Fan Jin Chuan spent the whole spring teaching Fang Feng Sheng, and the days were serene and tranquil.
Meanwhile, this year’s first batch of salt was ready for shipment.
In the past, Feng Sheng would only hear about the prevalence of private salt smuggling. As to how the smuggling was accomplished, her knowledge was limited only to stratagems on paper. This time, she seized the opportunity to wade to distant parts of the county.
Uncle Yu was now in charge of outside affairs. Maybe because he originated from a jianghu1 background, he was quite familiar with certain underdealings. He also bunched up a group of people of unknown origins, who appeared all but ordinary. However, to say that they were part of the jianghu, because of their weather-beaten state, Feng Sheng was unbelieving. She had watched no less historical plays, and the jianghu people in those plays were not in such dire straits.
After asking Uncle Yu, Feng Sheng realized that these people truly were common jianghu people.
They could work as bodyguards or armed escorts, ordered about by rich and influential households, or even become outlaws. These jianghu people were truly not as glamorous as marketplace novels professed. They were mostly entangled in shameful and shady business, close to licking blood off the tip of a knife. Perhaps they were once well-regarded, but only for a time. For the most part, they lived lonely and dreary lives once older.
Those Uncle Yu had gathered were not young. They were all in their thirties, forties, or so. There were men, women, young and old, and some were handicapped or had families to support.
When they first met Feng Sheng, they immediately declared subservience to her, but Feng Sheng’s initial response was utter puzzlement. After Uncle Yu’s instruction, she later learned that the jianghu had a rule: if the master offered a meal, they had to sell their lives to the master. These people were on no account elegant and tasteful, even ugly, old, and handicapped, but they were jianghu veterans. A single one was worth the ability of ten. Uncle Yu had used his previous contacts to herd them together.
Feng Sheng’s undertaking this time was quite huge. On the surface, it played out a flourishing scene of prosperity, but in reality, growing crises threatened from all sides.
She was not only challenging imperial power, but also the whole of Taizhou, and even the Liang Huai Salt Administration. Taizhou seemed to only be a single place, but in strict confidence was intricate and complicated, riddled with twisted roots and gnarled branches. Thus, she needed helpers, and these people were the first.
In this regard, Feng Sheng didn’t refuse.
Uncle Yu’s arrangements were quite convenient. These people’s efficiency far exceeded her expectations. During this period, there was no shortage of provocations. Feng Sheng had been twice assailed when she ventured out, but fortunately, they had thwarted both attempts.
Recently, Uncle Yu would travel alongside Feng Sheng if he was available. If Uncle Yu wasn’t, at least two or more people, either overtly or covertly, would accompany her.
The person who often trailed after Feng Sheng, one called Dao Qi, was a middle-aged man whose one eye was blind. He was said to be very adept at wielding knives and was once a swordsman mixing with a caravan.2 The other was Hu Si Niang, Dao Qi’s wife. Her family was said to have been involved in the bodyguard business, but the business collapsed for reasons unknown. She eventually mingled with the jianghu and married Dao Qi.
Uncle Yu regarded Dao Qi and Hu Si Niang as his brother and sister, and only after this experience was Feng Sheng able to loosely grasp Uncle Yu’s past.
She had previously discerned Uncle Yu’s history to be far from simple, that he hailed from the jianghu and somehow chanced upon her father. She now also knew that he used to be a member of a caravan.
This was their first time shipping out goods. Feng Sheng took it very seriously and brought five or six people with her to converge with Uncle Yu.
The place of delivery was within Hai’an Town’s vicinity. Nearby were the salt transport canal and the Chuanchang river. The area was desolate and uninhabited, indeed an apt choice of place.
They first arrived at Hai’an Town, and after contacting Uncle Yu, they rode out early the next morning.
Upon reaching the place, Uncle Yu had already led their people and the other party to commence delivery. Those in charge of loading and unloading goods were attired like ordinary laborers, but were very quick with their hands and feet. It was apparent that they were accustomed to such work, and during the whole process, neither crow nor sparrow could be heard.
If it wasn’t for the white lantern hanging from a tree and Uncle Yu standing underneath it, she would have thought she was in the wrong place.
Feng Sheng noiselessly walked up to Uncle Yu, who watched her amble over but uttered no word.
The shipment transpired until the dawn sky’s marble white color emerged in the east. The sky gradually lightened, and the whole activity reached its end. As the last bag of salt was hauled onto the ship, out came a man clad in short black hemp clothes and a red belt. With a flourish of this man’s hand, the five salt ships quietly vanished into the morning mist.
“Uncle Yu, how was it?”
“Those people were from the salt gang. I never expected that inspector surnamed Gou to be involved with them.”
Feng Sheng didn’t understand, so Uncle Yu briefed her about the salt gang’s history.
This so-called salt gang actually used to be a group of private salt smugglers, but later on evolved into a ‘gang’ as their numbers grew. Their forerunner flew hither and tither in the Liang Huai area and sold private salt. This kind of work wasn’t anything worth praising, but the former salt gang leader was quite talanted.
He was very resourceful and was able to bridge connections with several salt merchants. He was especially responsible for assisting them in salt transport to the local government’s designated sale areas.
Regarding this, the distribution and certification system needed be mentioned.
Only those possessing a salt certificate were qualified to sell salt. This word ‘certificate’ not only pertained to the salt certificate, but also to the certified coasts.3 After a salt merchant purchased salt and paid the Salt Distribution Commission’s salt tax, the salt would then be transported to a designated sale area hinged on the local government’s regulations, but they were limited to areas within the border. These designated sale areas were the alleged certified coasts.
For example, the salt produced in the Liang Huai salt district could only be distributed and sold to the six provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hunan, Hubei and Henan. Except for Henan, Jiangsu and Anhui, which were a little closer to the origin, other provinces were far away.
Moreover, with distance afar and mountains high, many places had no smooth waterways, so they could only traverse the dry road. Consequently, they fell prey to several accidents. When salt merchants traveled long distances, they had to expend a lot of manpower and material resources. The gang leader took advantage of this and offered the salt merchants their assistance in transport, which was a win-win situation for both sides.
In this way, the ostensible salt gang assumed the task of a porter transporting goods, but in reality undertook much more than that.
As said before, the salt gang was formerly a group of private salt smugglers. They arose from the private salt trade. Now, how could they let go of such a good opportunity? Therefore, while helping salt merchants distribute goods, they would also surreptitiously mix in with them and glean great benefits.
Because salt merchants were qualified to carry out the distribution, in order to avoid accidents during the transport and sales, the salt gang could also carry a certain amount of force to protect themselves. This way, the salt gang transformed black to white and dark to light, that even they could be considered to have taken the legal path in the eyes of the imperial court.
Uncle Yu knew all these because the caravan he used to be a part of actually trafficked in horses, tea, and even private salt. They could be deemed peers of the same trade, but the caravan and salt gang operated two different salt routes. One’s sphere of activity was in the coastal and inland areas, while the other in the southwest and the highlands.
After hearing Uncle Yu’s explanation, Feng Sheng was very surprised, but pleasantly so.
“I didn’t expect Inspector Gou to have such a path. I just assumed that he was exploiting the convenience of his role to carry out the smuggling. No, I should’ve considered it. If he was merely exploiting the convenience of his role and entrusting others to carry out the smuggling, how was he able to boast and get whatever he wanted?”
“That said, our plan will be easier to carry out,” Uncle Yu said.
“How many days will it take for the goods to be delivered?”
“It will probably take another three or four days. After all, in a place like this, there are many eyes and ears. Even the salt gang has to pull wool over people’s eyes.”
Feng Sheng nodded and replied, “Then I’ll have to trouble Uncle Yu. I can’t stay out for long. I still have to return to the county yamen.”
Feng Sheng led the people back to Taizhou City.
As soon as she set foot on the county yamen, she heard that Prince Wei had sent someone to deliver a few things.
Only when she went in and inquired did she find out that Prince Wei had once again visited Yangzhou. He had brought some things from the capital and especially ordered someone to deliver them.
Fan Jin Chuan received two books, which were said to be the only existing copies that Fan Jin Chuan had long been searching for. Feng Sheng similarly received something else nestled in a box.
The box’s exterior was unimpressive. When she lifted the box open to check, contained within wasn’t some precious object, but a bamboo section teapot.
Fan Jin Chuan was stunned and probed, “Why would His Highness Prince Wei send Worthy Brother Fang a teapot?”
The little eunuch who carried the item answered, “Eunuch De had entrusted this slave the item for delivery. As for what’s sent and the meaning behind it, this slave is ignorant.”
“Thank His Highness Prince Wei for me,” Feng Sheng said.
The little eunuch nodded. “Then, this slave will leave first to report back.”
“Eunuch has come a long way. It’s better to rest and stay for a while. I’ll have someone lead you inside to rest.”
The eunuch didn’t refuse, so Feng Sheng had someone lead him away.
Only after the person departed did Feng Sheng tell Fan Jin Chuan, “Brother Zi Jin also likes getting to the heart of the matter. His Highness Prince Wei sent you some books. His subordinates probably found it improper sending presents only to you, so they brought something for me as well. This teapot was probably a casual addition. No need to take it seriously.”
“I’m not taking it seriously. I just find it a little odd.”
“What’s so odd about it?”
That said, when Feng Sheng returned to her room with the teapot, she didn’t look too pleased.
She perched down across the table and drew the teapot out of the box.
This bamboo section teapot was purplish red in its entirety, with a delicate texture and a smooth and graceful luster. Its form was inspired from the shape of bamboo. The teapot’s belly was divided into two sections, and was sturdy, short, and flat. Its structure imitated a thick bamboo split from the middle, embedded on which was a bamboo relief sculpture,4 rustic yet elegant.
Feng Sheng opened the teapot lid, but there was nothing inside. It appeared to be an ordinary teapot.
She ensconsced it in her hand and gently stroked it twice, then set it on the table.
She had figured out the key. One feared that Prince Wei sending her a gift was all a pretense; it was a warning in truth. The bamboo section teapot probably alluded to the word ‘jie‘.
He knew what she was doing?
She recalled Prince Wei’s repeated exhortations about how she shouldn’t set herself on fire. Did he know the cryptic machinations behind the whole incident? Did he know the perpetrators responsible, those she could never afford to provoke?
All these were merely Feng Sheng’s conjectures, after all. She cared little about Prince Wei’s meddling, let alone listened to him.
Everything was developing smoothly.
At least, it was for Feng Sheng. Because of the official salt stagnation in the recent years, the salt tax had decreased by a wide margin and had already attracted the court’s attention.
Since the start of the year, bulk merchants were only able to sell three or four-tenths of the distributed official salt. The quantity of transported and sold goods fell short, so it was only natural for there to be a substantial decrease in salt tax revenue.
When news came up, the whole court was in breathless stagnation. The Jianping Emperor lost his temper at the Qianqing Palace, terrifying those around him lest they hit the wrong nerve.
Two days later, the Jianping Emperor ordered the Liang Huai Salt Administration, as well as the Salt Distribution Commission, to personally write memorials explaining why the salt tax revenue, which could reach up to ten million taels the past years, plummeted to three to four million taels, with even a downward trend. Did the people of Great Zhou stop consuming salt?
This rebuke was so severe that all the officials dared not defend themselves against it.
The salt-control imperial censor, Gu Bi Chang, and the newly appointed salt distribution commissioner, He Lun, dawdled for about ten days before their self-written memorials arrived at the capital in succession.
For a time, everyone kept their eyes peeled on these two memorials.
Our girl’s efforts have borne fruit!
1 江湖 (jiānghú): lit. rivers and lakes. Jianghu isn’t just the demimonde of criminals and wuxia: already in the late imperial period, the term is used in reference to the world of traveling merchants and itinerant doctors, for example. In general, it refers to a social space in which people are away from familial and local ties for extended periods that is governed by informal rules.
2 马帮: lit. translation could either be ‘horse gang’ or ‘caravan.’ I would’ve chosen the former, since in the novel it’s suggested that they weren’t merely a group traveling together, but were into some shady business. However, ‘horse gang’ sounds too awkward, so I kept ‘caravan’ instead.
3 Honestly have no idea how to phrase this better. They share the character ‘引,’ in this context meaning, ‘to certify.’ Salt certificate is 盐引, while I quite literally translated 引岸 as ‘certified coast,’ as 岸 means shore/coast/bank.
4 浮雕: Relief is a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material. To create a sculpture in relief is to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane. (Source) The teapot probably looks like this.
Bamboo Section Teapot
5 节 (jié): The word for bamboo section is 竹节 (zhú jié), while restrict is 节制 (jié zhì). They have a similar character 节.