabescent majority did, in fact, wallow in poverty. If Jen were to guess, he would estimate ninety-nine percent of the nearly one hundred million lived below the most basic means required to survive.
Jen, a yellow pool to his left, a green pool to his right, reached a dead end and backtracked.
Eight years passed since Xuanren began her regency and began exiling the reformers. Wang An-shih, Jen had heard, lived the short remainder of his life mumbling to himself like a madman. Seven years since Ssu-ma Kuang, who Xuanren returned from exile and named Grand Councilor, died, leaving Uncle Su her favorite. Since then, the anti-reformers controlled the Council of State and in the eighth month of that very same year, Uncle Su persuaded the empress dowager to abolish the Green Shoots Program; just last year, after several attempts and amidst great controversy between the Shuo, Luo, and Shu factions, Jen’s Uncle Su finally convinced her to forgive the commoners’ debts.
The government wiped the slate clean for those who had not the means to pay. How about that.
Still, changes notwithstanding, Jen had seen enough villages to know the New Policies took their toll like an infectious disease. He had seen the destitution, he heard men and women cry because they had nothing to eat, nor water to drink. He had seen more dead bodies on the side of the road than he cared to remember, bodies as bloated as the men who, thanks to their manipulation of the government, lined their coffers with strings of money.
But why? Why all of it? Why now?
Jen followed a bend around a blue pool.
As far as he understood, Wang An-shih was not a bad man (even though Uncle Su’s father referred to him as a man who dressed in the robes of a barbarian and ate like a pig). On the contrary, Jen admired the man’s brilliant poetry, idealizing, as it did, the life of a recluse. Extolling the simple life, An-shih, despite his lofty status, had himself lived a frugal life and deprecated the grandiosity of the wealthy. Jen knew, as did even An-shih’s staunchest opponents, that he meant well, that he wanted to improve the lives of the common people.
How did such a well-intentioned man lead the people astray? How did he construct the empire’s tomb? Deliberating over Ssu-ma Kuang’s opinion on the matter, Jen nodded in agreement: it all came down to an understanding of history. And one’s understanding of history depended on which books one preferred. Favoring the Book of Poetry, the Book of History, and the Rites, An-shih saw in the past a golden age long lost—an age he wanted back. Thus An-shih believed the government required a complete structural overhaul including new institutions and regulations. Hence his New Policies.
As well-intentioned as he might have been, Jen could not forget the fact that Wang An-shih, regarding himself as the sole authority on the classics, forced his generation’s would-be officials to study his New Commentaries on the Three Classics in preparation for their examinations. From history and government down to even the etymology of “owl,” “quail,” and “pheasant,” everyone had to agree with Wang. The government he filled, then, with like-minded unthinking men modeled upon his one and only view.
If someone were to ask Jen the definition of tyranny, he would tell them to look up Wang An-shih in the dictionary.
Highly critical of Wang, Ssu-ma Kuang directed his pointed criticisms at An-shih’s ignorance of history. Ssu-ma preferred the Spring and Autumn Annals which recorded past successes and failures. Like a casebook of appropriate behavior, in reading the annals, one could determine why some periods enjoyed peace and order while others collapsed into violence and disorder. In the case of the latter, a government of superior men could take the proper course of action to ameliorate the current situation. And unlike Wang An-shih, Ssu-ma Kuang understood that, at bottom, the government’s problems came down to ethics. Employing the right men, as opposed to An-shih’s governmental reconstruction, could solve the empire’s problems. Therefore, it all came down to one thing: moral principle.
Wang An-shih did not understand that. And like Ssu-ma Kuang, Jen did.
Jen’s foot, already pruned, slipped into a green pool. He sneezed.
A long “hello” followed by a “Jen” echoed through the valley.
His ingrown behavior concomitant with the panda an aberration, Jen had realized he miscalculated and concluded Sherme lacked a moral compass. He long continued since then his hemorrhoidal behavior. Jen now no longer cared if he found himself at yet another dead end, did not care if yet again he fell hard upon his tailbone. If he had one thing going for him, he never took too bad a spill. Thus did Jen weave his way down the valley, found those places where he could drop down without fear of twisting or breaking an ankle, and at long last spied where the river resumed its correct course.
At the end of the Valley of the Yellow Dragon water spilled over one final ten to fifteen foot drop. He looked behind him, the river’s pools like scales glimmering in the sun. He stood tall and crossed his arms. Bruised and somewhat beaten, he came out on top in the end. Moreover, he did so without Sherme.
Butt pressed hard against the smooth rounded rock, Jen used his hands and feet to slither down one smooth wet stone to the next. Down to the next, until, three stone steps later, he stood atop a flat embankment of beige rock, white water cascading over a concave stone wall some ninety feet across pocketed with a small cave in the center.
He stretched the kinks out of his back and tried to touch his toes when he heard a “well there you are.” Jen lifted his head and there Sherme stood—in front of the cave—that piece of excrement emerging from the dragon’s very own anus.
“It’s about time.”
“Fuck you Sherme.” Jen turned.
“Hey! Where you going?”
Point down river did Jen, rider of, conqueror of, the Yellow Dragon.