Friday, 28 June 2013

fifteen strings of cash

Beginning in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), the itinerant storyteller has been a major influence on the development of Chinese literature. The arrival of an accomplished raconteur in the centre of an isolated village or the marketplace of a small town would quickly attract a large crowd. The effects of this tradition can be seen in such classics of Chinese literature as Journey to the West, The Romance of Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marshes, which are written in a style that combines vernacular forms of expression with classical literary Chinese, having started life as the kind of tale that formed the stock-in-trade of such storytellers.

However, these three novels are based on episodes from Chinese history: how Buddhist scriptures were brought to China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) in Journey to the West; the chaos that followed the collapse of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) in The Romance of Three Kingdoms; and rebellion and the rise of secret societies during the Song Dynasty in Outlaws of the Marshes. In these books, history is treated in a rather fanciful manner that suited the moral purpose of their authors, and implausible plot devices abound, reflecting the original storyteller’s need to hold the attention of his audience.

Even more popular than these huge historical sagas were self-contained short stories, and by the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), hundreds were in circulation. Freed from the constraints of having to stick, however tenuously, to the facts of history, the storytellers created a series of tales that relied heavily on preposterous coincidences and supernatural agents, precisely because that is what their audiences expected. Unlike the heroes of the great historical novels, the protagonists of these stories were ‘ordinary’ people with whom the audience could identify.

A possibly atypical example of the use of coincidence is Fifteen Strings of Cash, the plot of which is even more implausible than the average American daytime soap opera. The following is a condensed version of this story:
Liu Gui came from a prosperous family in the southern Song capital of Hangzhou. After he had reached adulthood and come into an inheritance, he studied for the imperial civil service examination but was unsuccessful. His only other option was to go into trade, but he had no aptitude for business and soon lost all his money.

In his more prosperous days, Liu had lived in a big house with his wife and a concubine, the daughter of a cake vendor whom he’d married because his wife was unable to bear him a son, but the downturn in his fortunes had forced him to move to a much smaller dwelling with only two or three rooms. He was well liked by his neighbours, who often counselled him to cheer up, because the run of bad luck that he had endured was sure to end soon.

They were wrong, of course, and Liu spent his days moping around the house, feeling desperately sorry for himself and unable to come up with any kind of coherent plan to extricate himself from his financial difficulties. One day, while following this aimless pattern of behaviour, he was surprised by a knock on the door. It was his father-in-law’s servant, who had come to convey an invitation to his master’s birthday celebrations for Liu and his wife.

On the appointed day, the couple set off for the father-in-law’s house, which was several miles outside the city. Shortly after they had arrived, the father-in-law took Liu aside and admonished him.

“When my daughter married you, she expected to be provided with food, clothing and shelter,” he said. “You can’t go on like this.”

“You are right sir,” replied Liu. “But who would sympathize with me as you do?”

“There may be something in what you say,” said the old man. “However, I cannot allow this situation to continue. I propose to lend you fifteen strings of cash so that you can open a grocery shop and thereby make enough money to live on.”

[In imperial China, cash (wen) were small copper coins with square holes in the middle, allowing large numbers of them to be strung together so that they could be more easily carried around. A string of a thousand cash was considered the equivalent of a tael (40g) of silver.]

The father-in-law explained that once Liu had set up his shop, another ten strings of cash would be forthcoming.

“Meanwhile, I suggest that your wife stay here until you are ready to open your shop,” he added. “When you’ve set up everything, I shall bring her home myself.”

It was late in the day when Liu set off for home, and, burdened as he was by the fifteen strings of cash slung over his shoulder, it was dark when he finally reached the city. He really should have gone straight home, but as he passed a friend’s house—a friend who had previously expressed an interest in going into business with Liu—he decided that it would not be amiss to call and inform the friend of his good fortune.

The friend was amenable to the idea of working in Liu’s planned shop and brought out a flask of rice wine to celebrate their arrangement. Unfortunately, Liu was an occasional toper with no head for alcohol, so after only a few cups he took his leave and staggered off home.

The concubine had been left in charge of the house while Liu and his wife were away, but she had no idea when they would return and had fallen asleep with the door barred from the inside and the lamps unlit. Consequently, Liu had to knock on the door for some time before it was opened.

Annoyed by the delay, Liu decided to frighten his concubine by telling her that the fifteen strings of cash were the proceeds of his having sold her, and her new owner would come the following day to collect his purchase. He staggered off to bed, where he collapsed in a drunken stupor with the fifteen strings of cash in a heap beside his bed.

Appalled by the news, the concubine decided that her best course of action would be to return to her parents’ house. Accordingly, she slipped out of the house, pulling the door closed behind her. It was too late to make the journey that night, so she knocked on the door of her nextdoor neighbour, who allowed her to stay the night after hearing her sad story.

An hour or two later, an inveterate gambler was making his way home, having lost all his money, when he thought he spotted an unlocked door. It was Liu’s house, and when the gambler pushed the door it swung open. Once inside, the gambler quickly came across the comatose figure of Liu in bed and the strings of cash by his side. He was picking up the money when Liu stirred. He quickly sized up the situation.

“Stop thief!” he shouted.

The gambler was not a professional thief, so this unexpected turn of events unnerved him, and he fled to the kitchen. However, Liu had suddenly sobered up, so he leapt out of bed and chased the would-be thief, who was now in an almighty panic. In this panic, he spotted the axe that one of the women of the household would have used to chop wood for the kitchen fire. He grabbed it and swung wildly at Liu’s head. Liu was killed instantly by the blow, and the thief took the fifteen strings of cash and disappeared into the night.

The following morning, the concubine left the neighbour’s house and set out for that of her parents. However, she had walked less than a mile before her feet became sore as a result of her unaccustomed exertions, so she sat down to rest. As she did so, a young man hove into view with a bundle over his shoulder. They fell into conversation.

The concubine told the young man that she was on her way to the house of her parents, while the young man said that he was a silk merchant who had been selling his wares in the city’s marketplace. Having sold everything, he was on his way home, which meant that their routes coincided for the next few miles. They agreed to travel together.

However, they had walked only a short distance when they were overtaken by a posse of Liu’s neighbours. Having failed to notice any signs of activity in Liu’s house, they had pushed open the door and found his corpse, lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen. The story they’d heard from the concubine suddenly seemed suspicious, so they had set off in pursuit.

Despite their protestations, the couple were taken back to Liu’s house.

“You can’t just make off,” said a man in the crowd that had gathered. “A man with a clear conscience need not fear the midnight knock on the door.”

“Refusing to go with us would show a guilty conscience,” added one of Liu’s neighbours.

Liu’s house was in a state of turmoil when they returned. Liu’s father-in-law and his daughter had been informed of the overnight murder and had just arrived, and when the concubine and her companion were brought back, accusations were soon being levelled. Although both stuck to their original stories, they were not believed. Liu’s wife made some startling assumptions, none of which were supported by any evidence, but when the young man’s bundle was examined, the proceeds of his silk sales were found to total precisely fifteen strings of cash, not one coin more, not one coin less. [This is the crucial coincidence upon which the entire tale hangs.]

There is no escaping the justice of heaven,” exclaimed the neighbours in unison.

The couple were hauled before the city magistrate, who decided immediately that they must be lying [venal officials were a mainstay of these stories] and refused to listen to their versions of events. In his haste to clear up the case, he decided that the only way to find out the truth would be to have them both tortured. Needless to say, both eventually confessed. Nobody appears to have reasoned that had the couple been guilty of robbery and murder, they would have taken off immediately rather than wait until the following day.

In accordance with the law in such matters, the young man was sentenced to death by decapitation, while the concubine, whose crime was deemed to be the more serious, would be ‘cut by inches’ [the ‘death of a thousand cuts’ of popular Western mythology].

Once the sentences had been carried out, Liu’s widow began the elaborate ritual process of mourning her late husband. She returned to their house, where she set up a shrine to his memory. Her father wanted her to remarry, but she insisted that she must mourn for at least a full year first.

On the first anniversary of Liu’s death, his former father-in-law sent a servant to fetch his still grieving widow. However, on the way, they were caught in a violent storm, and, unable to recognize any usually familiar landmarks, they quickly became lost. Suddenly, they were harangued by a voice from behind.

“I am king of the mountains. Stop and pay the toll!”
A man dressed in an outfit so outlandish that it would have made him stand out in any crowd leapt out of the bushes brandishing a large broadsword and confronted them. However, unimpressed by this show of force, the servant simply put his head down and charged at the bandit, who had no difficulty in running his assailant through with his sword.

The woman, fearing a similar fate, came up with a desperate plan.

“Well done!” she shouted.

She then told the bandit that she had been tricked by the matchmakers into marrying the old man whom he had just killed, and she was extremely grateful, because he did nothing but eat. The bandit saw an opportunity here: Liu’s widow was still attractive, so he asked her if she would marry him. Realistically, she had no choice, so she agreed.

Another year elapsed, a year during which the bandit was able to seize several large and valuable hauls. The couple became prosperous, but the former Mrs Liu grew increasingly uneasy about the source of their prosperity. She nagged her new husband.

“We have enough now to keep us in comfort for the rest of our lives,” she would say. “If you continue to flout the will of heaven, you are bound to come to a bad end.”

She finally persuaded her husband to abandon his evil ways, rent a house in the city and open a grocery shop. He began to spend more and more of his time in the local temples and monasteries, and one day he told his wife what had been troubling him.

“I’m glad that I’ve changed my ways, but it bothers me that I killed two men needlessly and was responsible for the deaths of two others,” he confessed. “I’ve been pondering how to arrange for prayers to be said for their spirits.”

His wife wanted to know more.

“The second man I killed needlessly was your husband, who charged at me, leaving me with little option but to kill him,” he continued. “Two innocent people lost their lives as a result of the first killing, which happened like this….”

It slowly dawned on his wife that her new husband was describing the murder of her first husband. She said nothing, but as soon as she could do so safely, she slipped away and went straight to the offices of the city magistrate. A new official now occupied this post, and his first action was to send men to arrest the bandit. When he was interrogated, his confession tallied on every point with the court annals relating to Liu’s murder, and he was therefore sentenced to death.

The former Mrs Liu never forgave herself for bearing false witness at the first trial for the murder of her husband and spent the remainder of her life reciting Buddhist sutras for the souls of her former husband, the concubine and the young silk merchant who had strayed, inadvertently, into an episode of The Young and the Restless, until she died of old age.
This and other stories were passed down orally for centuries, until developments in printing technology during the Ming Dynasty enabled books of such stories to be widely disseminated. They have remained popular ever since, although few have been translated into English.

Friday, 21 June 2013

tour de force

The Lake District has seen extensive mining activity since the mid-sixteenth century, when German miners were hired during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) to plug a skills gap in the local population. During the subsequent centuries, hundreds of mines were opened across the district, extracting mainly ores of copper, lead, zinc and barium. However, The industry was in steep decline by the start of the twentieth century, and the last mine to operate, Force Crag Mine in Coledale, closed in 1991 following a major roof collapse. Only two other mines survived into the second half of the century: Greenside Mine above Glenridding, where millions of tons of lead and significant quantities of silver were extracted; and Carrock Mine in Mosedale, which was reopened for only a few years to meet demand for tungsten.

With the singular exception of the wadd (graphite) mine at the end of Borrowdale, the ore bodies that were exploited formed in broadly similar circumstances. The district is underlain, at great depth, by granite, which consists overwhelmingly of silicate minerals, with the presence of quartz indicating a surfeit of silica in the original magma. Crystals of these minerals have a basic skeleton in which the silicon and oxygen form a chain, a sheet or a three-dimensional lattice, and there is room in the structure for other atoms, notably those of aluminium, magnesium, calcium, iron, sodium and potassium.

However, as the various magmas cooled and silicate crystals began to form, the fraction that remained liquid became an increasingly concentrated mix of ions that were too big to fit into the available vacancies in the silicate structures. These included commercially valuable metals such as copper, lead and zinc. Although tin is frequently associated with granite intrusions (cf. the Cornish tin-mining industry), no significant deposits occurred in the Lake District.

While the granite was cooling and solidifying, the overlying rocks were being squeezed, twisted and fractured by the forces associated with plate tectonics, so large numbers of faults and fissures opened up. Under pressure from below, the concentrated soup of large metal ions then migrated upwards through the cracks until it could rise no further. The commonest nonmetal in such a soup is sulphur, so the most common minerals to be found are sulphides and sulphates.

Having provided the technical background, I can now describe a visit yesterday to Force Crag Mine. I’d been there only once, in 1971, to collect mineral specimens, but I thought that it would be a good test for my knee, because I haven’t done much walking during the past 18 months. The mine lies at the head of Coledale, a glaciated valley that runs southwest into the mountains from the foot of Whinlatter Pass. It is slightly less than 4km from the road, to which it is connected by a well-maintained dirt track.

The main minerals extracted here were galena (lead sulphide), sphalerite (zinc sulphide) and barytes (barium sulphate). Galena, together with the small amount of silver that is often associated with this mineral, was the first ore to be extracted, in the first half of the nineteenth century; both sphalerite and barytes were discovered later, but they became increasingly important in later years as the output of galena declined. The mine is now officially abandoned.

The following photographs illustrate what is a very pleasant afternoon walk:

An ideal location for a quiet afternoon stroll: the road to Force Crag Mine.

Approaching the mine: the crushing mill, built in the late 1930s, is the most obvious feature. Force Crag itself is the dark area in the background; it is impossible to make out any details on the face when it is in shadow.

Looking back down the valley: the distinctive U-shaped cross-section is indicative of glaciation during the last Ice Age.

A representative of the local wildlife: this large, fat caterpillar (about 3.5cm long) was crossing the track in front of me. Any help in identifying the species would be appreciated. Food must be sparse around these parts, so my guess, based on its size, is that it was looking for somewhere to pupate.

Coledale Beck: it looks harmless, but try crossing it after a few days of heavy rain, which is the default condition in the Lake District. You may die in the attempt. Note the gravel deposits on the inside of the bends, where the current is always weaker than on the outside, where most of the erosion occurs.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

cracking the code

Between 1988 and 1992, I spent a lot of time devising word puzzles, partly because most of the puzzles I encountered in newspapers were far too easy to be worth bothering with and partly because I thought I could make some money by selling completed puzzles to some of those newspapers. I came up with several repeatable formats, some examples of which I posted when I started this blog (Scramble Six and Chainwords), but my attempt to become a full-time puzzle setter was spectacularly unsuccessful. However, while rummaging through old papers yesterday, I came across an example of the Crossword Cipher, which isn’t as difficult as it looks.

As all good spies know, the simplest code is what is known as a substitution cipher. It is also the easiest code to crack. In its simplest form, this kind of code merely substitutes numbers from 1 to 26 for the letters of the alphabet (A=1…Z=26), but it becomes a little more useful if a keyword is used. For example, if the keyword is ‘keyword’, the numbers 1 to 7 then correspond, in order, to the seven letters in ‘keyword’ (K=1…D=7). The remaining letters, in alphabetical order, are then allocated numbers from 8 to 26 (A=8, B=9, C=10, F=11, etc.). Obviously, all the letters in the keyword must be different.

The following puzzle combines a substitution cipher and a crossword. In the grid below, each letter of the alphabet is represented by a number, and every letter appears once to form six words, three reading across and three down. And one of these six words is the keyword in the cipher. Can you crack the code?


spoiler alert
Correct solution submitted below.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

from the archives

When I worked at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School between 1974 and 1984, I was frequently given copies of photographs that had been taken by students. Most of these were simply group photos that the students had posed for, but the occasional one was much more interesting. I’ve been looking through some of these photos since I came back to the UK last month, and I thought that relating the stories behind a few of them would be a worthwhile exercise:


When I applied to work at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School, I was attracted by two statements in the job description: that there were ‘miles and miles of unclimbed sea cliffs’, and the requirement that the successful candidate be able to lead climbs with a difficulty rating of very severe (VS), which, incidentally, was uncommon among Outward Bound instructors at the time. When I arrived, all the school’s rock-climbing activities took place on Spider Crag, a cluster of small outcrops within easy walking distance of the school. The climbs were short and easy, and impossible to take seriously.

On the occasion when the above picture was taken, I’d been climbing up one of the routes that the students would be climbing later, without a rope or other encumbrances, when I decided to call for a top rope. This is usually a last-gasp emergency procedure, but my colleague clearly thought that I wasn’t being serious, which is why he dangled such a short length of rope down the rock face. What else could I do but grab it with my teeth?


It wasn’t long before I’d started exploring the unclimbed sea cliffs, and within three months we were taking groups to Fat Tong Point, a remote headland in the southeast of the New Territories, for two-day climbing expeditions. For several months thereafter, I wondered whether it might be possible to jump from the top of the cliff, across the descent gully, onto a flat-topped pinnacle about 4 metres away. The landing area was significantly less than 1 square metre, the take-off sloped towards the camera at about 30 degrees, and there was the small matter of a 15-metre drop onto some particularly nasty-looking sharp-edged boulders below the jump, so I was hesitant.

The remarkable aspect of this story is not that I did finally succeed in making the jump but that when I did, someone photographed me in the act!


After a first day climbing as many shorter and easier climbs as possible, the program for the second day was straightforward: four climbs, each graded VS and about 30 metres high. This photo is of one of these climbs, Cumbrian’s Chimney, which I named after my native county in the UK. The rope hanging down is for the benefit of the next student to climb up—the only reason I’m on the climb is that it’s a more enjoyable way to the top of the cliff than slogging up a crumbling hillside.

Chimneys are usually climbed by a technique known as back-and-footing, which the photo illustrates quite well. However, at the top the chimney closes to a narrow crack guarded by a pronounced overhang. It appears from my expression that I’m just about to make the crucial move: which involves stretching for a bomb-proof hand jam in the crack above my head. It’s easy enough if you know how to jam, but this is a technique that’s counterintuitive to most non-climbers, so I saw many improvised alternatives in the years that the school used this climbing venue.


While the first three photos were taken between 1974 and 1976, this one was taken after 1981. I know this because it is a shot of me crossing the eighth and final waterfall in the traverse of Luk Wu Ravine, which I didn’t discover until that year. It is straightforward under normal conditions, such as are depicted in the photo, but in flood conditions the traverse is potentially very dangerous and should be tackled only by people who know what they’re doing. Ropes are essential.

I used to attach a rope sling to the tree root above and right of my right hand to assist those students who weren’t tall enough to keep hold of the root and get their foot onto the big foothold where my right foot is in the photo. However, on a course that I ran for the American International School, several students decided to ignore my briefing. In turn, they grabbed the sling with both hands and launched gung-ho into space. At the end of the swing, they had no option but to let go and thus drop into the pool below the waterfall. I recall that I found it difficult to conceal my amusement.