A String of Chinese Peach Stones

Peh-ya and his sympathetic listener.

In the old days described in the Spring and Autumn Annals, when China consisted of a host of rival States hard to amalgamate, there lived a celebrated statesman of the name of Yü Peh-ya.  His birthplace was the capital of the kingdom of Ch’u, which is now the present Kingchow (the ” island of thorn bushes ” to which Ts’ao Ts’ao sent his cynical adviser Ti’ao Hen), to the west of the modern Wuchang. But his star of good fortune led him into an official post in the kingdom of Tsin, which occupied what is now the southern half of Shensi, and the north-west of Honan.

The King of Tsin, wishing to send an embassy of friendly congratulation to the King of Ch’u, Peh-ya sought and obtained the commission. Having reached the capital, he was granted a royal interview, and was entertained in sumptuous style. He naturally wished to visit his ancestral graves, and call upon such of his relatives and friends as the great change-worker Time had spared as yet.

Public business being ended, he took his leave of his royal host, pleading that he was suffering from ill-health, which would be aggravated by jolting over rough roads; and so provision was made for him to return by water, two boats being fitted up for his accommodation. The fact was, he wished to feast his eyes once more upon the familiar landscapes of ten or twenty years back. All the officials of the capital accompanied him to the river bank, so the parting was even more honourable than the reception had been.

The wind-filled sails advanced amid the thousand tiers of blue-green wavelets, while beyond the sunlit waters were the distant hills of piled-up turquoise. It was mid-autumn, and Peh-ya enjoyed the varied scenery to the full.

Passing Hanyang, the boats left the Yangtse; but either the Han had another channel then,  or else it was flood time, for he seems to have entered the chain of lakes which extend from Hanyang to beyond the Hill of the Nine Recluses.

Peh-ya had not gone many miles before a fierce wind sprang up, and the rain poured in torrents, so that the boats had to make for the nearest bank, which happened to be not far from the ‘ Horse Saddle ‘ Hill.

After sundown the storm abated, and the full-orbed moon shone forth, all the brighter for the rain. Peh-ya being alone, with nothing to occupy his thoughts, ordered his lad to light the incense brazier and bring out his harpsichord. The sweet instrument [which sounds like a piano with both pedals down] being brought, the musician adjusted the strings, and commenced a plaintive strain. Before he had played many notes, however, one of the strings snapped with a loud noise. At this he was very much startled, and told his lad to go outside and inquire what manner of place it was. The head boatman replied that it was a mere uncultivated hill, with no ‘cottages in sight. ‘ A mere uncultivated hill? ‘ the musician exclaimed. ‘Had it been a city or village near which we were stopping, there might have been some scholar or other listening to my instrument, and thus causing the string to break.  I have it! There is some villain or other near who owes me a grudge, or a robber bent on stealing the treasure in the boats. If he is not among the trees yonder, he is certainly hiding among the tall reeds.’

The boatmen went to look, when they heard a voice exclaim, ‘ The high official need not disturb himself; I do not belong to the robber class. I am a woodcutter caught in the storm, and so took refuge here. Then hearing the classical strains of the harpsichord, I stopped to listen.’

‘ A likely tale,’ laughed the statesman; ‘ a hillside woodcutter a musical connoisseur’; and his attendants ordered the intruder off. But he remained expostulating, saying, ‘ The high official is wrong. Has he not heard that ” in a village of ten houses there is sure to be found loyalty and truth? ”  And where there is a true gentleman, there will be gentlemanly visitors. If you, sir, make out that on a wild hill there are none capable of appreciating music, it may be argued that there will be no guest at the foot of such a hill playing at midnight.’

Surprised to hear such a clever reply, Peh-ya went to the door, and said, half in sarcasm, ‘ As the gentleman upon the bank has been listening thus attentively, perhaps he will tell me what sort of a tune I was playing! ‘

‘ If I had not understood the meaning of the music, is it likely that I should have remained listening? The poem you were expressing in musical notes was that in which Confucius bemoans the early death of his favourite disciple Yen Hwui.   The words are these

Alas, Yen Hwui, so soon to die !

My hair with grief is turned to grey.

Thy frugal joys, thy humble home,”

at which point the string snapped. But the fourth line I remember to be

Shall charm the ages yet to come.” ‘

‘ You, sir, are no ordinary countryman! ‘ exclaimed Peh-ya. ‘ The bank is too distant for conversation; will you not come nearer? ‘ So he ordered the boatmen to throw out a plank, and assist the scholar on to the boat.

The attendants did so, and the young man came on board a veritable woodcutter, clad in straw cape and rain hat, grasping an iron-shod coolie pole; a hatchet was stuck in his girdle, and he had straw sandals on his feet! What did the underlings know about intelligent conversation? They saw a mere woodcutter. ‘ Be sure and knock your head on the ground in the presence of the official,’ they said. ‘ And when he speaks to you, be careful how you answer him. He is a high statesman.’

‘ Do not insult me,’ was the reply. ‘ Wait till I have adjusted my apparel for the interview.’ And he proceeded to divest himself of rain hat, to display a blue cloth wrapped round his head; then his grass cape, to display to view a cotton jacket, bound round with a white girdle, with drawers to match. Not a whit flurried, he placed his rain hat and grass cape, his spiked pole and hatchet, outside the door, took off his straw sandals, wrung the dirty water from them, put them on afresh, and entered.

The statesman was sitting upon the divan, amid the brilliant glow of lamps and candles. Seeing whom, the woodcutter just made a deep bow, saying, ‘ I pay you my respects, Sir.’

An official of Peh-ya’s standing could hardly be expected to give a common woodcutter a polite reception. But having invited him on board, he could hardly drive him away. He just waved his hand slightly, saying, ‘ No need for ceremony,’ and called the lad to bring a seat. A long bench being brought, the official pouted out, ‘ Sit down.’ The woodcutter, without any phrase of abject appreciation of the honour, took his seat with the utmost composure. At this Peh-ya was rather put out, and neither asked his name nor ordered the usual tea.

They sat in awkward silence for a long time, till the official, in an irritated tone of voice, exclaimed, ‘ So you are the listener on the bank? ‘ to which the woodcutter replied with the usual phrase, ‘ I do not presume! ‘

‘ Well, as you were listening, you doubtless know the origin of the instrument, who invented the harpsichord, and what good there is in playing it? ‘

‘ Receiving your questions with all due deference, I may, however, delay the boat with my tedious replies ! ‘ For the boatman had just been to say there was nothing to prevent their starting.

‘I fear you know nothing about it. If you answer rightly, I shall look upon my official post as a thing of no consequence, much less will a little delay matter.’

‘ In that case, I may venture to trouble you with my inordinate chatter. The harpsichord was made by Fu Shi [the first of the fabulous Emperors of China, 2852-2737 B.C.]. He saw that the virtue of the five planets  was concentrated in the tung tree [Elaococca Sinensis], and that the phoenix chose it for its resting-place. The phoenix is the king of birds, only eating bamboo sprouts, only drinking spring water. Fu Shi, therefore, seeing the princely nature of the tung tree, gathering into itself as it does the choicest essences of creation, argued that its wood might be expected to emit the choicest music. He therefore ordered a man to cut one down. This particular tree was 33 ft. 3 in. [tenths of a foot] high, according with the number of the thirty-three heavens. He then had its trunk cut into three pieces, corresponding to the three powers of nature, heaven, earth, man.

‘” On sounding the upper block it was’ found to ring with too high a note, while the lower block emitted too dull a sound. That of the middle block, however, was found to be a happy medium between the two. It was placed in a running stream for seventy-two days, according to the seventy-two periods of the year, an ancient mode of division, each period being five days; then being dried in the shade, an exceptionally propitious time was chosen, and the Emperor employed a skilful workman to make it into a musical instrument.’

‘When completed, the harpsichord was thirty-six inches and a tenth long, according to the three hundred and sixty-one days in a [lunar] year. At the broad end it was eight inches across, according to the eight festivals; at the narrow end, four inches across, according to the four seasons. It was two inches thick, according to the masculine and feminine principles of nature. It had a golden youth’s head and a gemmous maiden’s waist, a back like that of an immortal, a dragon tank, and a phoenix bath [all of which frequent phrases of idealisation seem perfectly natural in the Chinese].  It had jade pegs and golden stops, which stops [let into the wood as a guide to the fingering] are thirteen, according to the twelve months of the year, plus the intercalary month.

‘ At first the harpsichord had five strings, according to the five elements, their sounds being called respectively Kung, Shang, Kioh, Tsz, and Yu [antediluvian tonic sol-fa !]. In the time of the Emperors Yao and Shun this five-stringed instrument was used to accompany the populace renovating odes of the day. A thousand years later, the literary monarch being in exile from his State, and lamenting over the death of his son Peh Yih-kao,  added another string of pure and pathetic note, since called the literary string. Another son of his [almost a contemporary of King David] having defeated and slain the tyrant, and gained for himself the title of Military Monarch, added a seventh string, which is called after him.

‘ The harpsichord has six abhorrences and seven prohibitions. It abhors intense cold, intense heat, a high wind, a heavy rain, loud thunder, and a heavy fall of snow. It must not be played when wailing sounds are heard, when festive instruments are sounding, when the musician is worried, when his person is not clean, when his clothing is awry, without incense having first been lighted, or in the presence of an unsympathetic listener. Its eight excellences in sound are purity, mystery, obscurity, choiceness, plaintiveness, energy, distance, and resonance. When played by a master hand in the highest style, the howling tiger will listen, and cease its roar; the screaming monkey will listen, and cease its screeching.’

Hearing the woodcutter discourse with such fluency and exactness, Peh-ya imagined he must have learned it all by rote, but even then thought him a man not to be despised. Henceforth adopting politer forms of speech, he essayed to test him a little further. ‘ Confucius was once playing the harpsichord  in the house,’ he said, ‘ when Yen Hwui entered. As he listened to its deep and muffled tones, he thought he detected strains of blood-thirstiness, and asked in surprise whether it was so. Confucius answered, ” As I was playing, I saw a cat chase a mouse, and smiled at the capture, but fearing it might lose its prey, my blood-thirstiness [!] betrayed itself on the silken strings.” ‘ It was thus that the sacred and sensitive nature of music came to be fully known. Now, suppose I play my instrument with certain thoughts in my mind, can you recognise those thoughts as you listen? ‘ ” Replied the woodcutter: ‘ In the Book of Odes it is written

“Another’s thoughts I can fathom.”

If you, sir, will extemporise a little, I will try and fathom your meaning. Should I guess wrong, pray pardon me’

Peh-ya renewed the broken string and played a while, with mountain scenery in his mind. ‘ Excellent indeed! ‘ exclaimed the other; ‘ your far-reaching thoughts were upon the high hills! ‘ At which the musician could hardly believe his ears, and extemporised once more, with the rippling of hillside brooks in his mind. ‘ Excellent indeed! ‘ cried the woodcutter; ‘ the flowing brooks are gurgling.’

With the surprise that such thought-interpretation might well call up, Peh-ya’s brusqueness gave place to the geniality of a host, and the woodcutter had to take the place of honour on the left.  With fervent apologies, Peh-ya exclaimed, ‘ Amid the rocks the priceless gem is hidden. And he who judges after the outward appearance and garb cannot fail to slight the most wisely virtuous everywhere.’ Then, in the politest terms, he inquired the name of his guest. The reply, given in all due humility, was that his surname was Chung [which we may render as Bushell] Tsz-ki [child of a set time], whereupon Peh-ya introduced himself.

Tea was brought, then ‘ wine,’   and Peh-ya inquired after Tsz-ki’s place of abode.

” ‘ Not far from here,’ was the reply. ‘ I live beside the Horse Saddle Hill, in a hamlet called the Gathering-place of the Virtuous.’ ‘ Truly so called! ‘ exclaimed his host with inclined head. ‘ And what may your occupation be? ‘

‘ I cut wood for a living.’

‘ But how is it that with such abilities you do not seek for a degree, and an honourable official position [lit. a name among the bamboo and brocade], instead of hiding your genius among hillside copses and streams, in the company of herdsmen and woodcutters? Why vegetate and wither when you might flourish as a scholar? ‘

‘ Because my parents are both stricken in years, and have no one else to provide for them. Had I the highest possible position offered me, I could not accept it, for they could not do without me for a single day.’

‘ Such a true son is hard to find,’ exclaimed Peh-ya, whose affection for the young man was deepening. He asked how many ‘ spring-tides ‘ he had passed? Tsz-ki replied that he had ‘ emptily passed ‘   twenty-seven years. ‘ Then I am your senior by some ten odd years ‘ which was probably a polite understatement of fact. ‘ And if you will consent to such a relationship, I should like to call you brother, my never-to-be-forgotten thought-interpreter.’

The meanly-clad young man looked at his friend in silk and fox furs, exclaiming, ‘ Surely you cannot mean it! You are a noted statesman of an honourable kingdom, and my lot is cast among the rustics. How could I venture to aspire to a friendship so incongruous and unbecoming? ‘

To which Peh-ya replied that ‘ One’s acquaintances may fill the earth, but heart-interpreting friends are rare indeed. If I in my various vicissitudes,’ he added tenderly, ‘ may be linked with you in the bonds of sworn brotherhood, it will be an unspeakable enrichment to my whole life.’ Then almost pleadingly, ‘ If you think that I regard such things as riches and poverty as barriers, what manner of man do you take me to be? ‘

Incense was added to the brazier, and thus at midnight, in the royally-furnished boat-chamber, the high statesman and the woodcutter went through the eight obeisances   which would make them brothers for ever. They were now known to each other by name.

They changed seats, the elder brother taking the place of honour, and carried on their heart-to-heart conversation until the moon had declined and the stars began to pale. The boatmen having made all preparations for starting [some of them had doubtless been peeping through the window blinds in wonder], Tsz-ki rose to take his leave.

‘My good brother,’ said Peh-ya, ‘ you and I have met too late, and, alas, must part thus early!’ At which Tsz-ki could not refrain his tears; and neither of them could bring his mind to the point of separation. ‘ My feelings are far from spent,’ said the elder brother; ‘ could you not accompany me for some days? ‘

‘ It is not for want of the will that I must decline,’ replied the other; ‘ but how can I leave my aged parents? When the parents are alive, their children should not wander afar.’ ‘As they are both at home,’ Peh-ya responded [with the rest of the quotation from the Analects as a basis for his words], ‘ could you not tell them you would like to go to Tsin to see your brother by and by? Thus, though ” wandering afar,” you would acquaint them with your whereabouts.’

‘ Not to grieve you,’ Tsz-ki answered, ‘ I will not promise, and then break my word. But if I mention it to my parents, they will assuredly object to my going so far.’

‘ Let it be as you say, my noble brother. Then I will certainly come again next year and see you.’

‘ If you fix a date, I will be here ready to receive you.’

‘ Last night was the mid-autumn festival. I shall be looking out for my brother on the fifteenth or sixteenth day of the mid-autumn month next year. I will not break my faith.’ ‘Then,’ said Tsz-ki, ‘ I will be here on the river bank without fail. It is now daylight, and I must say farewell.’

‘You must really go, my brother?’ said Peh-ya, and he ordered the lad to bring two ingots of gold. These he presented his brother with both hands, saying, ‘ This little gift will help towards the necessities of your parents. As you are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, you will not scorn to receive it.’

Tsz-ki could not refuse, and took his departure; putting on his rain hat and grass cape, shouldering his spiked pole and sticking his hatchet in his girdle, he was handed along the plank to the shore. The boatmen beat the drums and started. The scenery was grand, but Peh-ya had no heart for it now. All his thoughts were with his heart’s interpreter.

Some days passed thus, when he went ashore, and being recognised as a high official of Tsin, the mandarins of the port provided horses and carriages, accompanying him to the capital.

Time flies apace! Autumn merged into winter; the spring and summer passed, but not for a single day had Peh-ya ceased to think of his brother. As the autumn was approaching, he petitioned the King of Tsin to allow him to go home a while. It was granted; and the fifteenth of the eighth moon found him once more near the Horse Saddle Hill. The boat was secured by grappling irons and a wooden stake driven into the bank.

It was a lovely night; the moonbeams came stealing through the blinds. Peh-ya went out and stood on deck. There was hardly a ripple on the waters. The northern constellation was clearly reflected on the glassy surface. Peh-ya opened his heart to the sweet serenity around, and the memories which the spot awakened. ‘ But my brother promised to be here on the bank waiting for me. There is no trace of him. Can he have broken his word? Nay, it cannot be. There are several boats about, and mine is not the same as I had last year. It was while playing my harpsichord that I discovered him. I will do so again, and he will hear the music and come.’

So the sweet instrument was brought on deck, and that same brazier emitted clouds of perfume. The musician took the harpsichord out of its bag and tuned it, when one of the strings emitted a dirge-like note.

‘ How is this? ‘ exclaimed Peh-ya. ‘ My brother must have some calamity in the house, and so he does not come. He told me both his parents were aged. One or other must be dead. He is a filial son, and has put the first claims first. He would rather break faith with me than neglect his parents, so he has not come. I will go on shore to-morrow and find him.’

The instrument was brought in again, and he retired for the night. But not a moment’s sleep could he get. He longed and looked for the morn. At length the moon declined, and the dawn was about to break over the hills. He arose, washed, and dressed himself, putting on plain garments, and, with the lad bearing his harpsichord and a large quantity of gold, he went ashore. ‘ If my brother have any mourning in the house,’ he said, ‘ this will cover the ceremonies required of the filial.’

He walked on until he came to the end of the valley, where he stood still. The road divided to the east and west, and no trace of the hamlet he sought. He sat upon a way-side rock for a while, when an old man with a long, white, silky beard came along, leaning upon his staff. Peh-ya advanced to meet him, and asked which of the two roads led to the desired village.

‘ There are two villages of that name, an upper and a lower,’ the old man replied; ‘ which one was it you wished to visit? ‘

‘ My brother is a clear-headed man,’ thought Peh-ya ; ‘ why did he speak thus ambiguously ? I have it! He did not mean to put me to the trouble of seeking him out.’

‘ Your silence, sir, indicates that the person who directed you did not seem to know of the existence of two villages, which are in opposite directions from here. I have lived on the hillside for many a long year, and know everyone here as neighbours or relatives, or else as friends. What is the name of the person you are seeking? ‘

‘ I wish to find out the house of the Chung family.’

‘ To seek for whom? ‘

‘ To find out Tsz-ki.’

At this the old man’s eyes filled with tears. He sobbed out, ‘ My own son! Last year at this time, as he was out cutting wood, he met a statesman of Tsin, named Yu Peh-ya, who became attached to him, presenting him with two ingots of gold as he went away. My son bought many books, and studied hard, so as to be worthy of his kindness. Returning with his heavy faggots, he would read on into the night, until he fell ill, and after some months he died ! ‘

With a loud cry, Peh-ya fell down in a swoon. The old man did his best, with the lad’s assistance, to restore him; and asked who the traveller was. The lad whispered in his ear, ‘ The statesman, Yu Peh-ya himself.’

As consciousness returned, Peh-ya wailed bitterly, ‘ My brother! my brother! There was I on the boat last night talking of broken promises! Little did I think that you were gone! ‘ He rose and saluted the old man, asking whether his son was already buried or not.

‘ It cannot be told in one word,’ the old man replied. ‘ As my son was dying, and we were watching at his bedside, he said, ” The bounds of my life have been fixed by Heaven. I cannot fulfil my earthly relations. But I beseech you, bury me by and by on the bank near the place where I met the good statesman, so that I may keep my promise with him.”  Along the road you came there is a new grave by the wayside. It is nay son’s. I was just going to visit it.’

‘ I will accompany you.’

They proceeded along the path, the aged father and the elder brother, until they reached the grave, when Peh-ya’s sobs broke out afresh. ‘ My brother,” he cried, ‘ thou art among the higher intelligences now. I bid thee a long fare-well.’ Thus he wailed until the country folk assembled. They found out who he was, and crowded to the front to stare at the man in his anguish.

The sweet-toned instrument was taken out of its bag, and with streaming eyes Peh-ya played a dirge. The sight-seers, hearing the music by the grave side, went off clapping their hands in merriment.  The musician asked the reason, when he was thus bewailing his brother. To which the old man replied that the rustics, not discerning his meaning, took the notes to be festal strains.

‘ Can that be so? At least you will interpret my heart’s meaning? ‘

‘ Alas! I am stupid and dull. I played the harpsichord when I was younger, but now in my old age my five senses are half gone.’

‘I have been extemporising a heart-prompted dirge. I will sing it once for you to hear.’

With tremulous voice the statesman sang

‘ I recall the fond hopes of last year,
When my friend on the bank I met here;
I have come back to seek him again,
I have come back to seek him in vain.
But a heap of cold earth do I find,
And sore is my sorrow-filled mind;
My sore heart is stricken with grief,
My tears are my only relief.
I came here in joy;
with what grief do I go!
The banks of the river are clouded with woe.
Tsz-ki ! my lost Tsz-ki!
True as tried gold were we.
Beyond the heavenly shore
Thy voice I hear no more.
I sing thee my last song, my last.
The harpsichord’s music is past.’

Then, taking a small knife from his girdle, he cut the silken strings in twain, and lifting the instrument with both hands, as if in sacrifice, he put forth all his strength, and dashed it to pieces upon the grave.

The old man wonderingly asked the reason of this.

‘ Tsz-ki is gone; to whom should I play now? Spring-tide friends abound, but to find a heart’s interpreter is a difficulty of difficulties.’

‘ I am too sad,’ Peh-ya continued, ‘ to accompany you home, but have brought with me some gold, half of which will minister to your present needs, and half will buy a little land around, so that [from the crops thereon] the grave may be ever kept in repair. If you will wait till I return to my adopted country, and ask leave to retire from office, I will come and fetch my venerable father and mother to the old home, there to be cared for until the appointed years of Heaven are fulfilled. I was one with Tsz-ki and he with me. Do not think of me as an outsider; ‘ and he handed the gold to the old man, who received it with tearful gratitude.

A few moments after, each had gone his several way.”

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