History has a funny old way of repeating itself.
Chen Yaozuo (陳堯佐) was a prime minister and grand tutor of the crown prince of the Song dynasty (960–1279) in the 11th century. Coming from a family of officials, he was a rising star at the start of his career, until he bravely, or some might say foolishly, answered a call of Emperor Zhenzong for open criticisms by submitting a memorial that spelt out the ills of the times, including matters that no one else dared to speak about. As a result, Chen Yaozuo was banished and demoted to become an assistant prefect in the Teochew prefecture. This happened in 998, almost 180 years after Han Yu of the Tang dynasty suffered a similar fate.
Han Yu was in his twilight years when he was vanquished from the Central Plains. Chen Yaozuo, on the other hand, made the same journey to the far south in his thirties, at the prime of his life. Even so, he was not spared the apprehensions of life outside civilisation. In a pair of quatrains titled “Going to Chaoyang to become a deputy” (赴潮陽倅), Chen Yaozuo expressed anguish in having to leave the Song capital Kaifeng, but still, he managed to find some hope that his homesickness might be soothed by the songs of the Man (蠻), as the northern Chinese called the peoples of the south.
Chen Yaozuo took up office in Teochew’s Teo-yor (潮陽, or Chaoyang in Mandarin) county. He was barely settled down when he was informed of a distressing incident about a 16-year-old with the surname Teo (張) bathing at a river when a crocodile dragged him into the waters with its tail. The powerful lizard then ate up the young man before the eyes of his helpless mother. Chen Yaozuo immediately ordered two subordinates to take a boat to capture the crocodile with a net, but the beast was too violent.
At this point, someone counselled Chen Yaozuo to follow Han Yu’s precedence in performing a sacrificial ritual to command the crocodile to quit the rivers. However, Chen Yaozuo declined, claiming he lacked the stature of his famous predecessor to negotiate with the predator and it was better to simply slay it. Taking advice from seasoned fishermen, Chen Yaozuo got more than a hundred strongmen to make ropes from horsetails and use them to weave a strong net. With this new accessory, the men were finally able to subdue the crocodile.
Chen Yaozuo next arranged for the crocodile to be carried to the centre of the marketplace, where he wrote on the spot an essay, “On Killing Crocodiles” (戮鳄鱼文), to denounce its “crimes”. The public spectacle that would have won Han Yu’s approval concluded with the killing and dismemberment of the crocodile in front of an agitated crowd. Through this demonstration, the people learned to a way to combat the reptilian threat on their own.
Evidently, Chen Yaozuo was more of a problem-solver than Han Yu, and he knew this. At the same time, he sensed the Teochew people’s deep admiration for his fellow Confucian. Cleverly capitalising on this, Chen Yaozuo erected a shrine in honour of Han Yu and he used it to commence his own programme to promote education among what was still a backward population. In pursuit of this goal, the Sichuan native also set up a Confucian temple and places of learning, while identifying and encouraging able families to send their children to schools.
Chen Yaozuo left Teochew after three years of devoted service to its people. He subsequently revealed in an inscription presented to a study room in Zhangpu (a county in Fujian adjacent to Teochew prefecture) that his time in Teo-yor was passed without major worries, despite it being enveloped in miasma.
Whereas Han Yu left Teochew in a hurry, Chen Yaozuo’s heart remained with the place even many years after his departure. His poem below, “A note to Registrar Li Zi in Chaoyang” (送潮陽李孜主簿), illustrates this:
Li Zi, apparently, was an official assigned to Teo-yor and Chen Yaozuo wrote the above lines not only to assuage him, but also dissipate the old impressions of Teochew as an inhospitable place. His references to fishing, the production of salt (a valuable commodity back then) and a bustling city tell us that Teo-yor was now a centre of economic activities after emerging from wilderness. His comparison of Teo-yor with Zou and Lu further showcased its progress into a scholarship hub—a success that Chen Yaozuo considered his own.
Later returning to Kaifeng, Chen Yaozuo was acquainted with a scholar, who had passed the imperial examinations and was going home to Teo-yor. He composed a poem for the young man, “A note to Young Heng, imperial scholar returning to Chaoyang” (送王生及第歸潮陽), which revealed uncontainable joy, as if a proud family member:
Chinese historians credit Han Yu for starting what we may call a revolution through literacy in Teochew. Yet the extent of Chen Yaozuo’s tireless contributions towards this cause can be seen by its fruits. Before his arrival, the Teochew prefecture produced only three men who attained the status of jinshi (進士), the highest scholarly title awarded by the Chinese imperial court since the late 6th century. By the end of Song, the records show more than 170 jinshi from Teochew, of whom about a third came from Teo-yor.
Beyond scholarly titles, the creation of an educated class sparked a golden age in Teochew with accelerated advancements in agriculture and industry that ended its days as a backwater. As another Song poet, Yang Wanli (楊萬里), observed in the 12th century:
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