The Scholars – Kai Kuan
By Wu Ching-Tzu [Wu Jingzi]
Another was Kai Kuan who kept a tea−house. Once he had owned a pawnshop, for when he was in his twenties his family was rich. Besides a pawnshop they had fields and marshlands. All his relatives were wealthy, but he despised their vulgarity, and would sit every day in his library reading or writing poems. He was fond of painting too, and began to paint so well that other poets and artists came to see him. Though their poems and paintings were not as good as his, Kai Kuan prized talent so much that when such visitors called he would feast them, and there would be talk and laughter. And when these friends were short of silver to pay for a wedding or funeral, they had only to ask for a loan and he would give them dozens or hundreds of taels.
Once the pawnshop assistants knew this, they said their master must be a fool, and cheated him right and left till his capital melted away. For several years running, too, his fields were flooded, and he had to make good the loss in seeds and grain. Then some shady characters advised him to sell, and the purchasers, claiming that the land was poor, would pay no more than five or six hundred taels for land well worth a thousand. Yet Kai had no choice but to sell. Instead of making good use of the proceeds, however, he kept the silver at home to use as he needed. So it did not last very long. When this was gone, he had nothing but the income from his marshlands with which to pay his debts. But his assistants were a bad lot who set fire to his fuel stacks; and luck was against Kai Kuan, for after several fires all his thousands of bundles of fuel were burnt to ashes. The reeds fused when they burnt, and twisted into odd shapes like the stones from Taihu Lake. The assistants brought some of these stumps to show him, and finding them amusing he kept them in his house.
“These will bring you bad luck,” warned his servants. “You mustn’t keep them.”
He turned a deaf ear, though, and kept the stumps in his study. Now that the marshlands were done for, his assistants deserted him. Within half a year he had nothing left to live on, and sold his big house to move to a smaller one. In another half year his wife died, and to bury her he sold the small house too. Then, with his son and daughter, the poor man moved to a two−roomed cottage in a quiet lane and started a tea−house there. He made over the inside room to his son and daughter.
In the outer room he put several tables for tea, and under the back eaves set up a stove. On the right he had a counter, with two earthenware vats behind it filled with rain water. He would get up early to light the fire, and when he had fanned it into a blaze would put on a kettle to heat, then sit behind his counter to read or paint. In a vase on the counter he kept a few blooms of whichever flowers were in season, and next to this was a pile of old books. He had sold all his other possessions, but could not bear to part with these precious volumes. When customers came in, he would put down his book to bring them a teapot and cups. There was not much money in this. He made one copper on each pot of tea, and since he sold no more than fifty or sixty a day, he made no more than fifty or sixty coppers, which barely sufficed to keep them in fuel and rice!
He was sitting at his counter one day when an old neighbour dropped in for a chat, and saw that though it was the tenth month Kai was still in a linen gown.
“My friend,” he said, “I can see you are very hard up. You helped a great many people in the past, but none of them come here now. All your relatives are quite comfortably off; why don’t you go to talk things over with them and borrow enough to set up a proper business, so that you can make a living?”
“Why, uncle,” replied Kai Kuan, “don’t you know the proverb? Warm feelings may turn to coldness. Men are drawn to prosperity but not to adversity. When I had money I dressed respectably and had smart attendants to wait on me. I didn’t disgrace my relatives when I saw them. But if I called on them as I am today, even if they didn’t take offence, I should feel out of place myself. As for the people you say I helped in the past, they are all of them too poor to pay me back. They have gone to look for other rich men now; why should they call on me? If I go to look them up, I shall only annoy them for nothing. That would be pointless.”
When the neighbour heard how bitterly he spoke, he said: “Your tea−house is very quiet. I doubt if you’ll have many customers today. Since the weather’s fine, let’s take a walk outside the South Gate.”
“That would be very pleasant,” responded Kai Kuan. “I have no money though.”
“I’ve a little loose silver. Enough for a simple meal.”
“Well, this is very good of you.”
Kai called his son out to mind the shop, then walked off with the old man through the South Gate. For five silver cents they had a vegetarian meal in a Mohammedan eating−house. When the neighbour had paid the bill and left a tip, they walked on into the Temple of Kindness Repaid. They looked at the hall and south corridor, at Tripitaka’s burial place and the great frying pan, then went back to the entrance to buy a packet of sweetmeats, and sat down in a tea−house behind the pagoda to drink a pot of tea.
“The world has changed,” said Kai’s neighbour. “There are fewer visitors now to the Temple of Kindness Repaid. And they buy less sweetmeats than twenty years ago.”
“You must have seen a good deal, uncle, in the seventy years of your life. But things are not what they were. If I’d lived in the time of Dr. Yu and the others, with my slight gift for painting I needn’t have worried about each bowl of rice! Who could have thought things would come to such a pass!”
“You’ve reminded me of something,” said his neighbour. “To the left of Rain Flower Mount is Tai Po’s Temple, built by a Mr. Chih of Chujung. That was a fine sight the year when he asked Dr. Yu to sacrifice here! I was little more than twenty then, and I squeezed through the crowd to watch, losing my cap in the crush! But today there is nobody to look after the temple, and the buildings are falling down. When we’ve finished our tea, let’s go there to have a look.”
They ate a dish of dried beancurd, paid for the tea and left. Having climbed the left side of Rain Flower Mount, they saw the main hall of Tai Po’s Temple with the front half of the roof caving in. Five or six children were playing football beside the double gate, one half of which had fallen to the ground. Going in, they came upon three or four old women, who were picking shepherd’s purse in the temple courtyard. All the lattice−work in the hall had disappeared, and the five buildings at the back were completely stripped−−not even a floor plank was left. After walking around, Kai sighed.
“To think that so famous a place should have fallen into such ruins!” he said. “And no one will repair an ancient sage’s temple!”
“In those days,” said his neighbour, “Mr. Chih bought many utensils, all of the antique kind, and kept them in large cupboards on the ground floor of this building. Now even those cupboards have gone!”
“It makes you sad to speak of old times,” said Kai. “We had better go back.”
They slowly retraced their steps.
“Shall we go to the top of Rain Flower Mount?” suggested Kai’s neighbour.
They gazed at the green, fresh mountains across the river, and the boats plying to and fro − they could see each sail quite clearly. The red sun was gradually sinking behind the mountains when the two of them paced down the hill and back to the city. For another half year Kai Kuan went on selling tea. In the third month of the following year he accepted a post as tutor at a salary of eight taels.
From The Scholars, by Wu Jingzi,
translated by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang.
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