From poverty to honour to disgrace
even before the millet is cooked
Lu Hsun, 1920
Shen Chi-chi of Soochow, who lived from approximately 750 to 800, was a good classical scholar who was recommended by Yang Yen the prime minister to be a compiler of the official history.
When Yang Yen was killed in 781, Shen was demoted to the post of an officer of civil affairs in Chuchow, later returning to the capital to serve as a junior secretary in the Ministry of Ceremony till his death. His Annals of the Chien Chung Period (780-783) was considered good historical writing, and his life appears in the Tang Dynasty History. One of his prose romances, The Story of the Pillow, was included in two Sung dynasty collections: Choice Blossoms from the Garden of Literature and the Tai-ping Miscellany.
The tale takes place in the year 719 when an old Taoist puts up in an inn on his way to Hantan, notices that another young traveller is in low spirits and lends him a pillow.
Then the young man dreams that he marries a daughter of the aristocratic Tsui family of Chingho, passes the imperial examination, becomes prefect of Shenchow and governor of the metropolitan area; after that he defeats the Northern Tribes and is appointed Vice-Minister of Civil Affairs, Minister of Finance and Imperial Secretary. Because envious ministers slander him, he is demoted to the prefectship of Tuanchow. Three years later he is recalled to court and before long made Chief Minister.
He was consulted by the emperor as often as three times a day on affairs of state, and his experience and statecraft earned him the reputation of a brilliant premier. But once more his colleagues intrigued against him, charging him with being in secret collusion with frontier generals who were plotting treason; he was condemned to imprisonment and speedily arrested by officers sent to his house.
Apprehensive that his life might be forfeited, he told his wife:
“In my old home in Shantung I had enough good land to keep me from cold and hunger. What possessed me to become an official? See where it has landed me! If only I could put on my short jacket again, and canter on my black colt down the road to Hantan!”
He drew his sword to kill himself, but his wife stopped him. Though all the others involved in this case were executed, his life was spared through the intervention of some palace eunuchs, and he was banished to Huanchow. A few years later the emperor, realising that he had been wrongly accused, recalled him as Chief Minister with the title of Duke of Yen, showering him with exceptional honours.
He had five sons... all his kinsmen by marriage belonged to the greatest families in the empire, and he had over 10 grandsons. When he grew old and begged repeatedly for permission to retire, the emperor would not hear of it. When he fell ill, men came one after another from the palace to inquire after him, and he had the best doctors and the rarest medicines, but he died.
Then the young man yawned and woke up to find himself lying in the inn with the Taoist seated beside him. The innkeeper had not finished cooking the millet and all was exactly as before. The young man started and said: “Was it all a dream?” The old Taoist replied: “This is the way of all flesh.”
After musing sadly for a while, the young man thanked the Taoist. “Now I understand the cycle of honour and disgrace, of success and failure, the principle of apparent loss and gain, and the meaning of life and death. You did this, master, to check my ambition. I shall take due warning!” He bowed and left.
The above excerpt from Lu Hsun’s lecture notes on Chinese literature, is also popularly known as the Yellow Millet Dream 黃粱夢