Here is poem that originally started out as a novel many moons ago. It is not strictly a historical document but much of the content is anchored in history not the imaginative realm. My deepest thanks again to Michael Soper for guiding me in all kinds of crucial ways and for providing timely comments and encouragement. I would also like to thank Jacek K. Belc for reading several drafts of the poem. His enthusiasm has given the work the energy and momentum to carry it through to the end.
If you wish to quote any part poem please contact me. I am also humbly asking for any small donations that don’t exceed US$5 which can be sent to my paypal account: email@example.com
Inspector Shan and the Imperial Tea Heist
for my brother Damian
Acres of burial shapes
Shrouded in daybreak’s fog
A web of ghost energy
Hovers over inscriptions
Long buried in grave grass.
Spirits slumber and stretch
A cypress tree bows its head
Hidden beneath the river’s mist.
My grandfather spoke in my dreams
Of a mountain peak
Chanting with the cosmos in its idleness
And the Taoist monks who came to pick herbs
Placing them in wicker baskets
For the winter’s keeping.
A hermit too
Who found his way down a path
Feet beneath wet leaves
A butterfly he met two summers before
Could have mistaken it for a falling snowflake
If it was winter.
A grass thatched hut
An old man pruning his rose bush
And a tree whose roots splay like a giant duck’s foot
across the garden.
I loved my grandfather’s play-ful-ness
How he brought his own telling to a story.
And then me to make up an alternative ending
Coz he would often declare, perhaps
Pontificate is more accurate:
“There are really no endings, my child, just pauses in between.”
I’ve always loved to watch, observe
Notice a bruise on an arm
And wonder how it got there, for instance
The hide and seek dimensions of peoples’ masks.
My education honed by a long apprenticeship
A seed nourished and transformed
By the soil my teachers gave me.
I became more gut, less mind
Given the license to also daydream
To wander, to drift, to hibernate
To yield to the unstruck silences
Beyond the soil, beyond myself.
I read up on geomancy and architecture
Which impacted the way I see things.
Moving clues around physically
Usually writing them out on scrolls
So I can see all of them together at once.
I look for clues everywhere
Some hiding under floorboards
Behind a cracked mural or a flower bed
Often piggybacking on others.
You take something said
And riff on it for a little
Then something shapes and gels
If you’re paying attention.
I try to keep my cool
Even when my habitual reactions
Get the better of me.
Crime both on and off the page
Has intensified my own experience of reality.
Tongues are generally mute during an investigation
Pulses beat in panic mode
Running still in the heat of fear.
It’s my business to remember
What others choose to forget
What lies veiled under events
What lies behind the patterns
Until something very real appears.
The emperor is far away
Yet his messengers find me
In these far-flung mountains.
I no longer thirst to catch criminals
The next day always brings further crimes
Another round of disheartening news
And so it goes on and on.
I can’t help but revisit cases, however,
Places I return to each day
Even if only for a few moments
I still mourn a closeness to them
Yet now, I want to get as far away from
the courtrooms, the magistrates sternly banging their gavels,
The rackets, the worst side of people
Retreat to the quiescence of my mountain cabin
Revisit the biographies of eminent poet recluses
Who hid under the wings of resting eagles on cliff tops
And recite my favorite lines from the eleventh century Chan text
Records of the Blue Cliff.
I’ve been called many things:
Obsessive, fastidious, bothersome, irascible
I’m a fool too so I’ve been told
The keeper of moral principles
Intrigued how power operates
How justice is fought
People killing, lying, stealing
As readily as they are loving, smiling, giving
Even when people behave abominably
I still believe we can transform evil and malice
Into luminous stars.
My reputation came unlooked for
Promoted to Inspector during a case
To knock off the emperor in the Forbidden City.
They tried to strangle him
But the knot in the noose slipped.
The Forbidden City is by some estimates
The murder capital of the Empire
A palatial playground bristling with steely bristles
Daggers glittering in the sunlight.
It’s a cruel world in there
Intrigue and plots abound
Malicious tongues reporting for duty
Even the trees don’t sleep well
The rhododendrons bear witness too
Demonic, tectonic forces
And truth an answered call.
The emperor’s most intimate retainer
A eunuch who stands guards at his bedchamber
Privy to his emotions, his idle thoughts
The rhythm and rhyme of intimacy
Finally spilled the beans
Exposing the court astrologer’s fortune cookie
And several of the emperor’s high consorts
Before being hacked into a thousand pieces
And all their other secrets with them.
Eunuchs, for good reason, get a lot of bad press
Meddling in state affairs
Scheming better than anyone else
Educating their cronies in vice
The court scribes can’t keep up
With their sinister doings.
Some involved in shady antique deals
Treating the palace
Like it’s their own imperial gift shop
And others, setting things on fire.
Not all were maligned in their ways.
One of our finest historians, Sima Qian, had offended the emperor
Chose castration rather than death, arguing that it
Would enhance his masculinity
The emasculated scholar-official then scribed
His brush into the annals of history.
At this time of the day
I practice calligraphy
Less interested in merely copying a master
Drawn more to the interiority
Of his imagination.
I have this habit of talking to my brushes
Like a conversation with a friend
Allowing me to step back
Redial the imagination, anxiety dissipating
Then pretty soon there’s stuff to animate.
But it’s in poetry that many of my conundrums
And hunches are revealed.
And as I think of these precious moments
My celebrity summons
An imperial tea heist
Along a section of road
In the southwest of the empire.
The road is a route known as the tea horse roads,
Made famous by horse diplomacy and tea.
Modern and ancient worlds
Journeyed by day and rested by night
Paths and trails, some call bleak, others romantic
Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, Nepal, India & beyond
Other routes bound for the northern capital, Southeast Asia
Others still to the afterlife.
Here humanity rubs against each other–traders, monks, the literati
Poets, writers, pilgrims, hermits, heretics, soldiers, couriers, brigands,
Other predators–leopards, alligators, demons and spirits
Thousands of pack animals, human portage
Blistered feet across landscapes
Some slipping undetected across borders
Aided by those now lost to history
A bond of humans, animals & trade
Altered by the close proximity
That commerce demands.
It isn’t just tea—
Pelts, medicines, incense, jade, sugar, salt, musk
Precious metals (bar and powder form) opium
Sandalwood, copper, utensils, rice, oil, corn, potatoes
Dried dung compressed like tea cakes
And on shorter distances
Corpses placed in caskets
As roads expanded and became regular trade and mail routes
So too the number of attacks
Bandits, gangs, bloodshed
What trade routes are possible, the blackbird sings,
Without the flow of goods and bandits?
Smuggling tea across mountains
All efforts by the authorities are futile
Despite the penalties, the severe beatings
Even death won’t curb it.
Commanders rally their soldiers
But you can’t catch all of them
An imperial tea tax forced merchants to band
Tea commerce armies.
You see there’s much at stake in the world of tea—
Power, money, prestige
The tea merchants’ men
Poised to do battle
Against the emperor’s troops.
A gang usually never attacks close to home
So they can return unsuspected
And resume their normal, other lives—
Farmers, blacksmiths, bakers, butchers, tanners, other trades.
They are not heroed in verse, prose or art
Yet every tale narrated along the roads, paths and trails
Never fails to mention the bandits rustling in the shadows.
Brigands will befriend travelers, the muleteers
And then, usually kill them—knife, dagger, or a smoldered handkerchief
Divide the spoils and vanish in the woods.
There’s no telling where they run and hide
You can seal off roads, trails, even garrison towns
But try sealing off the mountains.
Some of the wealthier merchants pay off bandits
so they won’t loot their cargo
I guess some of the bandits don’t get paid enough.
A local magistrate suggested placing signs
Along sections of the roads—
Looting Strictly Prohibited
Thank You For Not Killing Anyone
Police Escort Next Bend
The Empire Ain’t Got Time for Robbers
For Every Disobedience, The Rod Awaits Without Mercy
“It’s worth a try,” he chuckled
“I know they’ll still do it in spite of our notices.”
My first day on the margins of the empire
Sultry weather despite a sudden downpour
Anticipating when a rainbow will paint another sky.
I’m told to prepare for humid days, the elephants,
The giant insects, the harsh shrieks of peacocks
And the frogs that chorus at sunset.
I’m staying in a courtyard owned by a local magistrate
No shortage of servants and guards
Already in love with the rock garden, the gnarled pines
The thrush that comes back again to sing
A new song order at dawn’s chorus
When I notice things slowly come awake
And the goldfish sketching colors in the pond.
A young man appears: barely thirty, medium height
Solid build and swarthy complexion
His boots stand muddy at the entrance.
A servant takes his parasol
And makes a perfunctory bow
“Good morning Sergeant Zhao.”
“Has Inspector Shan arrived?
“Yes sir, he is in the rock garden. Allow me to escort you.”
We greet each other with courtesies
Then return to my quarters.
I pour tea and learn the sergeant once served
As a bodyguard for a local chieftain
Handy with all kinds of weapons
Including crossbow and small pike.
“Where are we again sergeant?”
“Sipsongpanna, Inspector, bordering
Burma, The Kingdom of Xang and Vietnam.”
The tea the magistrate gifted me
Somersaults my tastebuds
A magic potion stirred in
palette’s light green.
“Your assistant Sergeant Kong
Is not accompanying you Inspector?”
“I lost him three years ago.
He was attending a murder trial
Not as far south as here
Mengku, that’s the place
and came down with a bout of malaria.
The indigenous people who live in the valley
Have far stronger constitutions
By the time I got word of his condition
The pestilence had finished him.
I treated him like a son, you know.
He kept me on my toes, always gave his best
And was never dull company.
That episode has stayed with me like a splinter
And who knows when I can finally take it out.”
Two attacks, two separate caravans
The first attack—
one of the main three roads leaving Yibang
The victims—a well-to-do Tibetan merchant
His son, two muleteers.
The proprietor of the inn where he was staying
Some 20 li from the crime scene
Said the merchant had two large wooden chests
Which he proudly announced were his bounty
His final words before leaving:
“I will return when my business brings me.”
The perpetrators could no doubt smell the same bounty
Silver taels would soon rain down at faraway taverns
Other coins kept for bribes, rewarding promises.
A savvy bandit leader reminds his men:
Never spend a haul at local drinking holes,
Gambling dens or pawnshops
Coz the law will surely make the rounds.
Five days after the first attack
A second, a tribute tea caravan
Soldiers armed with halberds
An official on-the-map route
From Yibang to Pu’er, then Kunming
Before proceeding north to the capital
The caravan ambushed
All sixteen men
Ten muleteers, six soldiers
A thousand taels of silver for any information
Leading to the capture of the culprits
Though the empire was willing to yield
A lot more ounces of silver and gifts.
Handbills drafted and posted within hours
A pair of guardians
Imprisoned on a temple door
Look out and ponder
When does a bandit
Stop being a bandit.
I knew something of Yibang
One of the six tea mountains
All crowned as cradles of Pu’er Tea
And home, we are told, to the first cultivators of tea
The Pu. I don’t want to merely repeat myth and legend
Though I suppose it might be true
But in retelling it, I’m kind of re-owning it
So what harm is there in reinventing the Pu
And their connection to tea or suggesting it was
Other hill tribes as well?
The finest tea buds from Mansong village
A fragrance said to rival all the broad leaf buds
On all the other five mountains.
When infused, the buds float to the top
Their needle hair stems stand upright
Kowtowing in deference to the emperor no less.
The tea plucked in early spring
Before honoring the dead during
The festival of Purity and Brightness
When flowers announce their fragrance
And the sky begins to blossom again.
Meanwhile, the necessary toiling from
The frontlines of the tea world
Tribute tea drives tea farmers and their families
Into the mountains
Bitter times, sad songs
Their hardships are no bedtime story.
Tea like salt and precious metals
A constant flow of coins for the royal coffers
Power’s hubris too requires finances in the afterlife
I’m told that more tax is collected from the six tea mountains
Than any other tea area across the empire.
One of the toughest jobs plucking tea
Yuan Gao, the governor of Huzhou
Said as much in the mid eighth century
Witnessing the bitter toil first hand.
Hard to imagine anyone
Would idealize such work
But some male poets, I have to say
Painted an entirely different picture
A beauty pageant of young women
No mention of the brambles, the thorns
Or the stumbles and the falls.
Gifts to the empress, the emperor’s favorite consorts
Visiting envoys, the dignitaries
Glue for the affections, the alliances
That’s what tribute tea is.
Spring flowers will dare not open
Until the emperor has drunk the first
Spring tea. Nature too must
Submit to the emperor’s mandate.
Those imperial messengers ride unimaginable distances
“Express tea” as it’s called must reach the emperor
Before the fifth day of the third lunar month
To perform his ancestral rituals.
Back at my lodgings, I sit in the rock garden
Both cases intrigue me as do the bandits—
Marginal, a sort of chameleon-ness
In the woods, out the woods figures
Rash and heartless yet friendship, loyalty and honor too.
Sparing lives when it suits them
But will betray or slay their own as well.
There are those who look the part
But aren’t bandits at all.
Anyone can turn crooked
But none can be entirely noble and upright.
Nothing ever quite black or white
Nor black and white like the magpie.
On the way to the crime scene
Open to vast yellow-filled fields
A pulsing swirl of impulses that scoffs authority.
I will have to admire them from horseback until
I can lie in the fields, a heart-to-heart
With these wild free, intoxicated spirits.
The sergeant draws bridle and points to a flat stretch of road ahead
“Some boys who were playing hide and seek
In the cornfields nearby reported the gruesome spectacle, Inspector.”
“Decimated” was the actual word the sergeant
Used to describe the carnage
Throats slashed with the precision of a surgeon’s knife
Death decided by intention and speed
The caravan looted, stripped of tea and other empire pieces
Other corpses—money belts, gold, silver trinkets
Daggers and swords, a button from a soldier’s coat
A slain animal resembling a wolf or bear
And shards of broken mirrors.
The attack rolled out across the empire
People had given up being shocked by
The news of yet another highway robbery or tea heist
But the ambush of emperor’s caravan
The bloody and brutal nature of the attack
Sent seismic ripples throughout the land.
Who would have the gumption to execute such an attack
For what is the emperor’s dominion
Wrote one imperial scribe who like other writers
Refrained from any speculation in print
Tongues more loquacious than ink brushes
In the taverns and brothels.
The news stirred anxieties about more attacks
Fear embracing all possible connotations.
Someone knew the exact number of the caravan’s men
A plot in which I believe many were involved
We didn’t see faces, says one of the mules with stammering lips
Still bruised, trying to unpack some of the lingering fear
A flash of light, then a turbulence,
Bodies, gestures, pandemonium
Then they were gone.
A muleteer once told me
When a caravan is ready to depart he gets the jitters.
What use are the prayers, the blessings
If an alligator is mistaken for a log and
It almost bites your friggin’ head off
And fate finds you all of a sudden
Without you looking for it.
One of your muleteers falls from a bridge
Not coz he fell
But coz he jumped
Or your head mule worn down
From some gut-wrenching illness.
The mirrors recalls a case
Several years back
Bandits pointing mirrors to the sun
Reflected light blinding their victims.
The robbery doesn’t go to plan
One of the bandits is caught
Ends up in prison awaiting trial
Dies before he can plot his escape.
I have a thought of Sun Zi and his craft of war
Never march your armies toward the sun
A battle fought no one can see.
But if you get the angle just right
The sun high enough
Before it blinks its eyes
Not to blind your eyes
But holding your foe
To its blazing.
The case received its fair share of publicity
One scholar-official wrote a piece: “The Broken Mirrors Mystery”
Meticulously reenacting the attack in all its gory detail.
Is it possible the essay could have been
A blueprint for the attack?
As for motive, let us define it not as a drive
That propels someone to behave in a certain way
But an impulse of moving here and there
Doors that slam and swing open, vulnerable to the winds
Until finally a beginning and end
With all the finicky details in between.
“What do you suppose is the meaning of this attack Inspector?”
“We can only guess,” Sergeant.
“But a number of potential suspects spring to mind:
Local chieftains, Ming loyalists, disgruntled imperial soldiers
A magistrate stripped and exiled to the margins working up
The strength to exact vengeance.”
Consider the local chieftains.
Replacing them with Qing civil magistrates
Not a frontier policy
The chieftains were going to give up lightly.
They could see what was coming
Drawn into tenacious struggles
Over territory, forgotten sites, nomadic roots
The trees, fields and eagles rebeled with them too
Raising wine cups in homage to subversive verses
Lending voices to defiance and protest.
The ancient rulers and their ministers were a cruel lot.
If they didn’t like someone or you didn’t submit to their rule
They would find ways to frame, to blackmail, to accuse,
Dragging you into crimes you didn’t commit,
Then into a three-legged bronze cauldron you go
From my combing of the dynastic histories of Yunnan
“Barbarian,” “savage,” “untamed,” became normative titles
To describe the cultural groups in Yunnan
Names all too familiar I guess to
The chieftains and their tribes
Such is the racial attitudes of those in power.
Ortai, the much feared and hated governor-general of
Yunnan and Guizhou
And other Qing-appointed commissioners
Imperial orders to “pacify” the “barbarians”
To prove their mettle and that of the empire.
Men such as these have long sworn allegiance
To protect the emperor’s honor.
It reminds me of his war generals
Horsing the vast spaces of the empire in quests
Returning to the capital to share their battle wounds
With the Son of Heaven and his entourage.
An elaborate procession follows
Horses neighing unapologetically
During the thunder of drums
Nostrils flare to still some of the anxiety
While hooves continue to pace solemnly
On cobblestone paths.
Stray threads of catkins litter the air
Fans poised to shield
The throng of heads in long lines
Crane to see the spectacle.
Where are the generals’ servants
Reminding them as the slaves did
In ancient Roman:
“Abjure the honors and power
You’re a mere mortal, remember,
And will die too.”
I too Sergeant would be peeved if you called
My people by any other name
And then write it down to history.
“Your people, Inspector?”
“Now that you mention it, I do see the semblance Inspector.
I have never traveled that far north.”
There will surely be an opportunity for that Sergeant.
But let me tell you a thing or two about detective work.
It’s all about problem-solving, puzzle pieces,
You start to examine stuff and in the course of figuring,
The unexpected turns
Facts unknown, the inferences,
Suspects ruled in, suspects ruled out
A pendulum oscillating between time, resources and emotions.
In some cases, there are plenty of motives and suspects
But nothing to connect them to the crime.
Leads, hunches that feel right
But others that end up way off base
I admit some of my cases have ended without resolution
Hovering like a shimmering red leaf in midair.
This case will be a tough nut to crack Sergeant.
We’re dealing with dangerous
powerful people both in the criminal world
And in some of the highest offices in the land
Lives linked by secrets, unresolved dealings
Long buried but not forgotten.
To be sure, there is room for error in any crime
But this attack was executed with such finesse
I’d go as far as saying mastery!
I’ll have to report my findings to the emperor
But I’ve already scribbled down some ideas for
A piece titled “Ambush as a Fine Art.”
In later times, a poet wrote:
The emperor’s tea caravan on a path to ruin
A pack of wolves, stealthily moves
The baffling questions of identity
The unresolved remains just that
Tethered to neither justice or retribution.
It was a morning that drizzled
The rain bird’s prayers heard
Before dawn by a sleepless deity.
In the early hours I pray too to my wife.
Had she lived to see me ride an elephant
Would she recognize me now
More forgiving, less judging
Kindness that wants to flower
To open itself again
The moist palm-throng ear
A gentle caressing
A growing shared affinity.