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General Yue Zhongqi has risen far and fast, which is what makes the present moment so dangerous for him. Born in 1686, the son of a general, Yue was a major at age twenty-five, a colonel at thirty-two, and was named commander-in-chief of Sichuan province at thirty-five. His string of military successes includes campaigns along the Tibetan border, in Kokonor, against mountain tribes in Xining, in China's westernmost province of Gansu, and on the borders of the far southern province of Yunnan. Now, in late October 1728, at the age of forty-two, not only is he governor-general of two provinces, and the regional commander-in-chief, but he has also been ennobled by a grateful emperor, and his own son in turn has been swiftly promoted to high office and is currently the acting governor of one of the strategic coastal provinces. The Yue family are rich; they hold huge estates in Gansu province in the far west, and in Sichuan to the south. The family inventories list dozens of properties held in the Yue name, great mansions with tiled roofs and multiple courtyards in several major cities, fine farmland scattered across several regions, and scores of caretakers and bailiffs who manage the estates when Yue Zhongqi is away on duty.
Yet despite his power and wealth, Yue Zhongqi knows he is totally at the emperor's mercy. Everything he has earned and won could vanish in an instant should the emperor doubt his loyalty. For the current emperors of China are the Manchus, warrior stock from the north, who conquered the armies of the floundering Ming dynasty in 1644 with their cavalry, established the Qing dynasty in its place, and have ruled the country ever since, constantly watchful to preserve their own prerogatives.
Another factor underlines the precariousness of General Yue's position: the burden of his family name. Yue Zhongqi is both blessed and cursed by being a distant descendant of another General Yue-Yue Fei-who six centuries earlier, in the time of the Song dynasty, tried to rally the Chinese of his own day to reclaim the lands they had lost in the north to barbarian conquerors. Yue Fei fought as long and as bravely as he could, until betrayed by his own countrymen and jealous courtiers. Imprisoned on a trumped-up charge, Yue Fei died in captivity, and the northern lands were lost. With time, Yue Fei's recklessness came to be seen as statesmanship, and his yearning plea to regain for China her "mountains and rivers" became a rallying cry for all Chinese people. Shrines to Yue Fei were erected in his native place. Plays and novels celebrated his passionate ambitions. Storytellers elaborated on his punctilious character and his prowess on the battlefield. They made their listeners weep as they recorded the warrior's courage amidst the carnage of war, and the perfidy of the political enemies who betrayed him. The Manchus who overthrew the Ming in 1644 were descendants of those same Jurchen tribesmen against whom Yue Fei fought for so long; thus, not surprisingly, Yue Fei's memory became once more a rallying cry for those who hated the Manchus. However loyal Yue Zhongqi may be to the current Manchu emperor, the popular belief is that he is primed for vengeance by virtue of his ancestral blood, and poised to restore China's former glories. General Yue knows this, and he knows that his emperor knows it.
Alone in his study, Yue Zhongqi moves to the heart of the letter that has just been handed to him. Some of it he has heard before and knows all too well, such as the passage hailing him as "the descendant of the Song dynasty martial prince Yue Fei," and urging him to "seize the chance to rise in revolt, and avenge the fates of the Song and Ming." "Once you have taken someone as your true ruler," the letter continues, "you should guard your relationship to that former person to the death. But instead you bow your head and compromise your loyalty by serving a bandit ruler." By serving the Manchus instead of keeping the faith with his illustrious ancestor, the current general Yue has compromised his very being: "A minister's choosing his ruler is like a woman following her husband. A man serving someone who is not truly his ruler, and thereby losing his moral character, is like a woman who has once been married and gets married for a second time."
But the letter by this man who calls himself Summer Calm also takes the familiar litany out into new terrain: "When the rulers of the Ming dynasty lost their virtuous ways, the land of China was submerged, the barbarians took advantage of our weakness to enter, and usurped our precious throne," he writes. "The barbarians are a different species from us, like animals; it is the Chinese who should stay in this land, and the barbarians who should be driven out." The reasons for this are obvious: "Heaven gives birth to humans and to things. The principle is one, though the manifestations are many. Those living on Chinese soil have the proper elements, their yin and their yang are in harmony, they possess virtue, they are human. Those outside the borders, in all four directions, they are oblique and vicious by nature, they are the barbarians. Below the barbarians come the animals."
Other passages in the letter speak of the portents darkening China's future as the country suffers under the barbarian Manchus' rule: "Heaven and earth are overturned, darkness prevails, there is no light." That is why, the letter continues, the Temple of Confucius recently burned down. That is why, for the last five or six years, floods and droughts in uneasy sequence have ravaged much of China, so that crops have been lost, the balance between hot and cold seasons has been destroyed, "mountains collapsed, rivers dried up." That is why "the five stars converged," "the Yellow River flowed clear," "yin was exhausted and yang began to rise."
In some passages, the letter's author reflects on the imbalances of a social order in which "the land has all been taken over by the rich-the rich get richer every day, and the poor get poorer." Summer Calm clearly separates himself from these wealthy families: "Living in the present day, and making my way in the present world, I have no intention of seeking profit or rank-these would defile me." Perhaps he is a farmer? "I live in seclusion on an empty mountain, with one or two like-minded friends, raising our chickens and growing melons." Yet if he is a farmer, he cares for old texts, old days, and has a sense of history. For the writer of this letter, nothing good in a scholarly or political sense has happened in China during the five centuries that have passed since the fall of that Song dynasty which Yue Fei fought so hard to preserve. In all that time, up to the present, only one scholar has "upheld the ideal," and that was the man whom the letter writer calls "The Master of the Eastern Sea."
As to the reigning emperor, Yongzheng, Summer Calm expresses nothing but disgust, and for General Yue's benefit he marshals the negative arguments: the emperor under whose rule they both are living has murdered several of his brothers, both older and younger; he has plotted against his parents; he persecutes his loyal ministers, and gives his ear only to sycophants; he is greedy for material gain, despite the richness with which he lives; he is ever eager to kill others, often drinks himself into oblivion, and cannot control his sexual passions. Could anyone be surprised that "the sky is shaking, the earth is angry; demons cry, gods howl"?
It is early afternoon by the time Yue Zhongqi finishes the letter. It has not been hard to read the letter in privacy, but many people have seen the letter delivered into his hands, and he must proceed with care. He will need unimpeachable witnesses if he is to question the messenger. If he were to investigate such an incredible document on his own, or to question the messenger in secret, even if he were to get the truth would anyone believe him?
The last time Yue Zhongqi found himself in a somewhat similar predicament was around fifteen months before, in early August 1727, when he was serving as the commanding general in the city of Chengdu, down in the southwest in Sichuan province. Just after noon, on August 4, a man was seen running wildly through the streets. He carried a stone in each hand, and shouted out for all to hear that a great upheaval was coming, that "Old Yue" would rise up with his cavalry and troops in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces to overthrow the government. Within the very walls of Chengdu itself, secretly organized gangs would arise at the same time from their hidden bases near the city gates and would begin a bout of random killings.
That the city watchmen who first reported the incident and Yue's senior colleagues who investigated it all thought the man was mad was little solace to Yue Zhongqi himself. He still had to report the whole humiliating incident to the emperor, for he knew that his colleagues-even those among them he considered his friends-would be reporting it as well. Trivial though the incident might seem, both their careers and his depended on never concealing a single act that might be seen to threaten the regime. As Yue rather bitterly noted in his report to the emperor at that time, "If people are truly mad, there is nothing they cannot say, and no person they cannot destroy." And in a follow-up report Yue poured out his sense of anguish and guilt, lambasting himself for his failures as a general and as an official, confessing to financial and administrative errors and to mistakes in judgment, repeatedly referring to his own weakening health, and finally requesting to be relieved of all his duties.
Responding to Yue's reports in an edict issued later that same summer of 1727, Emperor Yongzheng handled the whole matter of the Chengdu incident with candor. Over the years, wrote the emperor, he had received numerous warnings of Yue Zhongqi's potential for disloyalty, warnings that were often linked to rumors that the general might seek to relive the triumphs of his ancestor Yue Fei. As emperor, he chose to ignore them all, and indeed had promoted Yue to ever-higher positions out of absolute confidence that the charges were groundless. His only regret was that these scurrilous accusations demeaned not only General Yue himself but also the loyal people of Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces, who formed the backbone of Yue's armies.
In a separate set of confidential comments for the general's eyes only, written in vermilion ink between the columns of Yue's impassioned outpourings, the emperor reassured Yue that he considered the charges Yue was directing against himself to be basically trivial matters, unworthy of further consideration. No one had mentioned them to the emperor before, and he did not care to know about them now. Yue should stay at his post, and get on with the work he had been appointed to do. Yue's poor health, however, was a real concern. Accordingly the emperor would send his own most trusted court doctor, Liu Yuduo, down to Chengdu, with a range of the medicines for which he was justly famous, to give Yue a thorough examination. Dr. Liu did indeed arrive in Chengdu, and spent three days checking the general's pulse rhythms, and in experimenting with different dosages of medication, before hitting on a formula that suited the general perfectly, brought an end to his nagging anxieties, and rebuilt his bodily strength.
Since the Chengdu case might leave rumors hovering in the air, rumors that could damage Yue's reputation and encourage doubts in the public's mind about the tranquillity of the region, Emperor Yongzheng also appointed a special investigator from the Ministry of Punishments to travel down to Chengdu and check things out for himself. Arriving in mid-September 1727, the investigator personally questioned the alleged madman, along with his relatives, anyone who had shared lodgings with him, and the members of the patrol that arrested him. The rigorous questioning-some of it under torture-revealed no instigators behind the scenes, and no traces of a concealed plot. It was clear that the madman, Lu, had acted alone while in a delirium caused by a protracted bout of malaria that had lasted over a month, leaving him weakened and desiccated. Lu had no memory at all of his actions in the street on that early August day. If there was any calculation behind his words and actions, it was that he had been driven to a state approaching madness even earlier, during a protracted struggle with the authorities to regain some land he had sold, under duress, to a brutal neighbor. The refusal of the various officials in the countryside where he lived to reopen his case had led Lu at last to Chengdu, in the hopes of catching the attention of the recently appointed general, Yue, who had a reputation for fairness. The investigator in 1727 also clarified some puzzling details in the case: for instance, Lu had been carrying a stone in each hand to drive away the wild dogs that followed him through the streets; the wildness of his gaze sprang from the delirium that fixed his eyes in an unyielding stare; once placed in a cart by the watchmen, to be conveyed to the city jail, all his energy evaporated, and he fell at once into a deep and trancelike sleep.
Yue Zhongqi was lucky that time, and apparently the case left no lingering resentments. But how can Yue report yet another case, of an oddly similar kind, not much more than a year after that earlier one, and still retain his emperor's confidence? His main hope for imperial understanding must be to keep the record limpidly clear, to have no suggestion of any hidden double-dealing. Only testimony from the most impeccable corroborating sources can be used. Lowly witnesses obviously will not do-for this is treason of the gravest kind. Twice Yue Zhongqi sends members of his personal staff to the second-ranking official in Shaanxi province, Governor Xilin, who also resides in Xi'an, asking him to report at once to the general's office. But the governor replies that he cannot come-he is out at the military training grounds in the northeastern part of the city, checking the martial skills of those taking the current round of military examinations. It would not be tactful in the circumstances for General Yue to order Governor Xilin to come, since the governor is a career Manchu bureaucrat, only one grade junior to General Yue, and the training ground is in the very middle of the "Manchu city" of Xi'an. That Manchu enclave was formed from the entire eastern half of the city after it was seized from the Chinese residents in 1646, fortified with its own inner walls, and made the permanent and protected residence area for five thousand Manchu garrison troops along with their more than fifteen thousand dependents.
Dipping, of necessity, one rung down in the bureaucratic hierarchy, Yue Zhongqi calls instead on the third-ranking official stationed in Xi'an, Judicial Commissioner Shise. This man's office is just across the road from the governor-general's compound, beside that same Drum Tower where the messenger had been waiting, and as it happens Shise is free, and is able to respond to Yue's call. After the two officials have consulted together briefly, Yue installs the commissioner in a room adjacent to the main office, so that he can hear everything that transpires without being seen. Once Shise is in position, General Yue summons the arrested messenger, "Zhang the Luminous," to his office, and offers him a cup of tea.
As they drink their tea together, Yue keeps his expression friendly and his words polite: Where is messenger Zhang from, how far did he have to travel to get to Xi'an, and how long did the journey take him? Where does Zhang's teacher, the "Leaderless Wanderer of the Southern Seas," live, and how can one get to see him? And more broadly, Yue Zhongqi asks, what factors induced Zhang's teacher to take the initiative to write such a letter, address it to General Yue, and arrange for its delivery in this particular manner?
Zhang is cautious. He has taken an oath, he says, never to reveal his teacher's whereabouts. What he can say is that his teacher lives in the far southeastern province of Guangdong, near the coast, protected by his numerous followers. Where does Zhang himself live? He spent his earlier years in Wuchang City, and elsewhere in the Hunan-Hubei region, but now he too lives with his teacher beside the southern seas. The journey to see General Yue took Zhang four months in all, as he made his way across southern China from Guangdong through Guizhou and Sichuan, and so northward to the city of Xi'an in Shaanxi. Why the choice of General Yue to receive this particular letter? Because both Zhang and his teacher had heard people tell how Yue was summoned three times to the court by Emperor Yongzheng, but refused to go. Thus they knew the general must be ready to revolt. The distressed economic condition of the southern provinces of China, and unusual heavenly portents, confirmed them in their belief that the time was ripe for bold action.
Pressed by Yue Zhongqi about those three summonses to court, messenger Zhang adds a curious twist to his story: "When I got to Shaanxi two weeks ago," he tells Yue, "I heard that the emperor never sent those three summonses for you to come to court; the story was baseless. Therefore I thought it might be better not to deliver the letter. But I had traveled so far that I could hardly return empty-handed. So I decided to deliver it anyway."
Trying to probe deeper into the motives lying behind the conspiracy, Yue returns to the economic arguments. Why was it that Zhang and his teacher thought that people were ready to rebel, he asks again? Was Shaanxi province not prosperous, as the messenger could see for himself? Shaanxi might be prosperous under General Yue, Zhang agrees, but Zhang's own home provinces of Hubei and Hunan were reeling from both floods and droughts. "Mere accidents of nature," replies Yue, "and certainly not things caused by human beings themselves." Besides, as he knows well, only a few small areas of Hunan and Hubei were affected by the bad weather, and the emperor has already sent relief to the stricken regions. "The government officials never know the people's real suffering," Zhang replies.
Shifting his ground again, Yue Zhongqi makes one more attempt to find out where the messenger and his teacher are really from. If Zhang will not tell him such basic details, Yue argues, how can he possibly know if this whole story is true or not? How can he be sure the whole thing is not an elaborate trap, in which Zhang has been primed by Yue's enemies to deliver a treasonous letter, so that they can see how Yue responds? (Something similar happened back in 1725 to Yue's predecessor in this very Shaanxi post, a man also at the peak of his power until undermined by a subordinate who lured him into acts of disloyalty and then turned him in. Yue was on the man's staff at the time, and knows all the dangerous details.) But Zhang does not rise to the bait, and swears that he will never reveal where he and his teacher live, even if the general kills him for his silence.
It is now three in the afternoon of October 28. Governor Xilin at last arrives, the military examinations being over. Yue goes out to greet him, and summarizes the impasse in which he finds himself. They decide that since the general is getting nowhere by politeness, they should turn to torture. The governor will conceal himself along with the judicial commissioner in the adjacent room, and the two will act as witnesses to what transpires.
But even when the torture instruments are used on Zhang, strong wooden presses that constrict hands and fingers or ankles and leg bones ever tighter, until they reach or pass the breaking point, he refuses to give the information the general demands. Zhang keeps repeating again and again through his cries of pain that his teacher lives down on the shores of the southern seas, where the borders of the provinces come together. The words are meaningless as a way of tracking down the conspirators, and after several hours the general realizes that Zhang will die if they continue any longer, and the mystery of the letter's origin will be unsolved. So he orders the messenger returned to his cell and arranges for the governor and judicial commissioner to return at dawn the following day, to take up their secret listening stations once again.
The whole of that next day, October 29, is spent in probing Zhang for hard facts, but to no avail. The general keeps the threat of torture in reserve, but does not resort to it again. Instead, he elaborates on what he said the day before about the need to prove Zhang was not a front man for some group of enemies determined to discredit Yue. Even the torture has its place in that enquiry, he adds, since how else could they have known whether Zhang was sincere? This time Yue openly says the name of his predecessor as governor-general and commander of the Western Armies, who had been betrayed by his own subordinates-the man was General Nian Gengyao, once the emperor's favorite but driven at the end to commit suicide on the emperor's orders. Doubtless Zhang and his fellows are planning the same kind of thing, the general observes, and why on earth should he trust this group of scholars apparently playing out the roles of wandering knights-errant? After the treatment he received the previous day, Zhang replies, it is hard for him to believe anything the general says to him. Such harsh treatment was logical, the general replies, since Zhang refused so consistently to tell the truth: "If you speak so fiercely to others, they are going to treat you with equal fierceness."
Zhang repeats his assertion that six provinces are ready to rise up in rebellion. Why six provinces? the general asks, and Zhang tells him that these are the same six that rose up in 1673 at the time of Wu Sangui's great rebellion against the Manchus, and they would surely rise again if given the proper leadership: "If you just give the word, all else will spring from that."
Yue probes the logic of the messenger's claims, winning debating points as he proves his superior knowledge of local conditions-it is, after all, the governor-general's responsibility to know such things-and regularly exposing great gaps in the messenger's information. But it is a circular and unproductive conversation. If there is a plot, its outline remains shadowy, its leader or leaders unknown. The last remarks from Zhang, as the evening comes upon them, are close to a threat: Many people now know, he reminds General Yue, of the torture used the day before. They would talk, as people always do. Their talk, and the reasons for it, would reach the emperor's ears and lead him to question the general about it. The general would then find himself in the deepest trouble.
Yue replies with unexpected candor: "For some time the emperor has known that people planning to rebel come to try and win an agreement from me; so naturally he doubts my true intentions, and takes his precautions. How can I ever have a day in which I am completely at peace?" But the messenger's threat has suggested its own solution, says the general: "Now that I am riding the tiger, I have no choice but to let you go. If outsiders do talk about this case, and the emperor decides to investigate, I'll just tell him that a group of naive scholars, under the illusion they were talking politics, got to saying crazy things. But after I gave them some tough questioning, I decided to let them go." The messenger is neither moved nor convinced: "Your words may sound logical, but I don't believe what you say. And since I came here ready to die, even if you were, in all sincerity, to set me free, I, in all sincerity, would not go." They are getting nowhere. Yue Zhongqi orders Zhang returned to his cell.
On the morning of October 30, seeing no other choice, Yue retires to his office and begins a report to his emperor. His rank entitles him to send a top-secret report, one that will initially be read by the emperor in person, before anyone in the bureaucracy has seen it. Such secret reports have to be written by the senior officials themselves, not by their secretaries, and must follow an exact format: an introductory title to show the content, followed by the main points sequentially arranged, terminating with general conclusions and suggestions for action. The paper, too, is standard for all senior officials: white, each sheet ten inches high and around two feet broad, folded into narrow leaves in a concertina fashion, which makes each report easy to scan through. The ink used is black, and the vertical lines of each official's calligraphy are spaced far enough apart to allow room for imperial notations in red ink between the lines, with more space at the end, after the date, for a lengthier comment should the emperor choose to make one.
For the introductory title to his report, Yue Zhongqi chooses unusual wording: "A Secret Report, Blunderingly Written, Which the Emperor Is Implored to Read with Compassion." As carefully as he can, Yue summarizes the delivery of the letter by Zhang the messenger at around noon on October 28, offers a sketch of the letter's contents, and presents a detailed account of the three phases of the interrogation across the afternoon and evening of the twenty-eighth, and on October 29. General Yue admits to the emperor that he has completely failed to solve the case-it has been in every sense "uncanny and elusive." Though he knows full well what his duty is to his ruler and his country, his capacities have proved inadequate to the task. All he can suggest now is that Zhang the messenger be sent to Beijing, where trusted officials of the emperor, skilled in interrogation, might be able to break through Zhang's walls of evasion.
By rights, Yue adds, he should be sending along a copy of the treasonous letter. But its contents are so wild and vile that he feels unable to send it for the emperor's perusal unless specifically ordered to do so. Accordingly, pending further instructions, he has put the letter in a sealed packet and deposited it with Governor Xilin, who will make sure it is not tampered with in any way. Governor Xilin, the general adds, who listened secretly to the second and third phases of the questioning, attests to the accuracy of this preliminary report, though Yue is sending it out under his own name. Messenger Zhang was also carrying two books when arrested, notes Yue. One was a handwritten copy of a work called "A Conspectus of Information for Attaining the Degree of Literary Licentiate," and the other was a printed book titled "Grasping the Essentials of the Classics, Illustrated with Commentary." These two have been sealed away for safekeeping.
The general entrusts his secret report to a special courier and orders it delivered at once to the emperor in Beijing. Just as there are meticulous rules for the format and presentation of secret reports, so are there similar rules for their dispatch. Most commonly the couriers are either trusted household retainers of the senior official concerned or else military officers on his staff. There are also government couriers attached to each of the various substations of the message-transmission system, which covers China like a tracery, linking key cities and transportation routes via an intricate system of post stations. One index of the dynasty's effectiveness is the speed with which messages can be delivered, for that depends in turn on maintaining stables and the necessary mounts which the couriers can use on the presentation of tallies: fast horses in the north, but also mules and donkeys for rugged terrain, and camels for the arid lands and deserts of the far west. In the southeast, crisscrossed by its myriad canals and rivers, the stables are replaced by a system of boats-various types, depending on the nature of the waterways. Inns where the couriers can sleep and get a meal are also part of the system. Yue Zhongqi does not mention in his report the name or rank of his courier, but we know the man traveled fast, leaving Xi'an at noon on October 30 and completing the 850-mile journey to Beijing by the fifth or sixth of November.
With the report written and dispatched, Yue Zhongqi can think more clearly about the case as a whole. Though the report he has just sent in may prove his honesty and patriotism, its contents suggest mainly a string of failures. And the solution he has offered the emperor is thin indeed. What if the Beijing interrogators succeed no better than he has, and Zhang the messenger were to die under their insistent questioning? How would that help to solve the case? And how would the solution he has offered in any way help to set the emperor's mind at ease?
Reprinted from Treason by the Book by Jonathan Spence by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Jonathan Spence. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.