Chapter 21

The ancestors of Qing Dynasty had set up a few rules to prohibit eunuchs to do certain things, like to interfere where his duties were not involved, to go outside the capital on whatever excuses, etc. Offense of any of the rules was penalty of death. So no eunuch in Qing Dynasty dared to do anything against the rules except the two eunuchs under the reign of West Empress Dowager. One of the two eunuchs was Little An. The other was Li Lianying. Both were head eunuchs of West Empress Dowager. The latter succeeded the former.
Little An (1844-1869) had no respect not only for the young emperor but also for East Empress Dowager, who disliked him, but didn’t want to quarrel with West Empress Dowager on account of Little An, which made Little An all the more arrogant and bold.
Once when the late emperor was alive, his son, the future emperor, was answering a question put by his mother, still Concubine Yan then, Little An interrupted, which was deemed an offense, though a minor one, and which added to the detestation the son had already conceived for him, because Little An often interrupted when the son was talking to his mother. Someone who hated Little An taught the son how to punish him. So this time the son yelled, “Shut up.” Everyone in the room, the maids, the eunuchs, even his mother, were surprised. It was not expected from a boy of six.
Little An felt awkward. He forced a smile and said, “Why is Big Brother (In Qing Dynasty the emperor’s sons were addressed as Brother and the son who was supposed to be the future emperor was called Big Brother.) angry with me?”
The son pretended to be a grown-up and said, “How dare you to speak to me like that?” Then he wanted to summon the head eunuch of the palace. It meant that he wanted to punish Little An for his impertinence. Little An knew that his behavior towards the emperor’s son was really against the rule. He had thought that the son was merely a boy. He had interrupted just to throw in some witty words to please the mother. But this time he was ensnared. Even Concubine Yan could not protect him when the head eunuch came. So he went down on his knees.
“Slap your own face.” The boy got angry and ordered. Concubine Yan could not say anything in his behalf since he made the wrong move in front of so many people. And it was an obvious offense. Therefore, he could not but slap his own face.
“Slap hard. One hundred.” The son commanded.
He had to slap himself hard. Another eunuch counted till one hundred. He had to thank Big Brother for ordering him to slap himself on the face. It was also the tradition of Qing Dynasty. At night when he went back to his own bedroom he looked at his swollen face. He wanted to revenge on the son by saying the false things about him to his mother. He often did it, especially after Concubine Yan became West Empress Dowager, to make her angry with anyone he wanted to slander.
As East Empress Dowager was not ambitious and let West Empress Dowager handle the state affairs, Little An was encouraged to do things against law, under the protection of West Empress Dowager. He took briberies like he was picking apples from the tree. The place he frequented was the Royal Family Affairs Management, because he often went there to demand things for West Empress Dowager. One evening after West Empress Dowager went to bed, he stole out of the Forbidden City and dropped in there. There were already some eunuchs, mingling with some clerks there. That was their gathering place. They drank and gambled there. Their favorite game was dice. When Little An made his appearance, everyone inside got on their feet to greet him. Someone asked him to sit at the table to play for a while. Generally when Little An played, gamblers would always let him win. They called it bribery in disguise. But today, Clerk Telu, very intimate with Little An, pulled him aside, whispering to him. They sat at another table covered with food and wine. They drank and ate while talking about business. Their business was how to help some person to solve his problems and take the bribery. They even bargained how much the person should give them like buying things in the market.
“Somebody likes to have a painting by West Empress Dowager.” said Clerk Telu, “He will pay fifty taels of silver.”
“Just that? You call it business?” Little An didn’t care about such a small sum.
“That’s the bonus.” Clerk Telu winked at Little An, “And here’s the big business.”
Official Zhao had had an assignment to collect taxes and would have sent the completed collection to the South River Camp as a military support. Then the South River Camp had been vanquished and the commander had died. He should have sent the collection to Elder Zeng, who had been made a general governor. A general governor was above other governors in rank and governed more than one province. Elder Zeng had been put in charge of four provinces, where the Peaceful Army had still been fighting at that time. There were two rivers in this area. So his title was Two River General Governor.
Official Zhao had had a blackmailing and embezzling case against him and had been wanted by the local government. He had hidden in Peking ever since. Now after so many years, although his case was still open, no one would really look for him. However, he could not always stay in hiding. He wanted to bribe someone powerful enough to close his case and better to get him a position like a mayor in a rich town. But first he wanted “to wash himself clean of the dirt”. His exact words.
“He’s a clever guy hiding in the capital.” commented Little An, “Who will notice him in this big city?”
He is willing to pay twenty thousand taels of silver when it’s done.” Clerk Telu revealed with an alluring smile like a real businessman.
Twenty thousand taels was not a small sum. Little An’s heart beat a bit faster as if he were having a palpitation. Being always at the side of West Empress Dowager when she was reading reports, Little An was familiar with procedures how these things were handled. He knew that the case must be closed first, and after that, the assignment. To achieve this, someone relevant to his case should send in a report about the case. Then he could do something to make the case closed. But as far as Little An could remember, all the high-rank officials related to the case were dead. So he asked Clerk Telu whether the guy had joined the army. The reply was in negative. He knew that if the guy had been in the army, he would have had his share of some kinds of rewards, which could be used to offset his offenses.
Now for twenty thousand taels of silver, he had to cudgel his brains. Suddenly he thought of Wu Tang, the Provisions Governor, who did not have a province to govern and whose responsibilities were to gather provisions for the government army. Provisions governor Wu was West Empress Dowager’s favorite governor. If he could write a report and throw in a few food words for the guy, everything would be fine. So he mentioned Provisions Governor Wu to Clerk Telu, who shook his head, saying that it was Provisions Governor Wu who had wanted him. Now the real problem. But he saw in his mind’s eye the money dangling before his face. (At that time in China, there were many Money Shops, just like banks in the western countries. They took in the silver taels and wrote out slips of paper called Silver Notes, bearing the sum: ten taels, twenty taels, fifty taels, hundred taels, thousand taels or larger numbers as needed, just like banknotes. If any customer liked, he could cash the silver any time.)
Then Clerk Telu made an arrangement for Little An to meet the guy in his house. When Little An arrived, the guy was not there yet. Clerk Telu said, “I’ve told him to come a bit late. So we can talk.”
“What about?” asked Little An.
“I told him to bring a down-payment of 1000 taels.” He smiled to Little An.
That sounds great.” Little An smiled back. They could understand each other through their smiles.
But when the guy comes, Second Esquire An’d better tell him some palace secrets so that he will have confidence that I’ve found him the right person to solve his problems.” (We have in Chinese all the words to use to respectfully address people of different social status, but I can’t find a corresponding word in English for the Chinese word “Ye” to use here. I have to borrow the word Esquire for the purpose. The ordinal number used here before Esquire denotes that Little An was the second son in his family. If people met his eldest brother, they would address him as First Esquire An. If he was the only son in the family, we don’t need to add an ordinal number before that.)
No problem. All here.” Little An patted on his own head to show that all such knowledge was in here.
When the guy came, Clerk Telu made the introduction. “This is Second Esquire An, the superintendent of West Empress Dowager.” (Little An was really the head eunuch. But no one would mention the word “eunuch” directly before one. So Clerk Telu used the word “Superintendent” instead.) The guy put his left foot half a step backward and bent his right knee half way down (the left knee was naturally bent, too) with his right arm straight downward, the finger tips almost touching the floor, an act of salute of a subordinate to his superiors in Qing Dynasty, while saying, “Superintendent An!” Little An just nodded his acknowledgement as if that guy was really his immediate subordinate. Then Clerk Telu turned to Little An, saying, “This is Fourth Esquire Zhao.” (He was the fourth son of his family. Because he was an official, Clerk Telu must call him Esquire, too.) The guy interrupted hastily, “Just call me Fourth Zhao.” (This was to show his modesty. Anyone who could call him fourth Zhao was either his elders, or his superiors, or his intimate friends, somewhat like in English to use Mr. or just the first name.) Then they sat down to dinner. They talked while eating.
It’s your luck that I can invite Superintendent An here. Superintendent An is very busy, seldom free. Can Superintendent An tell us something about West Empress Dowager to open our eyes, or shall I say to open our ears?” Clerk Telu wanted to be witty to show his intimacy with Little An.
So Little An told them how West Empress Dowager had sent him on a life-and-death errand to carry a secret letter to the capital and how they (Little An meant that he had had a part in it.) had brought down the counselors from power. Even Clerk Telu didn’t know it as he was working so close to the Forbidden City. Both the listeners showed more esteem than he deserved. After a few cups of wine (No glass yet at that time. A china cup was used to hold wine), Little An began to brag how powerful he was, being the favorite eunuch of West Empress Dowager, which gave the guy more confidence than he really felt. After dinner, Clerk Telu made the guy tell Little An directly about his problems and requests, which Little An had already known from Clerk Telu. But It was the procedures. When the recap finished, Clerk Telu pulled Little An aside to consult each other. Since the guy was an official, he should know such things and they couldn’t pull the wool over his eyes. They should at least hint to him through which channel they would manage his problems. Clerk Telu wanted to mention somebody working in the Secretarial Bureau, but Little An objected to it. He feared that if word got out, Yixin would want his skin. He decided to mention Provisions Governor Wu Tang, because if word spread into his ears, he didn’t dare to say anything since he owed everything he had got to West Empress Dowager and he was her head eunuch.
But the name of Provisions Governor Wu made the guy nervous and he quavered out his fear, “His Excellency Wu is the person who wants me. If His Excellency Wu knows where I am, His Excellency Wu will have me arrested.”
Don’t worry.” Little An soothed him. “I will manage it. You just wait and see.” By now everyone in the officialdom had known that Provisions Governor Wu was West Empress Dowager’s favorite (someone would add the word “dog” here) because of the good turn his servant had done for him by mistake to her family many years before. The guy thought that Provisions Governor Wu couldn’t reject anything demanded by West Empress Dowager, but he didn’t know that Little An never dared to mention such a thing to West Empress Dowager. He planned to achieve it all by himself, in the name of West Empress Dowager. The guy did bring a Silver Note of one thousand taels and gave it to Little An as down-payment.
Little An was not contented with twenty thousand taels. He said to Clerk Telu, “Can you tell the guy if he pays thirty thousand taels, I’ll get him a very gook position?” Clerk Telu said, “Sure. I’ll let him know.” Next day when they met, Clerk Telu informed, “The guy said okay. But he doesn’t have so much money in hand right now. He must borrow and will pay when he gets the appointment notice and documents.” Little An knew that the guy didn’t trust in him. He really wanted to wait and see. Then Clerk Telu was saying something while he was indulging in his own contemplation. He gathered himself and listened. “. . . that the one thousand taels is the festival gift, not the down-payment. If we can’t succeed, we don’t need to return it.”
Now Little An put on his thinking cap. He should make a plan how to get the deal done. It was not everyday that he could earn thirty thousand taels of silver. His monthly salary was only twenty taels. But there was a rule in the Forbidden City that a eunuch or a maid could get fined for breaking something or making some offense. The fine would be deducted from the salary. But they had free board and food.
The reputation of Provisions Governor Wu was not so good recently that West Empress Dowager often got reports of criticisms of him, but she “flooded” them to protect him. (To flood a report meant that the emperor, now the empress dowagers, kept a report, which might cause some unnecessary trouble. Generally after the emperor, now the empress dowagers, read the report, it must go to the Secretarial Bureau for discussion and the secretaries would suggest what decisions should be made. When a report was flooded, it would not go to the Secretarial Bureau and no result would come for it.) Little An knew all this. He went to the Internal Registrar to make copies of them. (All the reports that came in must be registered there. The records showed who handed in the reports to criticize whom for what reasons.) Little An thought that if Provisions Governor Wu became aware how West Empress Dowager had protected him, he would do anything as she wished, or he wished in her name. But how could he get the message over to Provisions Governor Wu? Before long, an opportunity presented itself to him.
The calendar showed that it would soon be another Chinese New Year, the grandest festival in a year. The festival gifts were on the way. All the high-rank officials in the provinces would send gifts to the empress dowagers and the emperor, to all the princes, to the ministers, or to those for potential help that might be needed in the future. Special presents were sent to those with special relationship.
One day, West Empress Dowager dispatched Little An to her mother’s house to bring her some festival gifts. There Little An met a messenger from Provisions Governor Wu, who sent to the mother of West Empress Dowager one hundred thousand taels of silver in Sliver Notes every year as his gratitude to West Empress Dowager. The messenger knew Little An by fame and was very much polite to him. Little An hadn’t thought that he would have met the messenger of Provisions Governor Wu, or he could carry out his plan. And now he wasn’t prepared yet. So he just made some social remarks and left.
He was a guy who could scheme. He should really have gone to join the army and would some day have become a great reputed strategist. But now he couldn’t anymore even if he wanted, since he had lost his dick. If a guy without a dick should have been a commander, all the generals would have resigned for shame to be fighting under him. Anyway, he was struck with a good notion.
When he returned to the Forbidden City, he informed West Empress Dowager of the encounter with the messenger from Provisions Governor Wu, adding that the messenger had wanted to get in touch with him.
What for?” West Empress Dowager doubted.
It’s not I, Empress Dowager’s slave, he wants to seek. He only wants me to deliver a message to Empress Dowager from His Excellency Wu.” He was the greatest liar. Even a lie-detector would fail its function.
What’s it?” West Empress Dowager was interested.
His Excellency Wu desires to know what special things Empress Dowager want in his area.”
He’s such a nice person. Always think of me.” West Empress Dowager was pleased.
Empress Dowager’d better ask for something, anything, so that His Excellency Wu won’t feel that his offer of gratitude is ignored.”
That’s right. Let him get some embroidered silk stuff with new patterns in Suzhou City.” Suzhou City is also famous for its embroidery, known as Su Embroidery. Its typical Chinese gardens with grottos and pavilions are well known in the world.)
Now Little An got a theme and could write a good composition. He could openly go to see the messenger without anyone to surmise what was going on between them. For one of the ancestral rules for eunuchs was to ban them from contacting any officials without an assigned task from any of the imperial family members. The purpose was to prevent eunuchs from doing anything illegal. The lesson had been learned from the previous Ming Dynasty.
Little An let Clerk Telu notify the messenger to meet him in his house. Next day, as the messenger didn’t know where Little An’s house was Clerk Telu had to take him there and left him with Little An to pretend that he knew nothing about the whole business. Little An was polite to the messenger. At that time, the attitude of one person towards another depended on who wanted to ask a favor of whom. The one to have a favor to ask was always polite, or even pleasing, and vice versa. Little An was a difficult person to deal with, given his attitude even towards the young emperor. The promise of thirty thousand taels of silver did away with his arrogance.
After the exchange of a few social words Little An took out a piece of paper, listing on it the things West Empress Dowager wanted. Then he lowered his voice, “Empress Dowager has another wish. Someone must know the brother of Empress Dowager.” He told the messenger about the whole story and then mentioned the name of the person and his request, adding, “If His Excellency Wu can send in a report to close his case, the brother of Empress Dowager will think it as a favor done to himself.” He implied that it would certainly please West Empress Dowager, too. When the messenger took his leave, Little An suddenly produced from his inner pocket a big envelope and handed it to him, saying, “It’s important to give this letter directly to His Excellency Wu.” The messenger nodded and stuffed the letter in his inner pocket together with the list. Little An saw him to the door of his house. In the envelope were all the copies of the critique reports against Provisions Governor Wu and a memo about the case of Official Zhao.
Since Little An had met the messenger, he had been expecting a response. As a matter of fact, he had been expecting the thirty thousand taels. One day after a month, the messenger came again. He delivered to Little An’s home some special food as a small gift from Provisions Governor Wu. The gift was meant as a message that the response from Provisions Governor Wu came. Then the messenger went to see Clerical Official Fang of the Secretarial Bureau, who was a good friend of Provisions Governor Wu. As Clerical Official Fang was at work, the messenger left a small gift together with a large envelope at his home. When Fang came back from work in the evening, he noticed the two things. He read the letter, then the memo that was enclosed in the envelope. The letter said that he (Provisions Governor Wu) had built up the case against Official Zhao, who was really a corrupt official, and he couldn’t now write a report to say that Official Zhao was innocent. He hinted in the letter that this was the wish of West Empress Dowager. But he could not contradict himself. He didn’t know what to do and needed his help. At the end of the letter he asked Fang to keep it as a secret.
Clerical Official Fang sent for the messenger. He wanted to know the details. The messenger came and told Fang how Little An had come to him and put up such a request. Now Fang understood that it was all Little An’s monkey business. It wasn’t the first time that Little An did such things in the name of West Empress Dowager. So he wrote a letter of reply to Provisions Governor Wu and told him to ignore the whole thing.
As the messenger didn’t come to tell Little An what he wanted to know, Little An had to seek him out. The messenger said as he had been taught by Provisions Governor Wu, “His Excellency Wu has asked someone to handle the matter for him.” How could a governor ask someone else to write a report in the name of that someone else? Such a report should be written by himself. Little An sensed bad omen.
Later when Clerk Telu learned that Clerical Official Fang got a letter from Provisions Governor Wu, he said to Little An when they met in the evening, “I think it was screwed up. If they want me to tell them where to find Official Zhao, what should I say? I got into a real trouble.” Little An consoled him, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” But he was in a panic himself. What if West Empress Dowager got the wind of it? Would she forgive him this time? Then he thought that he’d better go to pay a visit to Clerical Official Fang to learn something from him. Generally, Little An had no respect for clerical officials in the Secretarial Bureau, because they were not of a high rank. But today, he addressed him as Esquire Fang. Fang didn’t think high of Little An, but he didn’t want to offend him. So he told Little An that Provisions Governor Wu couldn’t contradict himself by writing such a report unless West Empress Dowager ordered him to do so. (Implied not through you, Little An.)” Then he added, “But His Excellency Wu will let him go without officially closing the case. We don’t want to know where he is or what he’s doing.” So saying, Fang gave the memo back to Little An. The gesture meant: “Forget it. Nothing happened.” Little An was let off the hook and felt at rest.
Next evening when Little An met Clerk Telu, he said, “We didn’t screw up the matter entirely. At least we got half of it done.” Clerk Telu was bewildered and queried, “How so?” Little An told him the result of his meeting with Clerical Official Fang, adding, “The guy wanted us to wash him clean. Now we got him out of the dirt. That’s half done.” Clerk Telu knew that Little An wanted half the money. Clerk Telu promised to ask the guy for it.
Two days later, someone came from the Royal Family Affairs Management and wanted to see Little An, who thought that it must be Clerk Telu coming with the money. But it was another clerk, saying that Prince Yixin wanted to see him. Little An’s heart jumped wildly against his rib cage. He felt like to swoon. He followed the clerk to the Royal Family Affairs Management, from where Yixin had sent for him. Yixin was in charge of that management, too. Little An kowtowed before Yixin, who didn’t bid him to stand up. Generally he would bid anyone to stand up after he kowtowed to him, but not this time. So Little An prostrated there. Yixin began to censure him for all the unlawful things he had done. He reprimanded him for almost half an hour and then bade him to leave, with the last warning that if he did any such things again, he would be punished severely. He just nodded and left.
Now almost everyone knew that Little An had been scolded by Prince Yixin. He felt humiliated and swore his revenge. A bad news awaited him when he met Clerk Telu in the evening. Official Zhao was afraid that things might change since Prince Yixin had known it. So he refused even to pay half of the money until his problem was really solved. Little An hated Yixin all the more.
Even West Empress Dowager knew that he had been scolded by Yixin, but had no idea of what was the reason of it. So Little An grasped the chance to slander Yixin. He told West Empress Dowager that Yixin didn’t really blame him. He was only a eunuch, not even worth the time for a prince to blame him. Yixin really blamed West Empress Dowager for her squandering of money. This really piqued West Empress Dowager. Now an opera would be on soon. Little An would be the happy audience.