Originally published in The Dragon and the Stars, edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, May 2010. The text posted here has been edited and is slightly different from the form in which this story was first published.


In 1590, the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed the dream of his dead liege lord, Oda Nobunaga, and unified Japan by conquest. As kampaku to the figurehead Japanese Emperor Go-Yozei, Toyotomi was ruler of all Japan. Seeking to engrave his name eternally in history, he turned his eyes west to the glory of Joseon Korea and the beauty of Ming China.

In 1591, Toyotomi demanded Korea’s surrender and aid in the conquest of China. King Seonjo refused, as Korea was a close ally of China. Toyotomi raised an army of 160,000 veterans hardened by decades of battle in Oda’s and Toyotomi’s domestic campaigns, and invaded Korea in 1592. It was the largest army ever deployed until then in Northeast Asia.

Within a few months, Hanseong (Seoul) and Pyongyang fell, and Toyotomi’s army occupied almost all of Korea. Villages burned while starving refugees streamed across the Yalu River into China. Only the tactical brilliance of Admiral Yi Sun-sin and his destruction of the Japanese fleet on the west side of the Korean Peninsula halted the Japanese advance. King Seonjo fled to the Chinese border and rushed waves of emissaries to Beijing for aid.


In the private audience chamber of the Forbidden City, Tan Yuansi was struck by the youth of the Wanli Emperor. Save for his yellow robe and jewel-encrusted belt, the Emperor could pass for any of the young xiucai, the scholar-gentlemen who had passed the first level of the Imperial Examinations. The Emperor’s unlined face was kind, his eyes on the verge of a smile.

“You know,” the Emperor said, “You are not supposed to look directly at me, and you haven’t properly paid me the respect of Five Bows and Three Kowtows.”

Cold sweat broke out along Yuansi’s back, and the twenty-year-old infantry commander silently cursed himself. Not paying the Emperor the proper respect was not only discourteous, it indicated a rebellious heart. Immediately, Yuansi lowered his eyes and fell to his knees, and rushed to dip his head to the ground —

But before his forehead touched the ground, a pair of strong hands held him up by the shoulders.

“It’s all right,” the Emperor said. “I like the simple manners of soldiers, unadorned by the slavish habits of the Court. There was a time when an emperor and his general would sit on the floor as equals, but our simple Confucian ideals have become corrupted in these latter days.” He lifted Yuansi until he was standing, and then pointed to a chair to the side. “Sit, and let’s talk about the situation in Korea.”

Yuansi bowed and sat. “Bixia, Your Imperial Majesty, I do not believe that Korean reports of the Japanese invasion force being but ‘a few thousand greenhorns’ are true. When I was a child, the Japanese wokou pirates who plagued my village in the Zhoushan Archipelago abducted me on a raid, and for many years I lived as one of them, learning their language and ways. We would beach our boats in a village, and swift-footed villagers would run to the local garrison to get help. We learned that those villagers always underreported the number of pirates who attacked them. If there were ten pirate ships, they would say there were only three, and if there were three pirate ships, they would say there was only one.”

“Why? Wouldn’t the villagers exaggerate the number of pirates in their fright?”

“If the villagers reported the true strength of the pirates, the garrison commander might hesitate to give aid. After all, if there were ten ships full of pirates, a garrison of fifty soldiers would have a difficult fight. The commander might request more reinforcements from the Prefecture, or he might send spies to investigate further, but he would certainly not send out his soldiers right away. If the villagers wanted immediate help to salvage whatever they could, their best bet was to lie and minimize the danger.”

“So you think that’s what King Seonjo is trying to do? To get China to send troops without knowing Toyotomi’s true strength?”

“I don’t think we can rule it out. Korea is a very powerful country. It is inconceivable that King Seonjo would be driven out of Hanseong and Pyongyang unless Toyotomi has an overwhelming force. And this all might be a trap in a Japanese-Korean alliance to lure our troops into Korea for an ambush.”

The Emperor was stunned. “Well, I really haven’t thought of that possibility. It will not be possible for us to raise a large army quickly. Toyotomi has been at war for decades and has perfected his logistics, and an invading army can live off the land and rely on the sword as a tax collector. But if we send an army to help Korea, we will be acting as guests in someone else’s house. We will have to keep the soldiers disciplined, and leave the crops undisturbed and the village women unafraid. Our logistics will be ten times more expensive.

“I can only give you a small army, and so this will be a hard campaign. But the greatest general I’ve ever known is General Li Rusong, and he speaks of you highly as a resourceful commander — I understand you came up with the idea of using trained falcons to intercept Mongol messenger pigeons? And you invented the practice of wrapping armor with wet cotton rags to dampen matchlock musket fire? Clever! I’m sure that General Li and you will do well in Korea.”

Yuansi clasped his hands and bowed. The Emperor’s humbleness surprised him, and the Emperor’s trust warmed his dantian, the pit of his stomach, where the qi of breath and life began. It reminded him of a hot water-skin that his mother used to put next to his stomach at bedtime on cold winter nights when he was little.

“Before you go, let’s talk about something more pleasant,” the Emperor said. “Do you know much about painting?” He pointed to a small horizontal scroll on the side wall, the paper faded to yellow with age.

The left side of the scroll was dominated by a jagged cliff hung with gnarled trees. In the bottom right hand corner, a small fishing boat was drawn in great detail, with the warp and weft of the rattan-covered shelter on the boat carefully limned. A contemplative fisherman sat over an oar in the back of the boat, his fishing pole forgotten behind him. In the upper right hand corner was a poem. Yuansi, who was barely literate, could not read the cursive script.

Yuansi had never learned painting or calligraphy, and had little use for pictures unless they were pictures of pretty girls — especially the kind that soldiers collected.

“I have never had the opportunity to study the arts,” he conceded. “In my wasted life I first lived as a pirate, and then, after General Li rescued me, as a soldier.” General Li Rusong had taken a liking to the youngster after capturing him from the pirates, and treated him as a son.

“No matter,” the Emperor said. “The Bandit Liu Zhi was once teacher to Confucius, and native talent graced with insight sometimes far excels years of careful instruction. Let me try to explain to you how to look at a good painting.

“This painting was made two hundred and fifty years ago by Master Wu Zhen, who called himself the Plum Monk. We’ll never have another painter as great.

“The highest of all the arts is calligraphy, which is the art of harnessing the writer’s energy, his qi, and unleashing it in the service of freezing thought and capturing feeling. Practicing calligraphy is like doing tai chi, and there must be no wasted motion. Before even putting down the first stroke on paper, the writer must already know where the last stroke will go.”

Yuansi nodded. He had seen General Li practice calligraphy, and it did look a little like a dance or some kind of martial art. He could appreciate that.

“Painting, properly understood, is but a form of calligraphy. The uninitiated see a picture, and focus on whether the sketch adequately mimics life, whether the composition of figures is interesting, whether the shading and perspective are novel, and sundry such nonsense. If you understand painting, you do not look for such things.

“Rather, you should look at a painting as though it were a calligraphy scroll, and see how the painter’s qi took shape on paper. Envision his movements and breaths, his broad brushstrokes and fine bone work.

“Remember, in painting, each stroke is permanent, and once brush touches paper, the ink, like a Go stone that has been placed on the board, cannot be recalled. You may examine a true masterpiece as long as you like, but you will not find a single failed stroke in it. A finished painting is a laying out of the spirit of the painter with no lies and no embellishments, and the painter leaves behind an impression of himself on the scroll, much as a wild goose taking off leaves behind ever widening ripples in the lake.

“And so we can sit here together today, admiring the spirit of Master Wu.”

Yuansi was amazed. He stared at the painting, trying to see everything the Emperor showed him. “I will treasure your lesson, Bixia. Hearing you speak for an hour is like going to school for ten years.”

“Oh, don’t flatter me. Here, take this copy of the scroll made by the imperial painter so that you can have something beautiful to look at when you have a moment off the battlefield. Do not neglect the civilized side of life even in war. Otherwise there is no point to fighting.”


General Li Rusong’s horse, Red Tiger, snorted in the cold air of Jianzhou in late fall and gazed suspiciously across the Yalu River into the dense forests of Korea.

By the river shore, Li welcomed Yuansi and his small squad of scouts, returning from three weeks of reconnaissance inside Korea. They were disguised as Korean refugees in dirty rags and cotton headcloths.

“Come, have some warm rice wine to revive your spirits,” Li said.

Yuansi thanked him and drained his cup in a single gulp. “As I suspected, the Korean envoys were lying about the size of the Japanese army. Some Japanese soldiers claim that over 320,000 troops landed in Pusan back in April, but that may be just puffery. If I had to put a number on it, I’d say the fighting strength of Japan in Korea right now is above 150,000, maybe 200,000.

“The Japanese garrisons are extremely effective, due to a combination of cruelty and manipulation. They would behead entire families and enslave whole clans if even one member resisted, and simultaneously they would buy off the local gentry, despicable collaborators.” Yuansi spat on the ground.

“Using locals to control locals,” Li Rusong said, shaking his head. “Toyotomi knows what he’s doing.”

“Almost all surviving Korean forces have either surrendered or gone into the woods and mountains as guerillas. Toyotomi would have crossed over the Yalu into China months ago, if the heroic Admiral Yi Sun-sin hadn’t destroyed all Japanese supply ships and transports off Jeolla Province. I saw Admiral Yi four days ago, and he gives you his regards.” Yuansi handed Li a message from Admiral Yi, written in Korean. Li’s parents were Korean, and it was the language of his childhood.

Li said nothing, mulling over the news. Yuansi was a careful young man. If he thought Toyotomi had 150,000 troops in Korea, then that was as good as proven. Admiral Yi’s estimates of Japanese strength also confirmed Yuansi’s report. Li had under his command about 24,000 cavalry, 10,000 infantry, and 3,000 matchlockmen. He was outnumbered four to one, and likely worse.

“The good news is that we still have the element of surprise,” Yuansi interrupted Li’s thoughts.


“None of the Japanese commanders I spied on suspected that China would send troops into Korea. Most thought China too scared to come and meet them after what happened to General Zu Chengxun.”

All the men were silent for a moment, remembering the 3000-men cavalry vanguard commanded by the impetuous Zu. A few months ago, Zu ignored Yuansi’s advice for caution and led his men into an ambush in Pyongyang, where most of his men died at the hands of the samurai.

Yuansi gritted his teeth. “I saw a mound Toyotomi’s troops had built out of the noses and ears cut from dead Korean and Chinese soldiers. Some Japanese commanders joked that the Wanli Emperor is so young that Toyotomi could be his father and that the Ming princesses would make excellent concubines for the daimyo.”

Li Rusong roared, and swore in Korean. Red Tiger whinnied and reared up.

Yuansi continued, “No one knows that our army is here. The Japanese believe that they will have the whole winter to rest, secure their supply lines in Korea, and begin the invasion of China in the spring. We have to make them pay.”

Li shook his head. “But the surprise will be lost as soon as we march into Korea. It takes more than a week to go from here to Pyongyang. I don’t know how we are going to keep almost 40,000 marching men hidden. It’s a set up for an ambush.”


Yuansi paced alone in the silvery light of the almost-full moon. His body was exhausted, but his mind could not sleep.

There was no torchlight. Moonlight reflected from the sheepskin tents where all the soldiers were asleep. Yuansi knew that patrols circled the perimeter of the camp to keep them safe. If you were in the woods only a few hundred feet away and didn’t know where to look, you could hardly tell that thousands of men were camped right here.

It’s easy to hide a sleeping camp, Yuansi thought. But how do you hide a marching army? In order to go from the Yalu River to Pyongyang, the army would have to go through the narrow plains between the tall mountains of the Rangnim Range in the east and the coast of Korea Bay on the west, easily visible to Japanese lookouts from miles away.

Perhaps the solution was to hide in the dark? If the troops could march at night by moon and starlight, and stay hidden in camps in the foothills during the day, they would be able to get all the way to Pyongyang without detection. But how could an army navigate in the dark? They would have to avoid the broad roads and villages, and go through the uninhabited woods. They would have no way of knowing where they were or how far they had to go. It would be far too easy to get lost or stumble into a Japanese garrison.

Yuansi sighed and looked up at the night sky. He found the North Star and, at a slight distance from it, traced out the imaginary lines connecting the seven stars of Beidou, the Northern Dipper. He remembered lying on the deck of a kenminsen, the large trading/fighting ships used by the wokou, and watching the Northern Dipper spin all night around the fixed North Star, like seven men marching in formation, guided by a distant pole.

One of his favorite things to do, on those long-ago nights, was to make and fly Kongming lanterns. He would make the frame out of a lattice of light bamboo, shaped so that the lantern tapered down to a small opening at the bottom, like the hat worn more than a millennium ago by General Kongming, the greatest strategist who ever lived. He would then glue a layer of thin rice paper onto the lattice, making sure it was airtight, and then suspend a small candle in the center of the opening with a bamboo skewer or two. When the candle was lit, the warm air trapped by the Kongming lantern would lift it out of his hands, its warm glow receding from him until it was just another star in the sky, a distant point of light. Other children, on other pirate ships, would sometimes answer with their own Kongming lanterns, and Yuansi had loved to see them, giant fireflies hovering over the dark East China Sea.

Tired, cold, still without a solution, the frustrated Yuansi headed back to his tent. He lit a candle and brought out the Emperor’s scroll. He tried to distract himself by practicing the Emperor’s lesson, tracing the brushstrokes on the scroll, imagining the Master’s posture and movements, savoring the marks left on the paper by his energy and spirit: not one single stroke out of place.

He noticed something: all of the strokes in the trees and the cliffs seemed to point to the boat in the bottom right corner. It was as though the qi of the whole painting had a focus, the hunched-over figure of the fisherman. Invisible lines seemed to connect every spot on the painting to a single fixed pole, a North Star, a center around which all other things measured themselves and knew their place.

Yuansi smiled to himself. He had a plan.


“Let’s check our position,” Li Rusong gave the order to Yue Lijing, his field clerk.

Li and Yue pulled their horses aside as the column of marching soldiers continued past. The January air penetrated their coats and cotton-covered armor and made them shiver. Red Tiger’s breath, ghostly white in the moonlight, curled around them.

Yue quickly set up a field desk and spread out a precision map of the sector of Northern Korea they were marching through. They had to work quickly before the cold winter air froze their fingers. While Li prepared the covered lantern that cast a focused cone of light on the map, Yue took out his goniometer and surveying pole, got a reading on the North Star to fix true north, and began to scan the horizon both to the east and the west.

Far in the northwest, over the Yellow Sea and Korea Bay, Yue could discern a small group of six bright yellow flickering lights hovering in the shape of a hexagon.

“I see the Legs of the White Tiger,” Yue said. He took a careful reading with the goniometer, and gave Li the angle of the cluster of lights from true north.

In the calm waters of Korea Bay, a small armored turtle ship from Admiral Yi’s fleet was at anchor. Every night, the ship would sail to that spot, and launch those six Kongming lanterns, tied to silk threads so that they would stay anchored in the sky high over the ship.

Yue looked over to the northeast. Far in the distance, over the treetops, he could see another small group of five bright yellow flickering lights hovering in the shape of a small cross.  

“I see the Horn of the Azure Dragon,” Yue reported. He took another careful reading with the goniometer, and gave Li the angle of the lights from true north.

Yue silently prayed that the militiamen over in the mountains were safe. His brother had gone with Tan Yuansi into the mountains a month ago. His mission, like that of the other men Tan took with him, was to get in touch with various militias hidden in the mountains. Every night, his brother’s group would go to a fixed spot and launch that cluster of five Kongming lanterns, also tethered by silk lines. Since their position in the mountains was so remote and inaccessible, made even more so by the December snow, Toyotomi’s garrisons could not get men out there to investigate.

The positions of the Legs and the Horn stations were clearly marked on the map before Li. Yue quickly drew out the measured angles from them and triangulated the army’s position.

With a few dozen scouts and the help of the Korean resistance, Yuansi had set up a grid of Kongming lantern stations spread tens of miles apart across Northern Korea. Guided by these Beidou positioning stations, the Ming army marched, undetected, during the nights towards Pyongyang.

“We should turn slightly to the east,” Yue said. “In another hour or so we should arrive at a good camp site. We are only about two days march from Pyongyang now. Yuansi and the Korean militias will join us there.”


Konishi Yukinaga could not believe his eyes. Before the gates of Pyongyang, the allied forces of Ming China and Joseon Korea ranged in battle-ready splendor.

“What have your spies been doing!” he screamed at his samurai. “How could an army of 40,000 men fly from the Yalu River to Pyongyang without any warning?”

But it was too late for speculation; Konishi set his men scrambling to the defense of Pyongyang.

Li Rusong ordered a general assault on Pyongyang from all sides, sparing only the eastern walls next to the Taedong River. It seemed as if the charging cavalry and infantry would easily overwhelm the Japanese defenders.

But dug in behind reinforced earthworks, the Japanese arquebusiers laid waste to the allied forces with their fusillades. The Japanese guns had much better range, accuracy, and penetration than the Chinese matchlocks. Even Red Tiger was shot from under Li Rusong in the middle of one of the assaults.

“Damn the Portuguese,” Li Rusong swore as his wounds were dressed. “All these years we thought we bought the latest matchlock technology, and behind our backs they were secretly selling more advanced weapons to Toyotomi.”

In light of the heavy casualties, Li ordered a change in tactics. Now, the allies would try to overwhelm the Japanese defenses with flame arrows and artillery fire. Soldiers held up well-oiled rattan shields and iron pavises to defend the field artillery and flaming arrow launchers from Japanese arquebus fire. The arquebuses, though more powerful, had shorter range than the arrows and their bullets glanced harmlessly off of the pavises.

Volley after volley of cannon fire and flaming arrows propelled by gunpowder rockets arced into Pyongyang. Yuansi was impressed by the Korean militia’s hwacha, a two-wheeled cart that could launch several hundred flaming arrows at once. He made a mental copy of their design.

Soon the houses in Pyongyang were burning and smoke covered half the sky. But Pyongyang was a big city, and as long as Konishi moved his forces around the walls and stayed under cover, they avoided much of the bombardment.

“We’ll run out of ammunition in another day,” Li Rusong said to Yuansi. The Ming army was not prepared for an extended siege.


Yuansi hovered in the sky over Pyongyang. He could see miles and miles around him in all directions. No pagoda in the world was as high as he was. It was glorious.

Above him was the biggest Kongming lantern anybody had ever seen, a giant floating cylinder about forty paces across at its widest point. Yuansi had made the frame from thick but light bamboo lashed together with silk ropes, and covered it with multiple layers of rice paper.

He sat in a rattan basket attached by woven cords of silk to the hoop at the bottom opening of the giant Kongming lantern. Beside him in the basket were several large leather pouches with iron nuzzles. One of them was filled with swamp gas, to provide high-heat flame for takeoff. The others were filled with distilled alcohol, to provide long-burning flames that would keep him airborne.

Now that he was high over Pyongyang, Yuansi could see where all the Japanese troops were hiding. Using a long pole tipped with a red flag, he pointed at these positions, guiding the artillery fire to strike at them. Salvo after salvo of cannon fire and hwacha arrows fell where he aimed, and the Japanese troops suffered heavy losses. A few noticed Yuansi’s Kongming lantern flying overhead and aimed their arquebuses at him, but he was flying too high for the bullets.

Yuansi put down his red flag, and picked up a white flag. He waved it in wide, slow circles. It was time to bring the battle to an end.

From the west side of Pyongyang, Japanese soldiers captured during the last few days of fighting marched from their prison compounds onto the battlefield, until they were right behind the pavises of the Chinese soldiers at the limit of Japanese arquebus range.

Before his flight, Yuansi had explained to them that the dream of Japanese conquest of Korea and China was dead. The Great Ming had learned the trick of teleportation — hadn’t they seen with their own eyes how the Ming army had appeared out of nowhere, like troops descended from Heaven? But all the prisoners would be allowed to go home to Japan, if they would help convince their comrades to give up Pyongyang and retreat.

As Yuansi gave his signal, the Japanese prisoners began to sing an old folk song of Kyushu, where most of Konishi’s men were from:

Is it snow that I see falling in the valley?
Is it rain that flows over the faces of the children?
Oh my sorrow, my sorrow is great.

It is not snow that covers the floor of the valley.
It is not rain that washes the faces of the children.
Oh my sorrow, my sorrow is great.

Cherry petals have filled the floor of the valley.
Tears have soaked the faces of the children.
Oh my sorrow, my sorrow is great.

The warriors, they have died as beautifully as falling cherry blossoms.
My son, oh my son, he is not coming home from battle.

As the prisoners’ mounrful song rose in volume, the allied artillery stopped firing. Gradually, the return fire from Pyongyang stopped as well. Only the singing Japanese voices filled the silence.

Yuansi looked down, and he could see that it was no longer only the prisoners who were singing. The Japanese soldiers in the city sang as well. Their voices swelled louder and louder, and through the smoke of the burning city, Yuansi could see that the city was filled with upturned faces full of tears.

“It is over.” Konishi threw down his sword. “The hearts of the soldiers have left us.” He was filled with despair, but he was a Christian and could not commit seppuku. He ordered his samurai to mount their horses and began the retreat from Pyongyang under cover of night.


From the simple but elegant sandalwood throne in the private audience chamber, the Emperor stood up to welcome Yuansi. “You have fought well to help Korea, and more importantly, defended the homeland. You have our thanks.”

“I was glad to do my duty.” Yuansi knelt to kowtow to the Emperor and was once again lifted to be seated by the throne.

“General Li wrote to suggest that we establish a network of your Beidou stations in the featureless Gobi desert in the far west and in the trackless forests of Jianzhou to allow military maneuvers by day and night. He also seeks funds to build more of your man-carrying Kongming lanterns for reconnaissance, and to equip the army with our own hwacha and arquebuses modeled on the ones captured from Japan. I believe these are your ideas?”

“I have given such suggestions to General Li, Bixia. But real credit should go to your virtue and wisdom. It was the painting you gave me and what you taught me about how to look at it that inspired me to think of the Beidou.”

“Ah, Master Wu Zhen would be saddened to hear that his art was used for war. Although I have given your suggestions some thought, I fear the answer must be no.”

Yuansi froze. “Why?”

“Konishi Yukinaga has asked to discuss the terms of a peace treaty, and I’d like you to go as one of my ambassadors.”

Bixia, I do not understand. What kind of terms could Toyotomi possibly offer? I saw his soldiers flogging press-ganged Korean laborers to death, and caught his daimyo selling captured Chinese soldiers to Portuguese slave traders. There is no talk of peace with a man like that. We have to drive him into the sea.”

The Emperor was silent for a moment. He continued, “I understand that after freeing Pyongyang, you ordered the execution of several hundred Korean peasants found in the city. Did you treat them better than Toyotomi?”

“That is not the same at all!” Yuansi almost leaped out of his chair but remembered who he was speaking to. “Please excuse my rough manners. Those peasants were collaborating with the enemy. They led the Japanese garrison to the hidden grain depot in Pyongyang, and King Seonjo approved their execution.”

“Yes, there always is a virtuous way to look at killing. Do you know what the Bandit Liu Zhi, who once taught Confucius, said about the virtues of being a robber?”

“I have heard Bixia mention him once, but I do not know the tale.”

“Liu Zhi’s band of robbers was famed for their ferocity. They stole and robbed, raped and pillaged wherever they liked, and cared not for king nor duke. Once, one of his men asked him if there were any virtues that robbers displayed, and Liu Zhi told him: ‘Of course there are. To be able to deduce where valuables are hidden, that shows Wisdom; to be the first to advance, that shows Courage; to be the last to retreat, that shows Responsibility; to know whether a job can be done, that shows Knowledge; and to be able to divide up the loot evenly, that shows Justice. Without these five virtues, no robber can be called great.’”

Yuansi laughed. “This Liu Zhi would make a good lawyer. I’m sure the wokou who took me when I was a child would approve of his thinking.”

“No doubt they would, and so would Toyotomi. Toyotomi thought he was going to bring the blessing of the virtues of the Japanese Emperor to Korea, to China, to India and Siam, and all of Asia, even if it meant at the point of a sword. From his view, he was behaving in the most virtuous way possible, and his superior weapons were the proof of his virtue. Do you think the Korean peasants you killed could distinguish between the virtue of the Japanese troops who conquered Pyongyang, and the virtue of King Seonjo’s and my forces when we freed it? I have always been troubled by the idea that to serve virtue, we have to kill more people.”

Bixia, if we did not fight, Toyotomi’s troops would have slaughtered all the innocent men and women in Korea and then gone on to do the same to all of China. I do not regret fighting.”

The Emperor nodded. “Nor should you. But let me tell you another story. Almost 200 years ago, during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, the great Admiral Zheng He went on seven voyages of exploration into the Indian Ocean. He led fleets of treasure ships, each one the size of a floating town, the greatest ships men had ever built, and sailed to India, Arabia, Africa, and Ceylon. He sailed further than any Chinese had ever gone, and saw more than any Chinese had ever seen. He spread the fame of China far and wide, and he went further and further with each voyage. Had he kept on sailing, I believe he would have gone around the world and found the lands of Mexico and America, whence we now get our Spanish silver, maize and sweet potato.

“Yet, after the death of the Yongle Emperor, his successor, the Xuande Emperor, stopped all ocean-going exploration, burnt all records of Zheng He’s voyages, scuttled the great treasure ships, and forbade any further construction of them. The arts of navigation and ship construction were lost, and today China cannot build a ship even one tenth as large, so that we have been plagued by the wokou all these years. Do you know why Xuande did that?”

Yuansi shook his head. He was sorry that such knowledge was lost.

“On those voyages, Zheng He and his men discovered many beautiful and fertile lands far beyond the boundaries of the Ming Empire, lands rich with spices, exotic animals, and beautiful women, but little in the way of arms. It would have been easy for China to decide that those lands should also bathe in the virtue of the Ming Emperor and to enjoy the benefits of Confucian civilization, that the squabbling natives should be made to appreciate peace and to learn Daoist values, and that the virtuous thing to do was to send a fleet of treasure ships laden not with goods for trade, but soldiers with flaming arrows. Does that remind you of anyone?

“Xuande believed that path would have corrupted us beyond redemption. He chose to remove all temptation. 

“The temptation offered by your inventions are similarly corrupting, Yuansi. There was a time when our ancestors fought hand to hand, with crude bronze swords and wooden spears, and each life was dear. But now at a single command, you can launch a thousand flaming arrows propelled by rockets at a city with little thought. Your inventions would allow us to rain down death upon men with ever greater efficiency, to march troops through darkness to the doors of unsuspecting homes.

“Today we go fight in Korea to defend ourselves, but who knows where such logic will stop? It is far too easy to make of virtue a cover for all manner of vices. We cannot trust in our capacity to always reason to true virtue; we can only reduce our capacity for evil should we err.

“There has been enough killing, Yuansi. I’m going to order that the prototypes for your inventions be destroyed and the records of them expunged from the histories.”

A chill settled in Yuansi’s dantian. He felt as if a part of his qi, his spirit, had been laid out on and imbued into those machines. His heart convulsed, and he clenched the armrests of his chair. “Bixia, China must defend itself. The Jurchens are watching in the northeast for any sign of weakness, and in the west, the Mongols remain a threat. We cannot tear down the Great Wall and hope for the kindness of the world.”

“If China cannot preserve its virtue, then there is nothing worth defending at all.”

The Emperor and the General stared at each other. Tan Yuansi did not lower his eyes.

With a sigh and a rueful smile, the Emperor turned to the scroll on the wall. “I wish we were out on that lake right now. I would take the oar and hand you a cup of cold, sweet lotus soup. We would sing the words of Master Wu’s poem together—”

The red leaves glow with the last light from the setting sun,
By the yellow reeds, the first trace of the rising moon.
Lightly turn the oar; it’s time to go home.
Put away that fishing pole.


Peace negotiations between Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Wanli Emperor broke down in 1596, and Japan invaded Korea a second time in 1597, with an even larger army. The combined Chinese and Korean forces held back the Japanese invasion until the death of Toyotomi in 1598, which caused Japan to abandon the war.

Soon after, between 1618 and 1645, the Jurchens, taking advantage of the weakened and ill-equipped Ming army, conquered China. Some 25 million Chinese are estimated to have died as a result of the Conquest.

In 2000, China began to launch its own satellite navigation and positioning system. It is named Beidou.

# # #

[Author’s Note: The painting in this story is Wu Zhen’s Fisherman. A photographic reproduction of it may be found in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (October 2006).

A popular genre of science fiction written in Chinese is a Chinese analogue for steampunk, which I have dubbed “silkpunk.” These stories are set in a classical or medieval East Asian setting, and instead of steam, the fictional inventions tend to be powdered by wind, water, animals, or uniquely Chinese concepts like qì, ox sinew, and jīguān (a type of mechanical engineering associated with Mohist philosophers of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods). “Beidou” is a silkpunk story written in English.

I was inspired by a discussion with my aunt on the aesthetics of calligraphy and Chinese painting to write this story. Readers who are literate in hanzi may be interested to know that Tan Yuansi’s name is 谭圆思.]