Brush and Ink

February 27, 2011
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There was a sudden flurry of gold and red as the man pushed his chair back abruptly. It scraped across the hardwood floor, breaking the silence that previously permeated the air. He stood from his crowded desk and slowly paced. As he gently massaged his throbbing temples with his finger tips, his eyes slid shut. Thump. Thump. Thump. His brain pounded painfully behind his skull. The candle flames even seemed to flicker in sync with every pulsation.

He let out a soft sigh as he cast a weary glance at the table. The stacks of scrolls were endless. Everything was piled high upon its polished surface: trading offers and foreign treaties, permission slips from travelers asking admittance into and out of the country, reports from spies stationed in each province. It was a wonder how the mahogany structure had not collapsed yet.

The man arched his back and threw his arms up in the air to stretch. A loud yawn escaped his lips. The joints in his neck made satisfying pops as he rolled his head in circular motions. He had worked from the crack of dawn until now, with hardly any breaks in between. And it was past midnight now.

Someone's knuckles rasping on the door put an end to his short rest. The man straightened up and responded in a gruff voice, “You may enter.”

A short, stocky chamberlain came in. Bowing low, he said in that gravelly voice of his, “Your Highness. News has arrived from the East.” The man gestured for the messenger to continue.

He unrolled a scroll and began reading:
To The Emperor: I am grieved to report troubling news. Here in the Yuzhou province, the citizens are rebelling. They refuse to abide to our taxing laws. We have yet to discover why. The soldiers are having a difficult time putting down the riots that continue to grow in number as the days go on. Not only are the farming peasants complaining, but those in the middle class are as well. All these uprisings are weakening our defenses against foreign threats. Order must be restored as soon as possible.
Signed, Governor of the Yuzhou Province Lu Bu.

The messenger rolled up the scroll and, with his head down, offered it with both hands to the pensive Emperor. The Emperor took the scroll and promptly dismissed him. The stout man clasped his left hand to his right fist and bowed once more before scurrying out door.

Turning back to his desk, the Emperor placed the scroll down on his table, atop a pile of recently signed documents. He stared hard at the parchment with furrowed brows before strolling to the window and looking out into the darkness. The night sky was vast and endless, a painting that stretched beyond its borders. As its centerpiece was the moon, round and pregnant. It glowed brightly above the earth, unobscured by drifting clouds. There were countless stars, each a twinkling diamond, winking at one another and laughing at unspoken secrets.

He absentmindedly stroked his black beard as he thought. Contemplating the new problem presented to him, he sighed aloud as it was yet another burden to add onto his shoulders.
Taxing laws were nothing new. He knew that the amount the government demanded from each household was fairly reasonable. There should have been no reason for the citizens to be displeased. Not only that, but only those from the East were complaining. Perhaps an anti-Han leader among them was stirring up trouble? That would be most problematic, and most likely. The Emperor whispered in a defeated voice to himself, “I suppose I have no choice.” Dread laid heavily upon him.

Returning to his desk, he absentmindedly sorted through the scrolls scattered around as he thought back to the time of his youth. He had taken the throne at an unusually young age. His father had passed away when he was merely seventeen, and he had been announced the new emperor the moment spring arrived during his eighteenth year. Extraordinarily clever and perceptive for his age, he had been closely watching his father rule throughout his youth and was already fairly familiar with the inner workings of the court by the time he became ruler. His own vigorous and relentless pursuit of a higher education also aided in shaping his path for the future. As a young boy, he took an interest in books that rivaled that of a scribe's. It was a favorite pastime of his, and sometimes he would be so engrossed in a world created by the printed words on a page that the palace could have been on fire and he would not have noticed. He enjoyed a variety of genres, from politics and history to literature and poetry, though philosophy had always been particularly intriguing to him.

As time passed, the Emperor even gained the respect of those far older than he. He experienced many things, faced copious difficult situations, and solved a profuse amount of problems in ways that warranted their approval. There was once a widespread scam concerning one of the major products sold in China. A syndicate of merchants sold salt at a very high price, claiming their product was of the best quality available from the far West. They cheated the common people hundreds of thousands. When the operation was discovered by officials, the Emperor devised an ingenious plan to reveal the merchants who played a part in it. He had every store keeper that intended to purchase salt to place one cup of the salt the merchants were selling on a scale and measure its weight. The Emperor knew that the unauthentic salt would contain a certain percentage of real salt mixed in with other inexpensive minerals and therefor weigh less than it should. Soon after these instructions were given, the majority of the coalition's identities were revealed and imprisoned or fined for deceit and fraud. The governors were especially impressed with his quick thinking and were unashamed to admit it.

Now, at the age of twenty-eight, he already had ten years of successful, solitary rule under his sash to congratulate himself for.

“It is late,” the Emperor mused aloud to himself. He sent a silent prayer to the gods, and with one last glance at the moon, he turned to blow out the candles. He swiftly exited his study and shut the door behind him with a soft but resound 'click'.

Within two days, word had spread far and wide throughout the nation that the Emperor was looking for an advisor. Scholars from every corner of the empire received this news with enthusiastic anticipation. Intelligent minds were already preparing for their trip to the capital, brimming with confidence in their skills and education.

On the designated day, one week after the job position was announced, a line a mile and half long stretched from the palace gates all the way around the whole compound. Each man was busy readying himself for the interview, reviewing philosophical, political, arithmetic, and other books of the sort.

Half an hour later, at precisely eight o'clock sharp, the palace gates rumbled slowly open. The royal crier proclaimed loudly, “Enter in an orderly fashion! There will be one hundred tables set up in the courtyard. Twenty people will be placed at each table. You will all be asked a riddle. If you can answer it correctly, you will be able to move onto the next test. Each person will only get one chance to answer the riddle, so think carefully before writing.” The herald paused. “You may now proceed.”

The crowd quickly swarmed in and filled the expansive courtyard. Within minutes, every person was at a table listening attentively to the official reciting the riddle. “I can inflict more damage than any sword. The impressions I make will not heal. I express what the soul can not. What am I?”

Each man remained in silent contemplation. The majority pondered for long moments, before hesitantly writing their answers. The remaining few applicants thought for several more minutes before writing down their answers with their brushes dipped in ink and turning them in as well. When everyone was finished, all the sheets of paper were judged. Each overseer of each table looked through the answers in silence. After that was done, all the supervisors stood and silently went into the palace, out of the men's earshot, and told one another the names of the scholars who had written the correct answer. Then they told the herald the finalists.

The man scuttled back outside where anxious minds awaited. He cleared his throat and declared loudly in a shrill voice, “The names I will call now are the ones who may move on to the next challenge.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Fa Yu Mao. Dong Yan Su. Chu Ming Zhi.” He stopped reading his list and looked up. “The rest of you, please evacuate the premises immediately. That is all,” he dismissed them with an air of indifference, hoping to disperse them as quickly as possible. He could already predict their reactions and was dreading the unavoidable outbursts of indignation.

As expected, a loud roar of outrage erupted from the crowd. Incredulous expressions adorned every erudite face. Some were angry, some were confused, and others looked disappointed. Shouts of disbelief poured forth from the mouths of men whose pride and self-confidence were wounded.

“I repeat, please evacuate the premises immediately. Otherwise our guards will escort you out,” the herald reiterated. At the mention of imperial guards, the scholars filed out quickly, all the while grumbling about the unfairness and rudeness of the situation.

The three remaining men were ushered into the palace. A guard guided them through the unfamiliar setting of long and numerous hallways. The compound was massive and the countless rooms lavishly decorated. Paintings hung neatly on the stately walls and intricate designs were etched into columns and doorposts. The floor was a rich brown color, undeniably made from the finest wood available. Golden mythical creatures, dragons commonly, seemed to greet them at every corner, as well as delicate and detailed statues and priceless porcelain vases. Every so often, they would come across a servant industriously cleaning or briskly carrying unidentified items to an unknown destination. Though none of them stopped to greet the men, they smiled politely at the guests.

Eventually, the three were lead into the inner courtyard, where lush gardens dominated the area. The scent of lotuses, peonies, orchids, chrysanthemums, citrons,and hydrangeas wafted through the air. Bamboo plants shot up from the ground along the walls. Stones and boulders were cleverly placed in circular and spiral designs on the ground. A large pond filled with koi fish ran underneath a miniature stone bridge. A small waterfall further accentuated the pond. The guard continued walking his brisk pace without so much as a glance at the breathtaking scenery. The men followed suit, although each discreetly took notice of their surroundings. They soon entered another building. The men suspected this was the Emperor's living quarters.

Through a series of more twists and turns in seemingly endless hallways, the guard finally stopped in front of two colossal oak doors. The guard scraped his knuckles on the door three, quick times and waited patiently for an answer. A muffled, “Come in,” signaled the guard to enter. The doors opened to reveal a large room filled with rows and rows of bookshelves, their covers facing outward, meticulously stacked. A short walkway lead from the entrance to the very back of the room where the Emperor's desk was situated. On both sides of the pathway were shelves of books lined up in organized rows.

The guard bowed and reported, “The finalists have arrived, sire.” The Emperor stood up from his desk and only then was his form made visible to the three men. The tall stacks of documents on his desk previously obscured their view of him. At once, the three scholars bowed low in reverence. “Your highness,” they greeted in reverence. The Emperor possessed a formidable face, that of a seasoned leader. His eyes were narrow but held an amused glint within their depths. His strong jawline and sharp cheekbone could be considered handsome by others. As he strode closer towards the men, his youth became more apparent and his expression more open.

“Welcome, my friends. Congratulations on passing the first test. It was quite a difficult riddle, I know. It is actually one of my favorites. The perfect riddle for such a situation, is it not? I am impressed you were all able to figure that one out in such a short amount of time. When I first came across it, it took me several days of pondering to even come up with theories. How frustrated I was!” the Emperor chuckled lightly at the fond memories of his boyhood. The three men exchanged polite laughs.

“Thank you for your hospitality, your highness. I am sure that we all feel deeply appreciative of this opportunity you have presented to us,” the shortest and heaviest of the three men said. His kind, rotund face was unmarred by stress with the exception of a few wrinkles on his forehead. One could see he was full of mirth, with a certain sparkle in his wide eyes. His very presence radiated a relaxed and calm aura. He could be easily mistaken for a monk if it were not for his long and wispy beard and long black hair.

“Ah, you are...?” asked the Emperor with a tip of his head. Fa Yu Mao supplied him with his name. The Emperor nodded in acknowledgment “There is no need to be so formal. You are all my guests, and one of you will be doing me a very large favor in the future, so it is I who should be thanking you.” Then he turned his attention to the remaining two men and urged, “Come, introduce yourselves.”

The taller man spoke first, “I am honored to meet your acquaintance, your highness. I am called Dong Yan Su.” Dong Yan Su had all the physical traits of an aristocrat. He possessed a long, thin face with a sharp jaw and sharp cheek bones. His Roman nose was perfectly straight, no crook in sight. His eyes were cold, hard, and calculating, with a stern and stony expression that would intimidate those around him in a different situation. His very presence was a silent warning for others, telling them to proceed and speak with caution. He had arched eyebrows and deep wrinkles between them. His lips were set in a thin line and his pointy beard was streaked with gray. His height and stature were impressive as well, standing at six feet tall veiled in his thick damask robes.

The Emperor nodded his acknowledgment at his brief introduction and gestured for the remaining man to say something.

Smiling, the last man said, “Your majesty. My name is Chu Ming Zhi. I was born in a small town in the East. Although I grew up there, I traveled a lot throughout my youth.” Chu Ming Zhi's face was that of a fatherly figure, somewhat stern yet somehow soft. His deep wrinkles emphasized his age, but his eyes were bright and alert. His hair was mostly white, streaked with grays and blacks, not the other way around. He looked the oldest of the three scholars. His eyes crinkled when he smiled.

The Emperor took a moment to appraise each man. Then he said, “You must be curious as to what your task might be. The assignment is rather simple. You will each have to tame a wild horse.”  The Emperor gestured to a vivid rendering of a galloping horse on a nearby painting. You may not ask for help from professionals or advice from any source. Books based on horse training are not permitted. You must train this horse based solely on your own skill, knowledge and experience. You will have one month's time to tame the wild beast. At the end of that time, you are required to be able to mount and ride your horse. I will personally judge each of your work to see who was most successful in accomplishing this task. Food and lodging will be provided, of course. All necessary materials you may need in order to tame your horse will be provided, as long as they adhere to my rules. Are there any questions?”

His question was met with silence. Taking that as a positive sign, he dismissed the three men. “You may start on your task now if you wish. The guard will take you to the stables.” The men nodded and bowed before exiting.

Each horse was beautiful and unmistakably wild. They were true horses, the kind the gods had intended them to be, more majestic than any king, graceful and dangerous. Their fur was darker than night and as sleek as silk. Their manes were long and untamed. Their bodies were huge, undeniably male. All glorious nineteen hands of them stood erect proudly. Their eyes held a wary light in them, supporting the notion that horses are supposedly very intelligent beings.

The horses' ears flickered as they heard the approaching men. As if sensing their intentions, the beasts began thrashing about in their constraints. Four attendants attempted to hold down each horse, but to little avail. Their mighty hooves beat the ground in frustration. One of them reared up onto its hind legs, striking at the wooden walls, and a deep neigh erupted from its massive chest. The others followed suit, bucking furiously, trying to knock the humans out of the way. The cacophony of whinnies sounded raw, desperate, and irate.

If the ferocity of these animals intimidated the three scholars, they showed no outward sign of it, watching quietly from outside the paddock. Eventually, the horses must have realized their resistance was moot at the present moment because they quieted down. The horses shook their head back and forth as they blew air out of their nostrils.

Practically panting, one of the attendants came up to the three men and said, “My apologies. These horses are stronger than any of the ones we've dealt with before.” He gestured to stables, “I can't even imagine how the Emperor managed to capture these beasts in the first place. But don't fret, I'm sure you'll do fine. All they need is a little discipline. I'm the royal stable master, by the way. Nice to meet you.” He bowed toward each man.

“Well, I'll leave you to it, then. A bit of a warning, though: Don't let them run loose. Always have some sort of line on them, or they'll most likely kick you all the way into the afterlife,” the stable master joked with a wink. Then securing each horse to a sturdy post, he and his attendants left.

Yu Mao chuckled, “Seems like the Emperor really knows how to test his subjects, eh?”

Ming Zhi agreed heartily, “Yes, it seem so.” Then, without another word to one another, each got to work.

Days crept quickly by, and soon, the one month was up. On that particular morning when dawn’s first rays shone, the Emperor and the three scholars gathered at a fenced-in grassy plain near the stables. It was a bit chilly so early in the morning, but the sun's rays were working on warming away the cold that had gathered in the night. A light mist curled about the air, drifting like spirits. Dew covered the ground and moistened their slippers as they stood on the green pasture.

Wind chimes sounded in the distance as a light breeze blew, bending the tall grass and lifting up the billowing sleeves of the men's robes. They all stood quietly with their hands clasped behind their backs as they took a moment to admire the serene landscape and relax in its calming presence.

“Good morning. I trust that you are all aware that today marks the end of the one month time I allotted for you to complete the task I assigned,” said the Emperor, after a second of silence. The three men nodded in confirmation.

A small smile crept along the Emperor's face. “Hmmm...,” the Emperor hummed in thought as his eyes slowly drifted towards the most silent one of the group. Seeming to have made up his mind, he suggested, “Why don't you begin, Yan Su?”

“Yes, your highness,” was his curt reply. He did an about-face and strode briskly towards the stable to retrieve his horse.

A few moments later, he came back. The sight before them was ghastly. The chestnut horse limped as it trotted forward. One of its legs seemed to be bent at an awkward angle and wounds covered every visible surface of its body. The horse looked much skinnier than the last time they saw it, and the ribs that jutted out from his gut only further validated that assumption. It was malnourished and starving, a true horror to behold. The once healthy and energetic creature that they all saw but a mere month ago was now an unrecognizable skeleton hidden underneath taut skin.

The watching men quickly adverted their gazes from the pitiful animal to its trainer. Yan Su seemed unaffected by his horse's horrible condition. His face was his usual mask of seriousness and severity. He cleared his throat and announced that he was ready to begin. The Emperor nodded stiffly and waved his hand for him to start.

Yan Su mounted his horse and jumped on. It staggered under his weight and swayed slightly to the side. He grabbed the reins and kicked the horse on its side to urge it forward. The horse took several feeble steps before collapsing, flinging its rider ungracefully aside. The horse laid on the ground, unmoving except for its deep breathing and soft whinnies of pain. Yan Su stood up quickly, embarrassment coloring his face. It was the first emotion the three witnesses had seen him show all month. He seemed to be considering doing something before deciding against whatever he was planning to do. He frame visibly shook with anger as he glared disdainfully at the heap of skin and bones on the floor before stalking back towards the group of bystanders.

With his eyes downcast, he hissed through clenched teeth, “I have failed.” It was obvious how hard it was for him to reign in his fury. He was not used to disappointment, having been taught to succeed in everything he did. The Emperor nodded at him, his lips set in a grim line. Yan Su stomped back to his place beside Yu Mao to continue his silent seething. He crossed his arms and glared dejectedly at the ground.

The stable attendants immediately rushed forward to tend to the fallen horse. After a beat of awkward silence, the Emperor coughed to break the tension.

“Shall I go next, then?” asked Yu Mao helpfully.

“H?o ba,” replied the Emperor, waving him forward.

The stout man's horse looked very much like its trainer. It was obviously well fed, perhaps even overfed, but not groomed in the slightest. The horse's fur was matted with dirt and dried grass. Its hooves were clumped with dirt and probably feces as well. The horse had seemingly developed Yu Mao’s paunchy build and unfettered gait.

They stopped several feet away from the Emperor before Yu Mao saddled up his horse and climbed on. After successfully mounting his horse, Yu Mao kicked the beast lightly on its side as a signal to start moving. The animal neighed once, twice, and then blew air out of its nose.

All the men stared in expectation for the animal to start running. Seconds passed.

Nothing happened.

Yu Mao looked in confusion at his horse and kicked it again, this time with more force. Several more moments crept by. Still, it refused to budge.

Then, spotting a patch of yellowing grass, the horse moved leisurely over to its snack and bent its head down to eat. It didn't seemed at all concerned with its passenger. Paying no heed to the onlookers, the horse munched happily on the tufts of grass.

“Kuài z?u! Kuài z?u!” encouraged Yu Mao. The horse continued to ignore him. A bit miffed, he took the reins and attempted to pull the horse's head up.

All of a sudden, the horse bucked wildly and threw its rider off its back. Yu Mao hit the ground with a loud thump. His back and bottom took most of the impact from the collision. Groaning in pain, he rolled on his side and laid there for a while, just catching up his breath and taking inventory of his body's injuries. He dared a glance back at the wild glutton, only to see that it was eating away like nothing had occurred. He shut his eyes once more and moaned.

After the initial shock wore off, and with a grin flitting about his mouth, the Emperor immediately summoned the palace physician and asked the guards to carry Yu Mao to a guest room where he could be attended to.

When Yu Mao, in the arms of two male guards, passed by the Emperor in his state of bordering unconsciousness, he mumbled in a low voice, “Perhaps I fed him a little too much hay...” He smiled with his eyes half open before promptly blacking out.

The moment Yu Mao and the guards disappeared into the palace, the stable attendants hurried to remove the indifferent horse from the vicinity. During this commotion, Ming Zhi had gotten his own horse.

Now, this horse, this horse was a true horse. Its sleek black fur shined brilliantly in the sun as it trotted towards them. The sun's rays bounced playfully off its rich colored mane. The slight breeze blew its hair about, showcasing its silky strands. Its hooves were polished to perfection, and its saddle gleamed in its grandeur. The horse appeared more majestic than the first time they saw it: shoulders broad, legs powerful, and body muscular.

Ming Zhi placed one foot onto the stirrup and swung his other leg around the horse. He sat up straight, grasping the reins in his firm hold. He kicked once, clucked his tongue, and off the horse went.

It started out slowly, but gained speed as its momentum increased. Soon, the horse was galloping away with its trainer, its legs a blur of motion above the grass. Nearing the edge of the fence, Ming Zhi urged the horse to run even faster.

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion then. The pounding of the hooves all but ceased as the horse leaped off the ground and jumped high into the air.

They were flying.

Like birds, they soared. The horse's legs were elongated, stretched to its full length, like that of an eagle's wings, and its muscles coiled from exertion.

The sight was magnificent. Rider and horse alike radiated grace and confidence. There was no hesitation or fear expressed in their body language. It seemed almost effortless, as if horses were meant to gallop across the sky.

“I'm curious. How did you manage to tame that horse?” inquired the Emperor one evening, two months after the Emperor had announced Ming Zhi as his official royal advisor. They had just finished a heavy day’s work and were currently lounging in his study.

“As I believe I've said before, I traveled a lot during my youth.” Ming Zhi waited for the Emperor to recall that particular divulgement of information before continuing, “And on one of those particular journeys, I came upon a man—a very interesting man, I might add—whose name was Li Bu Wei. The first time I saw him was at a meadow not far from the main gates of the city. There, he sat on a stone bench under a willow tree, reading a book I could not see the title of. I don't know why, but I was suddenly compelled to speak to this man. And so I went up to him, walking quite noisily, breaking branches and stepping on dry leaves, as to alert him of my presence. The moment he looked up from his book, our eyes met, and he smiled at me and said 'What brings you here, my young friend?' That sentence began my discipleship of the Confucian belief. I studied under his guidance for many years before I was considered a Master.” His eyes were far away, in a place lost to time. “Perhaps it was some divine force that led me to that place at that moment to that man, because that meeting changed my life.”

Coming back to the present moment, he looked at the Emperor and said, “I used the teachings of Confucianism that I had learned so many years ago to tame the wild horse. One of the major beliefs of Confucius was to teach by example, to be patient and tolerant. With the right amount of discipline and encouragement, I was able to successfully train my horse. I did not abuse it as Yan Su did, nor did I allow it to do whatever it wanted it like Fu Mao.”

The Emperor nodded in understanding. “Then, what does Confucianism say about ruling and government?”

“It stresses the importance of righteousness and fairness. One must rule by example. Do not expect others to do what you yourself would not be able to do. A leader is like a parent and his people are like children. If you are to punish someone, you must clearly tell them what crimes they have committed or else it is like hitting a child without letting him know what he did that had roused your anger. The same goes for law-making. Each should make sense and bring about order. Remember that taxing law that had caused trouble in the East? The citizens were merely angry because they did not understand. If you try to see the situation from their perspective, you would only know that the government was taking their hard earned money which did nothing to improve their lives. What they did not know was that improvements were being made starting in the West. Roads were being paved, buildings reconstructed, irrigation canals built, and so forth. The Eastern citizens were ignorant of this knowledge. You are aware how slow information spreads, especially thoughout such a vast empire. Was not all set to right after you had the governor explain to the people what was going on?” The Emperor nodded and stroked his beard in thought.

Perhaps some divine force brought you to me as well.

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M.Kimmi said...
Mar. 4, 2011 at 5:32 pm

THis is like a fable! By the way, are you chinese? I understood the words (becasue of teh pin yin adn that im chinese) but i suggest you not to write in pinyin, maybe add a definition afterwards or make him say it again in english.

Very little grammatical mistakes but it was good.!

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