This is my first attempt at an original short story. It was inspired by a private lesson that I taught online a few days ago. (Jag lär mig mycket genom att undervisa. Tack.)
Fifth re-write. 7 December, 2020
How a meeting between a king and a fisherman changed history.
Setting: the end of the Shang Dynasty, approximately 1056 BCE.
Whenever the good King Wen of Zhou travelled, he would attract a great deal of attention. In the cities or the countryside, all would all stop to watch him and his impressive entourage pass by. People would bow, or cheer, or simply stare. But no one ignored the procession.
But one day, an unimpressed fisherman changed the fate of nations.
The king liked this part of the journey, when the winding road finally emerged from between the towering karst mountains. He always felt the same ecstatic relief when, at long last, they escaped the maze of steep cliffs and fickle weather. Navigating through the maze of changing shadows and looming rock faces was equally nerve-wracking and tedious. He was wary of carelessness that came from treating each mountain like the others. The mercurial shadows and mists meant that returning travellers would never see any part of the road in the same light. This gave the mountains a monotonous impermanence that strained the mind and troubled the heart.
The guards in his entourage sometimes wished that King Wen would stay home more often. For, much as he was loved by his own people, the king had many enemies, and a winding road had many fine places for an ambush. Scouts and sentries were not infallible, and most in the current party, including Wen himself, had paid the price for failures of military intelligence. There were more battle scars in the current procession than there were horses.
They had all come to cherish the moment when King Wen’s chariot rounded that final turn to the headland overlooking the flood plain. At last, the sky and the river would stretch out in front of him. He could finally see the road far ahead, flowing beside the great river as they both reached off toward the horizon. He could see the smoke from distant villages. He could see flocks of birds along the river. He could see the river itself divide into channels and then reconnect to itself. There were islets, inlets, changing currents, rapids and deep pools. It was like reading a whole story at a glance instead of being shown a few words at a time.
It reminded King Wen of that pivotal moment when he first saw the ocean. The shocking endlessness of it had opened his mind and forced him to reevaluate the limits of his own perception. It inspired a greater humility and a desire to always try to see farther.
As he had grown into the responsibilities of his office, he found that his best efforts at strategy and diplomacy were always frustrated by the limits of his own mind. He learned to value smart people who were willing to disagree with him. He did what he could to surround himself with people who could extend his own vision, rather than those who would limit it, or merely reinforce his existing paradigm.
His search for greater understanding was one explanation for the frequent travel. He could have chosen to stay at home and have others summoned to him. But that would take his administrators away from their own duties. It would also have denied King Wen the opportunity to see the country and its people for himself. His frequent travels and open-mindedness had the added benefit of endearing him to people of all kinds, while making enemies of those who took comfort in smaller vision.
Today, it was cloudy and raining as they arrived on the plain, and the vista was partly obscured by the weather. Yet, it was still a relief to be out from under the mountains. He sighed audibly, and relaxed visibly, as he gazed upon this wide expanse.
On this day, however, the broad vision of King Wen failed to linger on the greater picture. Instead, it became drawn to one thing in particular. At the end of a small promontory, where an eddy formed a deep pool, was a lone fisherman. Fishermen were a common sight here. But there was something quite uncommon about this one.
There was something subtly charismatic about the fisherman. At first, King Wen was not even conscious of staring at him. But when he became aware of his own fixation, he began to analyze what could be so mesmerizing about this one man.
The first things to note were the straight posture and the absolute stillness. The fisherman was perched on a rocky crag in a way that allowed him to look straight down into the water a fathom below. He seemed comfortable in his precarious position. But he did not hold himself as others did. Most fishermen slouched, with absent-minded gazes, seemingly ambivalent toward their rod or their prey. No, he looked as if he could spring into action in a split second. His grip on the fishing rod was relaxed but not slack. It was like he was holding a living thing…or holding a brush to a canvas, on the verge of painting…or a sword prepared for a deadly duel.
King Wen’s mind tried to compare the fisherman to a heron waiting for a fish. But that comparison seemed inadequate. A heron is hungry and wary when it fishes, its mind divided between its prey and predators. This man did not seem to display even the slightest concern for his prey, or for himself, or for his surroundings. Yet, he seemed totally in harmony with all.
The man’s white hair and beard contradicted what his posture and physique said about his age. The rain fell on the man’s hat, and his cloak flapped in the wind. But the fisherman was as still as a mountain.
Even when the king and his entourage passed within stone’s throw of him, the fisherman did not offer so much as a sideways glance. His regal bearing and supernaturally calm demeanour were no more affected by the royal procession than by the cold, or by the wind, or by the rain.
If the fisherman had not been there, King Wen might have described the environment as serene and tranquil. But the cosmos itself seemed to pivot around this old man. He was a paragon of stillness exposing the chaos of the world around him.
Then, for a moment, the king flashed back to another time, when the world pivoted around another single, remarkable presence.
His mind was transported back, more than twenty years, to the specific moment when his eldest son, at the age of four, had escaped his nurse and found his way to court. The unexpected interruption by this innocent child had immediately softened the tone of the discussion. The boy, in his naivety, provided a stark contrast to the duplicitous machinations of the respected, and very serious, politicians. The boy had done nothing but remind those present what authenticity looked like. In doing so, he changed the course of events on that pivotal day.
King Wen reflected upon how the kingdom had become a better place because of that intrusion of a small, guileless boy.
King Wen wiped a single tear from his eye and struggled to return to himself.
As the royal procession continued on its way, King Wen took long and frequent looks over his shoulder at the unmoving fisherman, until finally the silhouette faded into the mist. But the image was seared into the king’s mind.
For the rest of his journey, the king could not lose that image. Even days later, his mind kept returning to the old man at the river.
On the return journey, accompanied this time by his second son, Ji Fa, the king was preoccupied with the hope of seeing the fisherman again.
Logically, he knew that he should not really expect him to still be there.
But he was there, still.
In fact, he was in exactly the same place, sitting in exactly the same way, with exactly the same perfect posture and calm demeanour.
King Wen considered for a moment that he might be looking at a statue, except that the fisherman had changed his clothes. His current outfit was more appropriate for the now sunny weather, and was fluttering slightly in the gentle breeze.
This time, King Wen stopped to investigate further.
As he, Prince Ji Fa, and a few of their guards approached the fisherman, the object of their interest showed no indication that the curiosity was mutual.
“How is the fishing, today?” asked the king.
With a barely deferential nod of his head, the old fisherman replied cheerfully, “The fishing is going very well, your Majesty. In fact, today the fishing is the best that it has been in a long long while.” He remained sitting, offering none of the normal gestures that one would expect of a person addressing royalty.
The sound of the fisherman’s voice set the king’s guardsmen in motion.
King Wen raised his eyebrows when he heard the old man’s voice, and his feet gripped the ground in preparation for what was to come. In his periphery, he saw the sudden movement of his soldiers as they deftly moved their hands to the hilts of their swords. A look and a gesture from the king made the soldiers stay their hands, but did nothing to mollify them.
If the guards had been annoyed by the fisherman’s irreverence, they were thoroughly alarmed by his accent. Those few words told them that this man was not local, and that he was, most certainly, not a simple peasant. It was most likely that he was associated with court of the Shang Emperor.
The Shang Emperor, Di Xin, had once imprisoned King Wen. Some extraordinary diplomacy, and considerable wealth, had been required to gain the King’s release. But no amount of diplomacy could save Ji Fa’s older brother, who had petitioned unsuccessfully for his father’s release. The gruesome way in which the elder prince met his end had turned many stomachs. It had also turned some important allegiances, whether due to fear or revulsion.
That innocent boy who had intruded upon his father’s court all those years ago, was still a teenager when he was murdered. In time, his death would summon a powerful allegiance that would end an ancient dynasty.
The Shang Dynasty had endured for centuries. But it was now in obvious decline. Emperor Di Xin was a self-serving tyrant whose jealousy and paranoia were inspiring regressive policies and provoking the worst instincts of the people.
King Wen, in contrast, was popular with his own people and was respected by most of the aristocracy. His wisdom and his universal empathy had inspired innovations and legal reforms that endeared him to his subjects.
But in this moment, standing on the edge of the Wei River, he looked with great concern upon a “fisherman” who clearly, as his guards observed, possessed not only the tongue of a Shang aristocrat, but also the physique and mannerisms of a master swordsman.
King Wen, however, sensed neither aggression nor disrespect from the old fisherman. Wen’s own extensive training in martial arts and diplomacy had taught him something about reading people. Jokes aside, actual authenticity was very difficult to fake. The very manner in which this old fisherman was engaging the world around him suggested that he could be trusted.
The soldiers, though, were growing increasingly tense, torn between their conflicting needs to protect the king, and to obey him. The stillness of the fisherman, which seemed to so placate the king, was setting off alarm bells in internal organs of the soldiers. The anxiety brewing behind the king was in stark contrast to the calm presence in front of him.
King Wen was not deluded, of course. He was fairly certain that the old fisherman was a seasoned warrior, and perhaps even a skilled assassin. This fisherman might very well be capable of killing him and several of his soldiers with his fishing rod. He could sense the old man’s deep connection to the the land and the water. He could feel the fisherman’s awareness in his own bones. At this moment, he doubted he could do anything to defend himself.
But he was also connected to the soldiers at his back, and no one was taking anything for granted.
The king summoned his training, emptied his mind, and relaxed his guard enough to read the fisherman as best he could. He sensed….a fisherman. He could see the likely weapons at the old mans disposal, but no threat from the man himself. He glimpsed a genuine and open heart. The old man was a warrior in the true sense. He would not be moved by fear, anger or hatred.
The fisherman, for his part, was still looking at the water. He remained as intent on the fish in the river as he was on the king himself. As King Wen’s mind assembled the pieces of the picture that this moment was presenting him, he determined that the man was dangerous…but that he was not a threat. He was like a tiger who had recently eaten its fill.
“Your accent suggests that you are not from around here.” said the King, politely stating the obvious. “May I ask what brings a citizen of Shang to my kingdom?”
“I am called Jiang Ziya.” was the reply, which came with only the slightest nod. He continued to watch the water, still intent on his fishing. “For many years I served in the court of the King of Shang. But the new king, Di Xin, is an arrogant, decadent, narcissistic psychopath who does not listen to his advisors, and who turns the people against each other.
“So, I feigned senility and retired from Shang court. I fled here, to the land of Zhou, where I have spent much of my time fishing. “
King Wen paused to process this information, then looked to assess the mood of his son and the guards, who were still primed for battle. Next, he looked to the sky and the mountains. Then he gazed downstream at the point where perspective swallowed the river. Finally, he casually sat down, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with the fisherman, and looked into the river.
This only increased the distress of the soldiers behind him. To them, the king was deliberately putting himself in grave danger. He might as well be putting his head in the mouth of the tiger. They were on tenterhooks, and prepared to spring into action and kill the old man. Each soldier was poised, unblinkingly, waiting only for the slightest provocative twitch.
King Wen, meanwhile, was wishing that he had a fishing rod of his own. As he watched the breeze play across the water, he considered what it must be like for a man to leave his home and position to live as a hermit in a foreign land. In fact, he could see both good and bad in such a decision. Kings often dream of retreating from their obligations. But King Wen’s sense of duty and his love for his people would not allow him to abandon the throne. The world was in a precarious state, and he had seen the consequences of bad leadership and ambivalence. He could never allow himself to abandon his people. Perhaps there will come a time, he thought, when Ji Fa will be ready to take over. But the prince did not yet have the diplomatic currency to take the throne.
He tried to imagine the internal torment that Jiang, the fisherman, must have faced. What does one do when the reasons for leaving were the same as the reasons for staying? How does one choose between two evils? How does a man decide that the best thing he can do for his people is abandon them to the hands a tyrant.
But then again, if King Wen was correct in his supposition, Jiang had not really abandoned them at all.
The king observed the Jiang’s distorted reflection in the water. From this angle, it appeared very much like his own.
What cosmic forces have brought us together? He wondered.
“Karma and destiny are formidable. But they are both pawns in the hands of a wise and compassionate man.” thought the king. “I would be a fool to ignore the counsel of all three.”
It was time for King Wen to do some fishing of his own.
“I must ask, Old Jiang, how you could throw away your career like that. Surely you could have found some other position where your skills and years of experience would be appreciated. What did your friends and family say?”
Jiang smiled. “I was told that I was being shameful and cowardly. But I could not stay in Shang, and I could not seek a position in a rival kingdom. My resume would be reason enough for any prospective employer to execute me as a spy, or to punish me for the actions of the Shang court.
“Some said that it was just as well that I should retire, since I am over 70-years-old and, therefore, too old for the rigours of office.”
King Wen snickered to himself at that. The old fisherman appeared to have kept up his martial arts training. He was likely in better physical shape than many men less than half his age.
Then the the king looked at his own reflection and shook his head in amusement, realizing the truth in that moment.
“Tell me, old Jiang, have you been living as a true hermit, or do you keep up on current events? Do you hear things from other fishermen, or catch bits of information on the wind?”
Jiang smiled and nodded in acknowledgment of both the reference to spy craft and the king’s reading of the situation. “I don’t listen to the birds as much as I used to, Your Majesty. But I don’t mind hearing the occasional bit of gossip.”
“Then let me share some gossip with you, Old Jiang.”
The king summoned food, drink, a table, and a chess board. The two men were then joined by the prince and proceeded to talk about philosophy, morality, weather, strategy, tactics, politics, family, and some of the “gossip” that the old fisherman might have missed. They were immersed in conversation as the sun moved across the sky.
Late in the afternoon, the wind began to bluster. “The water is rising and getting faster.” said Jiang. “There has been a storm in the mountains, and will soon be coming here. We should prepare ourselves.”
“I think that is good advice.” King Wen acknowledged, looking into distance, and to the future. The servants were already packing for a move to higher ground, and it was time for each man to go on his way. But before turning to leave, King Wen looked toward Jiang’s fishing rod, and asked, ” What sort of bait are you using, Old Jiang?”
Jiang reeled in his line so the king could see for himself. To the king’s surprise, there was no bait. The hook itself had been straightened and and the barb had been completely filed down. It was, in fact, merely a weight, and not a hook at all.
The king threw his head back with laughter. “Now I am absolutely certain that I have the right man!”
The interview ended with King Wen ordering Jiang to appear for work at the royal court by the next full moon.
As the king and his son walked back toward the road, Prince Ji Fa appeared confused. “Father, I do not understand. Jiang Ziya said that the fishing was excellent today. In fact, he said that the fishing was the best it has been in a long time. What can he possibly catch with no bait and no hook?”
The monarch stopped abruptly and turned to look into his son’s eyes. He refused to go another step with a man who could not answer that question himself. It took a few seconds. But it happened. As the dawning realization brightened the prince’s eyes, King Wen nodded and walked away, leaving his son to gape at the old fisherman.
“A king.” gasped the prince. “He caught a king.”
As the truth began to sink in, the prince’s eyes turned to three fishermen in a boat on the river. They appeared to have been caught off guard by the changing weather, and were now rushing to get home before the storm hit. He had been observing them intermittently for some time as they fought their way upstream. He was impressed with the way they danced with the fickle wind and the uneven current. He admired their persistence in the face of unsteady progress.
This was a difficult part of the river. But they navigated adroitly through channels that seemed too narrow, and around rocks that seemed too treacherous. When the times were right, they raised a single sail to help them tack into the wind, while using their oars to row and to fend off shorelines and submerged boulders.
But now, they were approaching the rapids. He expected they would have to get out and “line” the boat as others did, using ropes to pull the vessel through the fast water. It was clearly the only way, even though he questioned whether these three men had the strength to heave that boat through such a strong current.
To his surprise, they did not approach the shallow water. Instead, they chose a seemingly impossible route. He was sure they were going to wreck their boat on the rocks, or be capsized by the waves. Then, just when they seemed doomed, they turned the bow directly into the current, positioned it on the front of a broad standing wave, pumped the rudder, and leaned hard to one side. The craft surfed along the standing wave, from one side of the river to the other. Then it popped out into an eddy, and was easily carried upstream by the swirling current. The prince was amazed. One moment they had been facing certain doom. The next moment, they were gliding along blissfully in calmer water.
The three boatmen raised the sail and then sat back to enjoy the ride as the wind that had plagued them was now pulling them swiftly across the flat expanse.
The prince turned to regard Jiang Ziya. He wondered at the sort of navigator who could manipulate karma, fate, and a king in such a way.
Ji Fa dared himself to embrace a surging optimism. The storms of war were on the horizon, and the kingdom was travelling in treacherous waters. But the ship was sound. They were assembling a fine crew. Morale was high. Most importantly, they had just found the perfect captain for the job.
So it was that Jiang Ziya hired a worthy employer whose successful rule was made all the greater by his habit of seeking wise and talented people.
More than a decade later, when Jiang Ziya was well into his 80’s, he and Ji Fa oversaw the defeat of King Di Xin, bringing about the ignoble end of the Shang Dynasty. Ji Fa would be the first ruler of the great Zhou Dynasty, which would last for 790 years.
“Old Jiang?” said the Emperor, as he dropped a line into the river.
“Yes, Your Majesty?” replied the old warrior, as he attached the bait to his own hook.
“What would you have done if my father had not stopped to talk to you that day?”
“I suppose I would have kept fishing, Your Majesty.”
– copyright © 2020 Ian Sinclair