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    Chapter 244: Short on Paper (Edited)

    In the carriage heading towards Kuaiji, Li Yu was no longer in his morning attire as the imperial envoy. He was dressed in casual clothes, and his companion was none other than the eunuch from the Great Prosperity Village who had received two taels of silver from Sang Luo. Naturally, he too was not in his court eunuch's uniform at the moment.

    Sitting together in the carriage, as they traveled along, Li Yu lifted the curtain to look outside. After passing a couple of villages and seeing signs of human habitation again, he turned to his companion and asked, "Eunuch Cen, shall we go in and take a look?"

    Eunuch Cen had left the palace with a mission, so how could he refuse such a request?

    "Certainly, we've been on the road for a while. Let's stop in the village and ask for some water to drink."

    The carriage halted at a distance, unaccompanied by any retinue, as the two of them proceeded on foot into the village. They meandered through the small settlement, home to no more than a dozen households, pausing for a while in one of the villagers' residences. Upon their return to the carriage, a full quarter-hour had elapsed. As soon as they climbed aboard, the Eunuch Zhen chuckled, "Esteemed Li, this Miss Sang is quite intriguing indeed."

    She was none other than the living Bodhisattva spoken of by the people of Xi Zhou.

    It turned out that upon entering Daxing Village, not only Li Yu, but even the accompanying eunuchs noticed the distinct difference between this village and the outside world.

    The Shen family resided in a more secluded part of the village. Along the way, one would observe the vitality and spirit of the people in Da Xing Village – men, women, young, and old – which was hardly something one could witness in the chaotic world that had endured for several years. Moreover, it wasn't just the people who exuded energy; the households in the village were often accompanied by a variety of domestic animals and livestock.

    It is precisely such an unusual scene that not a trace of surprise appears on the faces of those present, ranging from the accompanying Huizhou Prefect and Chief Secretary to the common folk who have gathered to witness the spectacle; evidently, they are all accustomed to sights of this nature.

    Yet Li Yu and the imperial attendants who had traveled south did not find this situation ordinary.

    Not to mention the besieged capital, many areas outside it were still slowly regaining order. Hunger and hardship were the norm for the common folk. In places severely ravaged, it was not uncommon to find stretches of two or three hundred miles devoid of human habitation, silent save for the absence of chickens and dogs.

    Li Yu's words to Zeng Zixuan were true. His journey south had two purposes: first, to visit Jiaxing, and second, as the emperor resided in the imperial city, he and Cen, the imperial attendant, were acting as the sovereign's eyes to assess the situation in the south.

    "It is indeed intriguing," Li Yu mused. Upon entering the village, he noticed similarities with Daxing Village, albeit less prosperous. Nevertheless, households here also kept poultry and livestock.

    As a strategist and an attendant close to the emperor, their keen observations and inquiries revealed much during their stroll around the village. The pheasants, rabbits, and sheep came from Daxing Village, while the chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, and cattle were the work of Governor Fan's wife. They even learned about the yam cultivation, konjac tofu, and fairy tofu.

    Learning that the villagers had previously sought refuge in the mountains, Li Yu asked how they knew of the peace outside. Expecting an answer involving official proclamations reaching the mountains, he was surprised to hear that Daxing Village played a role. The story of Shen Lie and his companions leading the mountain dwellers to settle in the village was told to Li Yu and the outsider as a commendable tale.

    In Xizhou, at Daxing Village.

    Li Yu laughed.

    There was a Fan in the noble families, a Sang among the commoners, and a group of skilled and loyal young men willing to serve the court.

    "Upon our return from Jiaxing, let us explore the surrounding areas of Xizhou again."

    Li Yu's intuition told him that he should make another trip to Daxing Village.

    ...

    Sang Luo learned about the severe paper shortage in both official and civilian circles in the afternoon, after Chu Qichang measured the land. Afterward, Shen Ning and a dozen or so children from the village rushed into the city, not for any other reason but to view the two imperial edicts posted on the notice wall.

    Upon their return, they brought another piece of news: the government was recruiting bamboo craftsmen who could make bamboo strips. Shen Ning and Xu Wenying, who were involved in the small business of making brushes, delivered their goods to the stationery shops near the state school. Surprisingly, some of the stationery and incense stores outside the school were also collecting bamboo strips, paying three copper coins for every ten processed and pierced strips.

    This was good news for most families in the village, even more attractive than the government's recruitment of bamboo craftsmen. The latter required working during the day, but everyone had their own fields to tend to, unless one had a large family, who would have the time to abandon their fields for government work? However, the stationery shops' offer was different. Anyone, regardless of gender or age, could learn how to do this job. They could farm during the day and shave bamboo strips at home in the evenings, earning a decent income.

    Shen Ning also brought back a few samples of bamboo strips. After Chen Youtian confirmed that it was feasible, a group of people headed into the mountains to cut bamboo, even Shen Jin and Shen Yin joined in. No matter how much they made, it was still money, right?

    Sang Luo frowned. "The stationery shops in the city have run out of paper?"

    Shen Ning nodded. "Yes, but there's very little left. According to the shopkeeper, they can't get any new stock. The remaining paper is now highly valued, and it's too expensive for ordinary people."

    Indeed, it was too expensive. With the acquisition price of three copper coins for ten bamboo strips, how much would a scroll sell for? Few could afford bamboo strips, let alone paper during this scarce period.

    If there was no paper, whether for the government or scholars, writing anything substantial would require either going into the mountains to cut bamboo and make the strips, a laborious process, or simply paying for it.

    Is bamboo cheaper than paper?

    Not if one didn't personally exert great effort to cut, slice, shave, boil, and dry them. Buying bamboo strips wasn't cheap either. Depending on the size, a roll of fifty strips could cost fifteen wen when bought from a merchant, but by the time it reached a scholar's hands, it would likely be at least twenty-five to thirty wen.

    How many characters could one fit on a single strip of bamboo? Twenty was the standard, while the most elegant handwriting might squeeze in forty. A roll of bamboo strips contained roughly a thousand to two thousand words, excluding ink and brush. Just for the strips themselves, one would have to spend twenty-five to thirty wen.

    This was even more expensive than using paper before.

    On the one hand, Sangluo understood why it was so difficult to produce scholars in ancient times. On the other hand, she finally grasped why classical Chinese texts were so concise. Without delving into other aspects, just considering the difficulty of obtaining paper or bamboo strips, it was clear that conciseness was a necessity.

    Paper was originally a step forward, but now, with the current state of Qiyu, it seemed to be regressing in its use.

    Xu Wenying, who had come with Shen Ning, also wore a worried frown. "Sister-in-law Ah Luo, do you think all the paper craftsmen were lost in the war? Otherwise, it doesn't make sense that they haven't produced any paper for so long. Who wouldn't want to make money?"

    Sangluo was somewhat distracted. "Perhaps."

    But she didn't quite believe her own words. Surely there couldn't be only one family in all of Great Qi capable of making paper?

    In the evening, after collecting the bark that had been regularly watered and sunned to resemble hemp, Sangluo gazed at it, lost in thought.

    Shen Lie and Shen An had also seen the official notices today. Upon returning to the village after school, they saw that every household was slicing bamboo strips, aware of the calligraphy shop's collection of bamboo scrolls.

    Noticing Sang Luo staring intently at the bark, Shen Lie whispered, "Are you thinking of making paper?"

    Sang Luo didn't reply immediately. After a while, she shook her head. "Paper and plows are two different things."

    So what if she managed to make it now? In a time when Great Qi wasn't lacking in paper, she could use it for herself and discreetly sell some without issue. But now, with the severe shortage of paper, even the government offices were reverting to using bamboo scrolls. If she really did manage to produce paper, she would become an easy target.

    With no one else around, Shen Lie took Sang Luo's hand and said softly, "Don't rush into anything. We don't know who currently holds the method of papermaking in Great Qi, or why there's such a shortage. It's best not to act recklessly. I'll try to gather more information when I get the chance."

    "I am aware."

    Although their family might be enjoying prosperity today, with imperial decrees and honorific archways to their name, should they inadvertently cross paths with someone powerful, it would take those individuals only moments to crush them.

    Sangluo was acutely aware that this disquieting feeling in her heart sprang from the harsh reality of their times: without power or influence, one was as precarious as a floating duckweed, with even the simplest desires difficult to fulfill. Reflecting now on their previous offering of the plow, she recalled how Shen Lie had refused to deliver it in the evening, opting instead to take a stroll before ultimately rallying the entire village to present the plow collectively and ceremoniously the following day. This, she mused, might well have been a calculated move, driven by some unspoken concern he sought to guard against.

    Even among warriors, there were those who killed innocent civilians to claim credit for victories. Back then, although they had been recipients of Governor Zeng's gift of books, their actual interaction had been limited. How could they truly understand each other? Even something as beneficial as offering plows might have made Shen Lie harbor suspicions. How much more so with paper?

    "Alright, let's not dwell on this for now. Until you have a clearer understanding, pretend you know nothing." Shen Lie playfully drew a few ripples on Sang Luo's forehead with a smile. "You should worry less now. Otherwise, I'm afraid our child might turn out like this."

    Sang Luo pulled down Shen Lie's hand and chuckled. "Is that how you tease people?"

    Nonetheless, his antics had indeed dispelled the lingering unpleasantness she felt earlier.

    After placing the bark into the basket, she let go of it and began discussing with her husband about rebuilding their house – an urgent matter at hand. With more space available for a garden and residence, as well as a more generous budget, they needed to revise their previous plans.

    Once they had roughly agreed on a plan, they lit a lamp. One read while the other sketched a preliminary layout using a sand-filled tray that allowed for easy modifications. Both were engrossed in their tasks until late into the night, only retiring to bed at the hour of Hai.

    The following morning, when Sang Luo woke up, the bed beside her was empty. As she got up to wash and dress, halfway through, she saw Shen Lie return with two bamboo poles. After setting them down away from the house, he came over to wash his hands before telling Sang Luo, "Starting today, An and I will also carve some bamboo strips for use in school. The extra paper at home can be reserved for you; it'll be more convenient for drawing blueprints."

    Sang Luo often drew things, and with the construction of the new house imminent, she would likely have many blueprints to make. Bamboo strips could never be as convenient as paper.

    She nodded, not worried that it would interfere with the brothers' studies. Even while reading, Shen Lie and Shen An never spared her or Shen Ning any household chores. The two brothers were capable of reciting texts while chopping wood.

    When both had left for school, Sang Luo's thoughts were entirely focused on their future new home. She spent most of the day sketching floor plans, and when Shen Lie returned that evening, he brought news he had gathered.

    "I asked Sixth Master Wang about the paper shortage. Apparently, the production has always been controlled by noble families. However, he's not quite sure why there's such a scarcity now."

    Sixth Master Wang was none other than Wang Yunzheng's sixth uncle, the only Wang family member from the state school with whom Wang Yunzheng kept in touch.

    Upon hearing that it was indeed an aristocratic family's residence, Sang Luo shook her head and didn't bother about it. She continued working at her desk for two more days until she completed a full layout of the house.

    Shen Ning knew what her sister-in-law had been busy with these past few days. Upon seeing the final draft, she approached to take a look. After one glance, she froze. "Sister-in-law, we have four courtyards?"

    She doubted if she had misread it.

    But the drawing was indeed very clear—it depicted four courtyards!

    Sang Luo nodded and pointed to the picture. "The southeast corner is the main entrance. Entering from here is the first courtyard, with a screen wall directly opposite. Next to it is the kitchen. To the left is the second entrance, leading to the main courtyard. There are additional courtyards behind the east and west chambers. In the courtyard behind the west chamber, the room to the south will be reserved for imperial decrees. The door next to it leads to the back courtyard, which is also our largest courtyard."

    Upon hearing this, Shen Ning understood. "So, the workshops will be here?"

    Sang Luo smiled and nodded. "Anything requiring secrecy can be done in this courtyard."

    Having figured out the layout of the courtyards, Shen Ning flipped through the adjacent floor plan and counted the squares representing the rooms. She gasped. "Sister-in-law, there are twenty-two rooms? Will we have enough space for all of us?"

    Then, she realized something and chuckled. "Right, we'll have little nephews and nieces in the future."

    As she spoke, she glanced at her sister-in-law's belly and laughed to herself.

    San Luo chuckled. "It's not really for the children that we need so many rooms. People will mainly live in the east and west wings, as well as the main house. There's a reception hall, a living room, and three separate study rooms. Everyone will have their own space. As for the other courtyard's buildings, some might be storage rooms or designated for imperial decrees. The northern backyard's row of buildings will serve as workshops and storage areas for goods. That's where we'll make wine or do other things in the future. They all seem to have practical uses."

    In reality, the largest area was the backyard and the workshop-storage buildings. Especially the courtyard, which was prepared for drying purposes, whether it was paper or food products. None of those could be done without proper drying, and it had to be within the high walls for security reasons.

    As the sisters were chatting, someone from the Governor's Mansion arrived. It was a maid from Lady Fan's side, who had accompanied Lady Fan to the Shen family the previous day. Familiar with the place, she found her way and called out to San Mama from outside the room.

    When San Luo went out, the maid bowed and said with a smile, "My mistress asked me to convey a message to you. She says there will be a batch of unoccupied shops put up for sale in the capital city. She wonders if you're interested."

    "Shops?"

    Absolutely!

    Not only was she preparing to cooperate with the Chen family, but her wine, jujube cakes, and honey needed to be sold in shops. Supplying others would never be as profitable or convenient as having her own shop.

    San Luo's eyes lit up. "Where are these shops located? Are they expensive?"

    "There are shops all over the city. They were abandoned during the war and have now been reclaimed by the government. The authorities have allowed each province and county to sell them off. As for the prices, they vary depending on location and size. I'm not sure about the specifics, but my mistress mentioned that if you're interested, you can visit the Governor's Mansion before they go on sale. You can choose first."

    How could San Luo pass up such an opportunity? Even Shen Ning's eyes brightened when she heard this. San Luo instructed Shen Ning to stay at home while she quickly tidied up and left with the maid for the Governor's Mansion.

    Within the Governor's Residence, Lady Fan had been eagerly awaiting her arrival. The moment she reached the side entrance of the official mansion, a servant rushed to convey the news. Barely had Sangluo stepped through the latticed flower gate when Lady Fan briskly emerged to greet her, smiling as she affectionately seized her hand: "My apologies for not meeting you at the threshold, esteemed guest; please, let us converse within."

    Madam Fan was a straightforward person. Even when she tugged on Sang Luo's sleeve, it only displayed affection without making others feel uncomfortable. Sang Luo chuckled. "Thank you for personally coming to fetch me. I've always wanted to visit, but with the family busy preparing for house construction, we've never had spare time. Thank you, Madam Fan, for still thinking of me during your happy occasion."

    "Easy to say, easy to say."

    Each found favor in the other's eyes, and with a few well-timed words, the atmosphere warmed, as if they were long-time friends. Smiling, Fan Fei-nyang led Sang Luo on to the flower hall. Servant women and maids they encountered along the way greeted Sang Luo with smiles. By the time they reached the flower hall and took their seats, tea and refreshments had already been served.

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