THursday, FebRuary 11, 2010
During the reign of the 2nd Ching Emperor Kang Hsi, Ren Ke Pu retired to his hometown of Dung Chang (東昌) Prefecture. Due to year-long floods, life was miserable for its inhabitants. Taxes were high and continued on the rise. Soon grumblings turn into anger. Ren Ke Pu petitioned to the throne three times and each time he received no news for any relief or tax decrease. Just when Ren Ke Pu became extremely worried and angry at the bureaucracy, he received news from the Capital that the Emperor is passing through the Prefecture on his Southern Inspection of the Empire. His worries finally turned into joy.
Emperor Kang Hsi reached Dung Chang. Ren Ke Pu was at the wharf to receive the imperial entourage. The moment the Emperor stepped off from his imperial barge, Ren Ke Pu kowtowed and immediately petitioned to the Emperor in a loud voice,
“Your minister, Ren Ke Pu pays his respects to His Most August Majesty. Your minister reports that Dung Chang has suffered from the year-long floods. All summer grains are destroyed. By the immeasurable grace and blessings of my Lord, please grant the drought stricken people another boon of tax decrease.”
The Emperor’s countenance darkened even before Ren Ke Pu had finished and thought to himself,
“This rascal, Ren Ke Pu had just retired and is already showing such partiality towards his hometown! Three times you petitioned us to have taxes reduced, three times We had overlooked your digressions only because you are a loyal minister. Now you are behaving like a gadfly, given an inch, you dare take a foot. You only know of your hometown and nowhere else in my empire!”
The agitated Emperor was about to explode when he checked himself, “This is no good. Ren Ke Pu is only thinking of my people’s sufferings. If I punish him, people will call me a tyrant. But if I acquiesce to his petition, it will become a precedent for all other counties along the prefecture. They will ask for the same treatment. Definitely this will not do. The Treasury will be empty in no time! Definitely not!
Then the wily Emperor had a brilliant solution to his dilemma and announced for all to hear,
“Petition granted! There will be no taxes for today!”
When Ren Ke Pu heard this, he muttered to himself,
“What a stingy king! All these work and what do I get in the end? Just one lousy day of no taxes! What more can I do? The petition has been ‘granted’ by the Emperor and there is no way I can argue any further. Better go with the flow and thank him.”
Though he was dissatisfied to the core knitting his brows in frown, he resigned to the situation,
“I thanked the immeasurable grace of His Majesty!”
With that, the imperial carriage went about on its way. Suddenly Ren Pu Ke’s face brightened up in glee. Hurriedly he got hold of his servant and whispered into his ear,
“Go immediately and get the things done as I had instructed you. Do it as fast as you can!”
A few days later after inspecting the area, Emperor Kang Hsi witnessed first hand the effects of the aftermath of the floods. What Ren Ke Pu had reported was not false. Being a wise ruler, the Emperor sincerely realized that he had greatly wronged the good minister and felt abashed to face his people. Just before leaving Dung Chang, the Emperor allowed Ren Ke Pu to accompany him to sight-see the Prefecture’s Moat.
Now this Moat is very different from others. As a result of constant dredging since it was built a few thousand years dating back to the Spring and Autumn period, it had become the largest man-made anchorage system in northern part of the Yangtze River. It was early autumn and one can cast their eyes afar and…
Just look at the vast expanses draped in mists like gauze,
Dancing plumes of pampas grass fill the air.
Clouds stained red by the setting sun,
Golden sheen reflected off by reedy heads.
Clear waters a sparkle, shimmering waves in brilliance,
What a great lipstick pink sunset this is!
An autumn’s lake tinged with a glow like Tiger’s Eye.
Meanwhile, on the imperial barge, Emperor Kang Hsi was in a cheerful mood. Then on a whim, he pointed at the banquet tables and said to Ren Ke Pu,
“Two plates of beans.” (兩碟豆).
Ren Pu Ke understood that the Emperor was having a couplet joust with him. So he answered,
“One jug of oil.” (一甌油).
The Emperor had no intention of letting him off so easily and remarked,
“What We said were two butterflies in fight! Two butterflies fighting right now.”
Note: The crafty Emperor changed the meaning of his words as though he was commenting on the motif of the porcelain dish to make Ren Ke Pu look bad. The words plate and bean are Chinese homonyms for butterfly and fight.
Ren Ke Pu then pointed at the surface of the lake and replied,
“Your minister was merely matching with an egret in wading, One egret playing in the water.”
Note: Ren Pu Ke pointed to the lake this time explicitly to show that the Emperor had also misunderstood his words. Again word play for the indicated objects.
The Emperor let out a hearty laugh at the witty comeback. Actually, he was apologizing to him in secret for his earlier misunderstanding of the minister. However because of protocol, he could not say it openly. He gazed at the lake and gravely uttered,
“Naturally the green waters have no worry, only the wind causes it to frown.”
A praise alluding to Ren Ke Pu’s constant worry for the country and the people. Ren Ke Pu calmly replied,
“Actually the verdant mountain is not old, but the snow made it so.”
An allusion that the emperor had been aged by weariness from the burden of the State.
“Well said, very well said indeed!” exclaimed a delighted Emperor.
While praising Ren Ke Pu, the Emperor took up a brush and wrote the couplet in his imperial hand and said kindly,
“Our beloved Minister, I shall now bestow upon you this scroll to hang in your Hall of Osmanthus and Pine!”
The Emperor looked at the aged white-haired minister. He wanted to speak but refrained from doing so. He was thinking about a three-year tax exemption for the region. However he could not rescind the very words he had spoken on the wharf that day without showing everyone that he was in error. The Emperor shook his head and let out a sigh.
The very next day on his way back, the Emperor espied a brand new stone stele erected on the wharf of the Dung Chang Moat. There were four large characters inscribed on the main column, visible for all to see,
“No Taxes Today” (今日無稅).
On the side were the words, “Erected by Imperial Order” (敕立). On seeing these words, the Emperor flew into a thunderous rage.
“Who is responsible for this!”
Ren Ke Pu immediately knelt down.
“Reporting to His Majesty, this was done under the supervision of your minister Ren Ke Pu”.
“You dare! You dare do such a thing! Since when did We give you such an edict?”
“A few days ago, when your Minister was receiving your Majesty on the wharf. All present distinctively heard Your Majesty said it loud and clear.”
“Today becomes another today. How many todays are there going to be? According to you, no taxes will ever be collected again!”
“Your humble minister would not dare to second think His Majesty. The ‘golden mouth and jade words’ of His Majesty are immutable and cannot be flouted. Your minister does not have the gall to change a single word.”
“So you are not afraid having your head lopped off then?”
“Your Minister had given his body to the country. The lives and properties of my entire family are already at the mercy of His Majesty. This minister has no greed in prolonging his life but he also understands that His Majesty is a wise and benevolent ruler. He would not kill his ministers recklessly.”
Actually Emperor Kang Hsi, had already guessed who the culprit was. In the first place, he was sorry for doubting Ren Pu Ke’s loyalty and in the second place, he too had contemplated in exempting taxes for a time. Ren Ke Pu’s request would be granted if not for the fact that in doing so would exposed the his error to the world. This can never be allowed! So on hearing the minister’s words, the Emperor took the opportunity to save face and exclaimed,
“What steely mouth and fangs you have! Alright then, We shall start the first stanza using the current scenery as the theme. Complete the couplet’s second half using the same scenery. Match it well and We shall allow ourselves to accede to your request – henceforth from this day onwards, there shall be no taxes levied on all shipping. On the other hand, We shall allow you to use this stone stele as your suicide implement!”
The angry Emperor then pointed at the lotus blossoms growing in the water,
“From the pond, lotus blossoms protruded like red clenching fists. Punching who?”
Ren Ke Pu looked to his left and then to his right. He saw on the esserteauiana fields on the river banks and pointed at them,
“On the banks, esserteauiana leaves stretched out like green slithering hands. Grabbing who?”
The conceded Emperor nodded his head at such eloquence and exclaimed in praise,
“What a scorpion this Ren the third is!”
From that day onwards, Dung Chang Harbour became a free port and as a result business boomed; growing wealthier by the day. The stone stele remained erected on the wharf until 1967 when it was destroyed by the Red Guards during Liberation.
Translated from a Chinese newspaper article. For the original text, google the phrase, “今日無稅” or I can email you a copy.