LIU TSUNG-YUAN (柳宗元 A.D. 773-819), A most versatile writer who lived in Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty. He was a founder of the Classical Prose Movement and was traditionally classed as one of the Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song. He was banished to Yongzhou on political grounds to a distant official post, where he died.
In the wilds of Hu-kuang there is an extraordinary kind of snake, having a black body with white rings. Deadly fatal, even to the grass and trees it may chance to touch; in man, its bite is absolutely incurable. Yet if caught and prepared, when dry, in the form of cakes, the flesh of this snake will soothe excitement, heal leprous sores, remove sloughing flesh, and expel evil spirits. And so it came about that the Court physician, acting under Imperial orders, exacted from each family a return of two of these snakes every year ; but as few persons were able to comply with the demand, it was subsequently made known that the return of snakes was to be considered in lieu of the usual taxes. Thereupon there ensued a general stampede among the people of those parts.
However, there was one man whose family had lived there for three generations; and from him I obtained the following information : — ” My grandfather lost his life in snake-catching. So did my father. And during the twelve years that I have been engaged in the same way, death has several times come very near to me.” He was deeply moved during this recital; but when I asked if I should state his sad case to the authorities and apply for him to be allowed to pay taxes in the regular manner, he burst into tears and said, ” Alas ! sir, you would take away my means of livelihood altogether. The misery of this state is as nothing when compared with the misery of that. Formerly, under the ordinary conditions of life, we suffered greatly; but for the past three generations we have been settled in this district, now some sixty years since. During that period, my fellow-villagers have become more and more impoverished. Their substance has been devoured, and in beggary they have gone weeping and wailing away. Exposed to the inclemency of wind and rain, enduring heat and cold, they have fled from the cruel scourge, in most cases, to die. Of those families which were here in my grandfather’s time, there remains not more than one in ten ; of those here in my father’s time, not more than two or three ; and of those still here in my own time, not more than four or five. They are all either dead or gone elsewhere; while we, the snake-catchers, alone survive. Harsh tyrants sweep down upon us, and throw everybody and everything, even to the brute beasts, into paroxysms of terror and disorder. But I, — I get up in the morning and look into the jar where my snakes are kept; and if they are still there, I lie down at night in peace. At the appointed time, I take care that they are fit to be handed in; and when that is done, I retire to enjoy the produce of my farm and complete the allotted span of my existence. Only twice a year have I to risk my life: the rest is peaceful enough and not to be compared with the daily round of annoyance which falls to the share of my fellow-villagers. And even though I were to die now in this employ, I should still have outlived almost all my contemporaries. Can I then complain?
This story gave me food for much sad reflection. I had always doubted the saying of Confucius that ” bad government is worse than a tiger (苛政猛於虎),” but now I felt its truth. Alas! who would think that the tax-collector could be more venomous than a snake? I therefore record this for the information of those whom it may concern.
(GEMS of CHINESE LITERATURE, H. A. GILES)