Toward the end of the reign of Hsien Ti of the Latter Han dynasty, So Mai went out from the Jade Gate at the head of one thousand troops from Tun-huang. His purpose was to build a new military colony by the banks of the River Kum, that flowed through the eastern part of the Taklamakan Desert. It was thirty years since a Han force had last crossed the border and set foot in the lands beyond the Great Wall.
     Three hundred years had gone by since Wu Ti had first used force of arms to open up the Western Marches. During that time, the Western Marches had been the scene of an uninterrupted series of struggles with the Hsiung-nu; the Jade Gate and the Yang Barrier had at some periods been open, at others closed. There were times when Han authority extended far, to beyond the K’un-lun Motuntains; and there were others, too, when an area extending to this side of the Jade Gate and over a considerable part of the Yellow River basin was turned over to the depradations of the Hsiung-nu.
       Each Emperor of the Former and Latter Han dynasties had in his time had trouble with the Hsiung-nu. So long as the Hsiung-nu remained, in fact, it was impossible to sleep soundly at night. To gain control of the area west of the Yellow River, it was necessary to attack the Hsiung-nu. To attack the Hsiung-nu, it was necessary to go into the Western Marches. But the Western Marches were distant and the way rugged, and the barbarian tribes, untamed as the beasts of the field, were variable in their allegiance. So vast would become the cost of expeditionary forces to the Western Marches that always, in the end, the area would have to be abandoned. In each successive age, the rulers of Han repeated this same predestined round.
         So Mai’s expedition to the Western Marches merely meant that the same round, repeated countless times throughout the centuries, was about to be repeated once more. The Western Marches had been abandoned thirty years before, but recently the ravages of the Hsiung-nu had become serious, and several times every year the region west of the Yellow River was trampled beneath their horses’ hooves. Hsien Ti was forced, therefore, to send troops into the Western Marches once more to wipe out the Hsiung-nu stronghold. And it had fallen to So Mai’s lot to take the van and to establish a supply base against the day when the Han army should occupy the area in full strength.
          “So Mai,” the ancient records tell us, “was a man of Tun-huang. His other name was Yen Hsi, and he was of resourceful character.” Nothing, though, is known of his life before the time he cook his men into the Western Marches.
             From olden times, the troops sent into the Western Marches had invariably been for the most part criminals and knaves. The men that had followed Chang Ch’ien, the first general dispatched to the area, had been a crowd of ruffians, while the force led by Conquering General Li Kuang-Ii, who had gone into Ta-wan in the search for good horses, had been no better than a bunch of desperate rogues. Pan Ch’ao and Pan Yung, who in later years had demonstrated their brilliant military prowess in the Western Marches, had been no exception.
               Since even a mighty organization such as the Army to the Western Marches was like this, it may well be imagined of what stuff the one thousand militia led by So Mai were made. The general, a native of an outlying province, was an elderly man already past his mid-forties. For his army, he had selected from among the frontier force stationed in Tung Huang only the most desperate men, all of them with a past. About the only qualification, if any, he demanded of those he drafted into his force was that each should possess a powerful elbow capable of drawing a mighty bow.
                 To So Mai―to everyone, indeed―it seemed unlikely that, once his thousand men had emerged from the Jade Gate, they would ever set foot again on Chinese soil.
                   On the day they set forth, So Mai rode his camel at the head of his men. When the rearguard of his force reached a point about two hundred metres from the walls of the city, he halted the march for a brief while. He was giving his troops―though he gave no order―a chance to bid farewell to the homeland that they would surely never set eyes on again. The force had been assembled at dawn, but preparations for departure had taken unexpectedly long, so that by now the sun had climbed high and was hinting at the midday heat to come. In the bright sunlight, the walls at the gateway stood out grey and sharply defined, their expression obstinately sullen.
                     So Mai’s eyes rested for a moment on a solitary lookout tower that reared high from among the buildings around the gate. Soon, though, he looked away again and, reverting to the purposeful expression and the keenly glinting eyes that were natural to him, he gave the order to advance.
                       So Mai had spent all his life hitherto in fighting the Hsiung-nu. Since he had devoted half his allotted span to battling with alien races, shifting from one appointment to another in the frontier territories, no new switch, to wherever it be, could in any way disturb his equilibrium. Even so, it was with somewhat different sentiments from hitherto that he viewed this latest excursion into barbarian territory. He was well aware what it meant to establish a single, tiny outpost in the heart of enemy territory. Their days, inevitably, would be spent in endless strife with the accursed Hsiung-nu, and they would wear themselves down in efforts to conciliate the states of the Western Marches, those states that could never quite determine their allegiance. And they must cultivate the land in order to eat. Even should they be successful in setting up a self-supporting colony on the banks of the River Kum, it seemed almost impossible that they could hold on to it for long in the middle of that desert waste. Whatever might be possible given really positive aid from home, without it his troops were fated in the end to be abandoned in the desert along with the colony they had established. Aid from home could not be hoped for. The ruling house of Han, well set now on the slow road to ruin, its hands overfull with affairs at home, was liable to change its policies at any time. To repeal at night that morning’s order had been a favorite trick of their rulers for years past.
                         In the afternoon of that day, So Mai’s force reached the middle of a sea of sand that offered no obstruction to the view wherever the eye was turned. From the third day, the sea of sand spread about them in gentle undulations, and each hill of sand crossed gave way to fresh hills still. From the fourth day, the troops marched in battle order. Then, that evening, they found a minute patch of green and pitched camp. The same night there appeared mysteriously as if from nowhere between ten and twenty men and women of strange aspect, come to sell them water. They were people of the Ashya tribe.
                           So Mai summoned a young woman from their midst to spend the night in his quarters. She offered no resistance. Her body gleamed all over as though smeared with oil, and was cold to the touch like a fish. She had Chinese blood in her veins, and she understood a little of the Chinese tongue.
                             The woman told him, in his sleeping quarters, that the area round about had once been known as the Dragon Capital, and had been the principal city of Gyang-lai.
                               The barbarian name Gyang-lai was one that So Mai had never heard before. The walled city―though when it had existed was not clear from the woman’s account―had been extremely vast―so vast, it was said, that he who started from its western gate at sunrise would not reach the eastern gate till sunset. The city had been built on sloping ground facing the lakeside, and a single broad canal had run by its side and into the lake. If one stood at a high point within the city and gazed west toward the lake, the canal assumed the form of a dragon, lying twisted along the ground.
                                 The broad stretch of land on which the city had rested was composed all over of orderly layers of hard salt, so that wayfarers, at night, had to spread sleeping rugs on the ground for the domestic animals they had brought with them. Whether day or night, at all times of the year, the area was often shrouded in mist, so that on, some days it was possible to see neither sun, moon, nor stars. Besides the men and women of Ashya, there had dwelt in the place many demons; one night, by their doing, a change had occurred in the lake, and the mighty city had sunk deep beneath the sand.
                                   It was as So Mai saw her in the light of the moon striking down into the tent, her story in his ears, that for the first time he felt his heart moved by the woman.
                                     The next day, So Mai added the woman to his ranks. In accordance with the advice of the soldiers attendant on him, he dressed her in men’s clothes so as to deceive the eyes of the rougher soldiery, and stationed her camel close to his.
                                       Within two days or so, the news that there was a woman in the company had spread throughout the troops. None of them made to approach her, however, for they feared So Mai too much.
                                         On the seventh day, the force entered a plain of sand rock, a plain where each stage in their progress was marked by the bones of animals and men. On three successive days from now they came across deserted citadels. They were all half buried in the sand, and their lookout platforms and their towers, every building worthy of the name, in fact, leaned toward the west. The citadels had originally been built by barbarian tribes. With the passing years, though, they must have sheltered on any number of occasions the troops of Han or of the Hsiung-nu. Now, they were abandoned, destitute of all trace of human habitation, left to their fate in the sand.
                                           Leaving behind them a succession of such forts, all on their way to being swallowed up in the sand, the company finally reached a spot about half a day’s march from the River Kum, their destination. The rain which had started the previous day had become by now a deluge, soaking men, horses and camels alike to the marrow. They pitched their tents that night in the rain, which came through the cloth of the tents and wrapped them in the chill of midwinter.
                                             That evening, out of the blue, between ten and twenty soldiers of Shan-shan came as messengers from their king to bid them welcome, bearing foodstuffs with them. And again, during the night, there came three K’iu-tze merchants, their camels also laden with foodstuffs, but this time for sale. According to these K’iu-tze merchants, for three or four days past, in a hamlet on the bank of the River Kum where So Mai aimed to establish his military colony, a great force of Hsiung-nu troops had been assembling.
                                               On hearing this, despite the advanced hour, So Mai gave the command for his troops to march. Without delay, they must descend on the assembly of Hsiung-nu and slaughter them all in one fell sweep.
                                                 At dead of night the company set forth. Making a forced march through the torrential rain, they had at dawn arrived at a point on the bank of the River Kum opposite the hamlet where the Hsiung-nu had gathered.
                                                   When they reached the bank So Mai saw in the white light of dawn that the river’s muddy waters were rushing along in a boiling torrent. Any fording of the river was out of the question. If only he could get his troops across the river, it would be no trouble to attack the Hsiung-nu camp and send the enemy flying.
                                                     Yet this thing that seemed so easy was denied him, before his very eyes, by the raging River Kum.
                                                       Helpless, So Mai stood and gazed at the river. The banks were thick with reeds and rushes, but not a single tree was to be seen that might offer shelter from the rain. Since there was no help for it, So Mai kept his troops assembled on the bank with the rain pelting down on them.
                                                         Then, after less than half an hour, one of So Mai’s men came up to him as he stood gazing at the muddy torrent. To placate the wrath of the river god, he said, it had been the practice since ancient times to offer up a living woman in sacrifice. This was, surely, the only course to take now? The soldier who spoke was Chang, one of the subordinates whom he trusted most, having undergone the hardships of field operations side by side with him for ten years and more.
                                                           So Mai received the other’s counsel in silence, whereupon Chang resumed his argument. Every day they delayed fording the river would, he insisted, see the Hsiung-nu that much stronger and damage their own prospects accordingly.
                                                             So Mai was silent a while longer, then at length he spoke.
                                                              “While Wang-son of old maintained his honour upright, the river overflowed not its banks. When Wang-pa of old showed his integrity of spirit, the Hu-da River halted its flow in response. Today, as ever, the mind of man can surely make itself felt to the waters.”
                                                                 Straightway he had an altar built on the river bank and, going up to it, prayed. Come what may, he could not bring himself to fling the woman into the muddy waters. He would bring down the waters of the River Kum not, he hoped, by sacrificing her to the river god, but by prayer. If it were true that a warrior of old had succeeded in calming the flood, surely it should not prove impossible for himself?
                                                                   For a full hour he prayed, yet the muddy torrent showed no change; instead, the waters rose higher and higher each moment. One further hour he prayed, and the water finally spilt over its banks. Before they realized it, the troops and their beasts were up to their ankles in the muddy water. Notwithstanding, So Mai remained before the altar.
                                                                     Chang approached So Mai and once more suggested the sacrifice. In the circumstances, would it not be quicker to throw the woman in rather than await some response to his prayers? Seeing no sign of So Mai’s agreeing with this, Chang insisted that they withdraw immediately from that spot. Otherwise, he said, men, horses and camels alike would be washed away in the flood.
                                                                       Without warning, So Mai drew his sword and clenching the blade between his teeth glared up at the heavens. He stood there motionless, letting the incessant rain pelt against his up-turned face, his eyes wide open. Chang and the other men could only stand and gaze with breathless attention. There was something unearthly in So Mai’s aspect at that moment.
                                                                         As they gazed, the altar before So Mai seemed of a sudden to tilt and, almost before they had realized it, had disappeared beneath the turbid waters. Then, all that was left was the extraordinary figure of So Mai, still standing there with the muddy waves washing at his feet.
                                                                           At last So Mai moved. He took the sword from between his teeth and, turning toward his troops, cried in a mighty voice:
                                                                            “Heaven will not hear our earnest prayers because there dwells in this river an evil spirit. There is no way to ford the stream, therefore, but to slay this spirit with our swords and repel the waters.”
                                                                               To his men, So Mai’s voice was as the voice of thunder.
                                                                                 Around this time the rain ceased, but the waters raged ever fiercer. So Mai had his troops withdraw some fifty metres, then drew them up in battle array on a piece of slightly higher ground.
                                                                                   From the ranks of archers, the arrows flew in a great volley at the waters. In rapid succession, countless arrows fell into the heart of the river, to be swallowed up instantly by the ochre waves. After several hundred arrows had been fired into the water, the footsoldiers stormed the bank with loud cries. To a mighty roll of martial drums, they rushed from the bank into the overbrimming river and, knee-deep in the water, brandished their swords and spears, now slashing, now piercing the muddy flow. The spray arose in all directions. At the height of their battle with the water, a number of soldiers were swept off their feet and carried away.
                                                                                     The struggle went on till dusk. Farther and farther back went the rallying point in the search for high ground. In So Mai’s eyes as he directed the conflict, and in the eyes of his troops locked in battle with the waters, the racing flood had begun to assume the form of some mighty monster, a monster that writhed, raged, attacked, advanced, retreated, and advanced again. . . .
                                                                                       When night came the troops, exhausted, slept where they fell on the sodden upland.
                                                                                         The next day, the weather had completely recovered, but the flood showed no sign whatsoever of abating, and the turbid waters swirled more fiercely even than the day before. The battle with the River Kum began again from early morn. Today as yesterday arrows were fired at the water, stones thrown, and swords and spears brandished in the muddy stream. By midday the spears and swords the soldiers wielded were gleaming weirdly in a sunlight so strong that deep winter seemed to have given way without intermission to torrid summer. The enemy did not yield, and with each onslaught the waters swallowed up a few more troops.
                                                                                           Once more night fell. Generals from the three states of Shan-shan, Yen-ki, and K’iu-tze arrived leading one thousand troops apiece. For many years they had suffered from the depradations of the Hsiung-nu; they had long hoped, thus, to see Han troops in the Western Marches and had lost no time, on hearing of the dispatch of Han forces, in coming to swear their allegiance.
                                                                                             With the addition of these barbarian, soldiers so different from his own in tongue and manners, So Mai resolved to continue the battle at night as well. The great force of four thousand men formed three ranks on the desert as it lay bathed in blue moonlight. The drums beat and, raising their battle cry, the troops charged toward the water. As each unit retired another took its place, yet still the flood refused to recede, and raged on forming dark whirlpools under the moonlight.
                                                                                               In the end, So Mai resolved to try a final, do-or-die onslaught. Gathering together all his horses, he mounted them with his most stalwart soldiers. Men, horses and all were to plunge headlong into the raging waters. At the head of the more than three hundred cavalry, So Mai placed himself.
                                                                                                 As So Mai’s command rang out, all the horses leapt forward at once in a flurry of sand. Leaping into the flood, So Mai brandished his spear furiously. As he brandished it, he was aware that his own body together with the horse was rushing like an arrow downstream. After he knew not how long, he was thrown up with his horse into shallow waters.Arms about his horse’s neck, he climbed up onto the bank. On the bank there stood several dozen horses, their bodies shining in the moonlight. There were horses that had lost their riders, just as there were men that had lost their horses. One after another, the horses and men came crawling up onto the bank.
                                                                                                   So Mai drew up his men and counted them. Both men and horses had diminished by about one half So far had So Mai and his followers been washed downstream that it took close on an hour’s march over the sodden plain to get back to where the main unit waited.
                                                                                                     On reaching the rallying point again, So Mai ordered the surviving troops to the attack once more. Once again he moved to place himself at their head, but contrary to his wishes his horse refused to budge. Not only So Mai’s horse but all the horses did the same.
                                                                                                       Drawing his sword, So Mai used it on his horse as a whip. His men all followed suit. Both he and his men, learning from their first experience, had abandoned their spears and now gripped swords in their hands instead. A moment more, and the cavalry unit in a body was bearing down precipitously on the river bank.
                                                                                                         Arrived at the bank, So Mai had tugged at his horse's reins before he realised it. Then, holding his sword aloft, he gave the command for the men behind him to halt. Even so, some men, unable to curb their horses, plunged headlong into the river.
                                                                                                           So Mai gazed wide-eyed, scarcely able to trust his own sight. The river which till a while before had been overbrimming with water had, unnoticed, diminished its flow by half, and though the turbid waters raced as ever there now showed above them several feet of bank.
                                                                                                             So Mai summoned Chang. When he arrived, he too stood stock still and gaped at the river’s surface. From here and there among the troops rose cries, hailing their victory in the battle with the River Kum.
                                                                                                               Half an hour later, the troops split into a number of groups which one by one forded the now diminished river. Then, losing no time, the troops of Han and of Shan-shan, of Yen-ki and K’iu-tze, joined together in an attack on the Hsiung-nu camp at a point five or six Ii from the river.
                                                                                                                 By dawn the fray was over. Yet it was not till two days later that all the troops that had chased after the routed enemy came back, for So Mai had given strict orders that the chase was not to be called off so long as a single enemy soldier still lived.

                                                                                                                   Throughout the next year, So Mai remained in the village by the River Kum that he had wrested from the Hsiung-nu, engaged in the task of establishing a small military colony. They first built a temporary barracks; this done, they brought water from the River Kum to a fairly extensive area around the village, to irrigate the land ready for cultivation. They were aided in their task by a continuous flow of troops from K’iu-tze Shan-shan, and a number of other states. The word of So Mai’s prowess in smashing a mighty Hsiung-nu force at one blow spread throughout all the Western Marches, and his mighty valour in subjugating the waters of the River Kum struck fear into the·hearts of the thirty or more states that dotted the desert of Taklamakan.
                                                                                                                     Thanks to So Mai’s colony by the River Kum, the Hsiung-nu did not show their faces in the area for some time after this. Two citadels were erected between the colony and the Jade Gate, and these formed stepping-stones for an ever-increasind flow of caravans from Han China into the Western Marches. And caravans from the Western Marches, too, set forth for Han China at less than three-day intervals.
                                                                                                                       Once more―it was rumoured confidently among the merchants of the caravans―a direct Han protectorate was to be established as of old over the Western Marches. Nor was the rumour entirely without basis. Among the states of the Western Marches there had always been a strong demand for direct Han rule, and barbarian envoys were in fact passing eastward through the village where So Mai was stationed, on their way to petition the house of Han for its protection.
                                                                                                                         In the second year, So Mai set about building barracks and raising walls on a large scale. The barracks were made of boards and brick, their walls plastered with clay and their roofs thatched with reeds. Four barracks capable of holding five hundred soldiers were built, and by them two watch-towers. The wall was large enough to enclose not only the barracks and training ground but the entire village as well, and the walled area included a market, a temple, and a graveyard besides. Materials and labour for the works were presented by the states of the Western Marches. Many different tongues were to be heard on the construction sites―those of Sogd, Khotan, of the Huns, and of the local tribes. When one stood on the walls, one could see over fields that stretched about them in all directions. Canals and ditches crisscrossed the fields, and poplar trees, still not much grown, had been planted along the ditches to mark them.
                                                                                                                           Half the troops under So Mai were engaged in building the wall, while the other half joining with the neighboring villagers, left the gate in the wall every day to cultivate the fields. In the second year, the first crops―500,000 koku each of millet and wheat―were harvested. This harvest figure, it was planned, would increase greatly every year.
                                                                                                                             Forgetting about warfare, the soldiers devoted themselves to building the wall. All this while, So Mai shared his quarters with the Ashya woman. Retiring and taciturn though she was, he loved her. Who could measure the solace she brought to this life of his on barbarian soil? In his quarters, and none other’s, there was colour. On the clay floor rush matting was spread, and over this a carpet woven in brilliant hues. In the unfloored entrance stood water pitchers, and on a shelf within the room were arrayed glass dishes and bowls from the Occident. The woman wore no cosmetics, but would adorn her body with beautiful things-thin rings of bronze, jasper necklaces, earrings of white jade . . . .
                                                                                                                               At the time the first wheat was harvested―exactly one year, that is, from the time So Mai entered the Western Marches―there arrived, via the Overseer of the Western Marches in Tun-huang, a message warmly praising So Mai’s work. The messenger that brought it also transmitted the order for So Mai to return home. So Mai expressed the desire to stay a while longer in foreign parts, pleading that construction work on his new military colony had only just got into its stride. Through the same messenger, he also learnt that his action in doing battle with the River Kum and halting the flood had been extolled at home as deed of great heroism. If So Mai returned home, the messenger hinted, he might well be awarded a title comparable with that of Conquering General awarded the Li Kuang-li who had been sent to Ta-wan.
                                                                                                                                 For So Mai, to whom for half a lifetime all thought of preferment had been foreign, and who himself never questioned that fate had made him to be so, the glory that threatened so unexpectedly to descend on him was merely bewildering.
                                                                                                                                   Though So Mai made no mention of what had been said, the word spread instantly throughout the whole unit. All the soldiers to a man were elated at the thought of returning home, and wherever they went there was no other topic of conversation.
                                                                                                                                     The Ashya woman also got wind of the rumour, and asked So Mai if it was true. At the moment, he told her, he had not the faintest intention of returning to Han soil. Though she was by nature slow to give expression to her emotions, her joy, at that moment, at being told that So Mai did not want to go home gave vivacity to her glance and volubility to her tongue. Her eyes gleaming, she chattered and laughed wildly, and all that day she bedecked herself with every ornament she possessed. It moved So Mai to see her.
                                                                                                                                       Assembling his entire company, So Mai from his own lips vigorously denied the rumours that were rife among the men. Soon, he declared, they would find themselves facing several years of battle with the Hsiung-nu. Anyone who talked of going home in the future―whoever he might be―would be beheaded without mercy.
                                                                                                                                         As if to back up So Mai’s declaration, a few days later there began a period of several days when the soldiers had for the first time in many a moon to abandon their hoes and take up their bows and swords, to do battle with a ferocious band of Hsiung-nu cavalry that attacked the fort.
                                                                                                                                           This marked the beginning of a succession of frequent Hsiung-nu raids, and the soldiers were kept busy changing from hoe to bow and sword and back again. Just as the water of the River Kum had once receded, so talk of going home had receded into the distance.
                                                                                                                                             In the summer of the third year, both wheat and millet yielded a harvest of one million koku. Since work on fortifying the town had just been more or less completed too, So Mai decided to hold a great three-day festival here in this home that they had so painstakingly built up themselves. And when it started, countless barbarians appeared as if from nowhere, each garbed in his own fashion, gathering in the town to see the splendid festivities.
                                                                                                                                               Each evening throughout those three days, So Mai stood on a lookout tower with the Ashya woman at his side, watching the celebrations in the bonfire-dotted fortress town below.
                                                                                                                                                 It was then that the woman asked So Mai, did not such a splendid celebration mean that the troops were soon leaving the town? Though he laughingly denied it, she continued to gaze into his eyes and gently shook her head. Why, he insisted, would she not trust what he said? She was not loath to trust what he said, she replied, but how could she trust a fate that even he did not yet know?
                                                                                                                                                   The woman’s fears were not so groundless as they seemed. The fate she could not trust, the fate that even So Mai himself did not know, was to come upon them only half a year later.
                                                                                                                                                     Autumn ended, and the harvesting season, and So Mai, taking half his force with him, left the fort to take up arms against the Hsiung-nu, who were stirring up trouble in the northwest.
                                                                                                                                                       When he left the fort, So Mai believed that he would be able to return at the latest after ten days. In the event, the fighting dragged on unexpectedly long. A detachment of K’iu-tze troops went over to the enemy, they were troubled by hailstorms earlier than in normal years―their operations, in fact, met with one frustration after another, and the force was put in a position where it was unable to withdraw at once. The fighting which had begun at the beginning of autumn went first one way, then the other, so that by the time the Hsiung-nu had been sent flying to the north the new year was already with them.
                                                                                                                                                         One snowy day, So Mai and his men came back through the gateway of the town. Compared with the time they had set out, they were emaciated almost beyond recognition. Even so, the camel unit in the van came bearing, like banners, several heads of Hsiung-nu generals impaled on the points of their spears. The white snow had settled on the decapitated heads, the backs of the camels, and the shoulders of the troops alike.
                                                                                                                                                           For the first time for many a month, So Mai entered his own mansion. The moment he saw the Ashya woman waiting to greet him at the door, he realized that her expression was different from the expression with which she was wont to welcome him. From the door, she led him straight to the guest room.
                                                                                                                                                             In the guest room was a messenger from home: he had been there for one month, awaiting So Mai’s return to the fort. The thing he bore with him was an order for So Mai to return home. It was sealed with the royal seal of Han. At home, great honours awaited both So Mai and his men.

                                                                                                                                                               By the time the new occupation force to take the place of So Mai’s force had arrived, it was the beginning of the seventh month, and the willows within the walled town had begun to show their green shoots. Ever since the decision that he should go home, So Mai had been kept busy putting the farming fields to rights and skirmishing with the small bands of Hsiung-nu that suddenly appeared from time to time. He had scarcely time to give a thought to the Ashya woman. The woman, though, appeared to dwell constantly on her own future. Would she ever tread Chinese soil with So Mai? Even supposing this were possible, would she ever be able to carry on life with him in the same way as hitherto? Such questions were all too much for her small head to cope with. Every time she mentioned such things, So Mai would always come back with the same phrase: “Of course I’m taking you with me!”
                                                                                                                                                                 Yet even so, whenever he called to mind the scene on the streets of Kiu-chüan and of Liangchüan, which he had not seen for so long, he vaguely sensed the impossibility of fitting the barbarian woman properly into its midst. Her hair, her eyes, the colour of her skin―everything seemed to get in the way. He would soon thrust such ideas out of his head, however. By nature averse to reflection, he was still less inclined to indulge in speculation about the future where a woman was concerned.
                                                                                                                                                                   The force that arrived in the fortress town to relieve So Mai’s troops proved to be twice the strength of the latter. After handing over to the young officer who was henceforth to command the fortress in his stead, So Mai lingered a further three days within the walls, partly loath to bid farewell to the town they had built himself, partly from the desire to wait till the persistent rains should give way to clear skies.  On the day they set forth, So Mai’s troops were seen off with all due honours by the new garrison. Outside the gate, some two hundred local villagers had gathered, reluctant to see So Mai go.
                                                                                                                                                                     On they went, the long file of camels and horses and men, along the road through the fields, the road that they themselves had built. The clear sky was a deep blue, and the breeze that ruffled the tops of the poplars and the willows planted on each side of the road was dry and fresh.
                                                                                                                                                                       From the fortress, the road ran in a straight line to meet the waters of the River Kum almost at right angles. When they reached the bank, they saw that the water, swollen again as when they had first crossed it years before, was rushing in a mighty torrent several times its normal width.
                                                                                                                                                                         Somehow, So Mai thought, they must ford the river. He could not bring himself to return to the fort now that they had once been seen off. Chang and his other officers were of the same view. A force whose name had once resounded throughout all the land for its conquest of the River Kum could not, they all agreed, withdraw now on account of a rise in that same river’s waters.
                                                                                                                                                                          “The only thing, surely, is to do battle with the river again and force a way cross,” one of his subordinates said.
                                                                                                                                                                             For the moment, So Mai decided to halt his troops and spend the night there. Though the day had been fine, the rain began to fall again in the middle of the night, then grew fiercer.
                                                                                                                                                                               Just before dawn Chang visited So Mai’s tent. The rain, he averred, would raise the river level still further. Unless they acted promptly, they would find themselves unable to cross the river for days, perhaps weeks. If they were going to do battle with the water, then the sooner the better.
                                                                                                                                                                                 Leaving Chang in the tent, So Mai went outside. Dawn was breaking. The rain pelted down on him as he went and stood on the river bank. An idea had its grip on him. Minutes passed, painful minutes that tortured him in a way he had never known before.
                                                                                                                                                                                   So Mai returned to the tent. Then he spoke to Chang, who waited there:
                                                                                                                                                                                    “We must offer up a woman.”
                                                                                                                                                                                       His voice was low yet distinct. Chang gave a start and stared into So Mai's face. Apart from the Ashya woman there was, surely, no woman in the force?
                                                                                                                                                                                         After a while, without haste, Chang started speaking. He thanked So Mai for having made the resolution himself; and he affirmed that he himself had originally wanted to suggest it, but had hesitated to say it aloud. And without further ado he left the tent.
                                                                                                                                                                                           Soon, a woman’s heart-rending cries reached So Mai’s ears. They were the cries of the Ashya woman as she was led off from her tent next to his, and they were like the cries of the wild birds that he had sometimes heard piercing the darkness when they had camped in the mountains, during that bitter struggle with the Hsiung-nu from the autumn of the previous year to the beginning of that year.
                                                                                                                                                                                             When the new day had fully dawned, So Mai drew up his forces on the river bank. By now the rain had lifted, and the muddy torrent which had swallowed up the woman seemed―whether for that reason or not―to have diminished somewhat. It seemed so not only to So Mai’s eyes but also, apparently, to Chang’s.
                                                                                                                                                                                              “If we're going to ford the river, now is probably the best time,” he said, as if urging So Mai to make up his mind.
                                                                                                                                                                                                 The force went several hundred metres downstream along the bank and chose as their fording point the place where the waters seemed calmest. They divided into groups, the first of which entered the waters. Immediately, camels, horses and men found themselves being pushed insistently downstream by the current. Several bundles that were supposedly strapped firmly to the backs of horses came detached and floated to the surface. Even so, the first unit managed to reach the opposite bank in safety. Their success in fording the river without losing a single man must, Chang declared, be due to the sacrifice of the woman. So Mai said nothing, but he too felt in his heart that it must be so.
                                                                                                                                                                                                   One by one, the groups crossed the river. With the last group, So Mai rode his horse into the stream. The water seemed to him to have receded still further since the first unit had crossed.
                                                                                                                                                                                                     As he reached the opposite bank in safety, So Mai felt afresh a sense of gratitude and of pity for the woman who had been sacrificed. And with it, he also realized for the first time that he had a sense of relief too, as though some burden of which till then he had been quite unaware had lifted from his shoulders.
                                                                                                                                                                                                       The force resumed its march, So Mai riding at its head with Chang. They had not gone far when, without warning, Chang reined his horse and cried “Look!” So Mai too stopped his horse and looked. Far away across the plain he could see something that seemed to be viscuous and fluid, something that like a flow of yellow lava came slowly spreading, nearer and nearer. At first, he had no idea what it could be. Slowly but surely, ponderous in its movements, it was burying the plain beneath it.
                                                                                                                                                                                                        “What is it?” he cried. But neither Chang nor the troops about him could guess what it really was. No reply came but the shouts of "what, what," echoing back and forth, from mouth to mouth. . . .
                                                                                                                                                                                                           Then one man shouted: “Water! Flood!”
                                                                                                                                                                                                             He was right. The yellow, viscous, living thing that was soaking over the plain was, indubitably, water. Beyond doubt, it was a flood. It could be nothing but a flood. The turbid waters were stretching out ominous fingers, here swiftly, there lazily, gradually enveloping the plain.
                                                                                                                                                                                                              “What shall we do?” came Chang’s voice from his side, but even So Mai himself was momentarily at a loss. “Get downstream at any rate!” he shouted.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Neither to the right nor the left did there seem any way of escaping from the fingers of the mighty enemy. The only way at the moment to avoid being swallowed up by the water was to seek some escape route farther down the River Kum.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                   In an instant, the ranks of camels and horses and men were thrown into disorder and began to move off in a frantic race with each other. Up sand hill and down sand hill, on raced the unit across the plain to the southeast. It soon halted, however, its path blocked. The lower reaches of the River Kum, also, must be spilling into their basin, for in front of them lay another widening stretch of water-logged land.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                     At once the unit changed course to the northeast, but it was not long before their path was again intercepted by the waters. Then, as the unit was changing its course for the third or fourth time, So Mai saw that the muddy yellow waters, like a thick carpet being unrolled, had advanced on them as far as the second or third hill from that on which they stood.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                      “Get up to higher ground!” The order was superfluous, for already the band of men, horses and camels were jostling each other in the frantic effort to get higher. On each man’s face lay a desperation never to be seen even in time of battle. So Mai indicated one particular hill, and the herd of men and beasts converged on it like scraps of iron drawn toward a magnet. From the top of the hill, So Mai surveyed the plain once more. The yellow flood had licked up level land and sand hills alike, transforming the far-reaching plain into one vast muddy sea. Already the turbid waters were encroaching on the third hill from that where the men, horses and camels thronged.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Soon, So Mai discovered something still more astonishing. When he gazed into the distance northwest from the hill, the muddy sea seemed to be choppy, unlike elsewhere, and beyond the yellow, rocking waves he could see, protruding minutely from the water, part of a wall and a lookout tower. However far off, however small, he could not mistake them: they were the fortress town which they themselves had built and in which, till but yesterday, they had lived. Fields and dwellings must already have sunk completely beneath the muddy sea.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                           At that moment, the thought occurred to So Mai that soon they too would be buried beneath the flowing mire. For an instant, there flashed into his mind the tale of the Dragon Capital that the Ashya woman had told him on the night he had first met her. The thought only flashed, though, and vanished again as quickly as it had come: the situation facing them now was incomparably more terrifying. Then, in one brief but extremely dear-headed moment, he saw what he muse do. Burning with a fierce wrath, he resolved to charge the flood: to do battle with the flood, and decide once and for all which, the flood or he, was master. There was no other course left.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                             The drums rolled, the battle cry went up. The force split in two, Chang taking command of one, So Mai of the other. The unit under Chang's command ran down the slope first and charged ahead. On they galloped, camels and horses and men. Up one sand hill, down the other side. . . . Yet to So Mai’s eyes their charge was ineffectual. Every instant, the troops and the muddy waters narrowed the gap between them. Then at the foot of a hill, the two vanguards touched and, that very moment, So Mai saw Chang’s unit vanish―vanish without warning as if wiped out, vanish quite effortlessly, in the twinkling of an eye.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Simultaneously, So Mai gave his remaining unit the order to charge, his entire being possessed with hatred and enmity for this force that was mightier than any he had ever known. Straddling his horse, he galloped at their head brandishing his spear. The roaring of the flood filled the heavens, seeming to shake the very earth to its core.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Soon So Mai saw ahead the spearhead of the waters in the act of overwhelming another hill, pressing down with ever-increasing momentum toward them. A host of evil demons squirmed, raged, came closer every instant. Brandishing high above his head the spear he grasped in his right hand, So Mai, horse and all rushed to meet head-on the towering wall of muddy water. He vanished; then the camels and the horses and the men mat came after him vanished too, every one of them, cleanly and without trace. It was all over in no rime.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Above the boundless muddy sea that had been the desert, the sky hung soiled and overcast. In one corner of it the sun’s disk, red as though it dripped blood, burned with the same unnatural calm as in times of eclipse. Still space was filled with the roaring of the flood. The flood could know no moment’s rest; there were many things left un-swallowed yet that it must swallow up.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Translated by John Bester

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (Work Posted)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Kouzui (Flood) first appeared in July 1959 in Koe (Voice) magazine published by Maruzen and in 1962 was included in an anthology titled Kouzui published by Shincho-sha. This work was followed by a series of stories based in China, Western Region Stories which became one of the mainstays of Inoue Yasushi’s literature. This is a story of a legendary general who was said to have conquered a flood. At first, he conquered it with his army; a second time, he conquered it by sacrificing his lover. For the third time, however, he was beaten by the ferocious power of nature. Kouzui (Flood) was translated into English and published by The Japan P.E.N. Club in December, 1959. (From The Japan P.E.N. News No.4, 1959)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Yasushi Inoue Literary Museum

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        INOUE Yasushi
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        This page was created on 2017/01/30

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Background Color

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Font Style

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        • Default
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        • For Weak-Eyed

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        INOUE Yasushi

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Novelist. May 6, 1907~January 29, 1991. Born in Hokkaido, but spent his childhood in the Izu Peninsula. Inoue cherished Izu, by calling it his hometown and refers to it in some of his literary works including The Counterfeiter(Aru Gisakka no Shogai) or Obasute. He was graduated from Kyoto Imperial University in 1936. His fascination with China and its history could be due to his military experience in 1937. He is one of the greatest modern writers. He is the recipient of numerous prominent literary awards such as the Akutagawa Prize for The Bullfight(Togyu) and later the Mainichi Press Prize and Japan Art Academy Award. He was awarded Order of Culture in 1976. A member of Japan Art Academy. He served as the 9th President of The Japan P.E.N. Club from 1981 to 1985, the Chairperson of the 47th International PEN Congress Tokyo/Kyoto 1984 and the Vice-President of the International PEN in 1985. He received Professor Emeritus from Beijing University in 1986.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Other Works