Monday, November 10, 2014


          In the Book of Scholars you may read, if you choose, of the learned Han Yu, who was said to have written poetry so rare and fine that it could only be read by moonlight, or by the light of a candle of wax that had been refined seven times over. In sunlight the paper simply looked blank; those who tried to read the poems by tallow saw something indeed, but what it was they never said, nor did they, any of them, repeat the experiment.

          Although he seemed negligent and aimless in his doings, Yu’s matchless poems and fine-wrought calligraphy would soon have brought him to a position near the throne, since the Middle Kingdom placed a high value upon the possession of a fine style and a good handwriting. Perhaps even too high a value (if such a thing can be). This, the Son of Heaven desired to avoid. Though a warlord of invincible strength and a politician of fiendish cunning, his achievements were as ashes to him, since his poems were the veriest doggerel, and he wrote in a hand which a cheesemonger might use to abuse a neighbor’s cat. It would be too bitter a dose to have ever at his side one such as Han Yu.

          Yu was singularly blameless and meek, which made it difficult to have him executed (Not impossible, alas. Such things are never impossible). The best thing to be done, it was decided, was to find an honorable means to send him far from the capital. Thus, the outermost province, a land of poverty and sand whose inhabitants were never sure whether they were part of the Middle Kingdom, or the Outer Realm, or perhaps some other political configuration entirely, found that they had been blessed with a new governor. There old governor had vanished some years back, to the mild regret of those few of his mostly illiterate subjects who had known he existed.

          The mild Han Yu set out at once, leaving the capital as befits a new-made governor, accompanied by bannermen and troops of soldiers, by musicians and dancers and the customary hangers-on and riff-raff. The way was long and difficult, however, and, after unparalleled suffering, the new governor arrived accompanied by only a samisen player and three riffraff, one of whom made tea every afternoon. There was also a cat, but this needs no mention since there is always a cat.

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