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    Chapter 274 - Announce!

    In the provincial government office, they were discussing the primer. Back at the Shen residence, Sang Luo and Shen Ning returned home to share with Shen Lie and his brothers about the first day of class. The family gathered to discuss a solution for the primer issue.

    "Forty-seven students, perhaps with some auditors. Should we still help them copy the primers?" Shen Ning asked, clearly feeling the pressure from the increased workload.

    Without hesitation, Sang Luo dismissed the idea. "It's not appropriate. We only helped Zhao Liuyan and a few other children as practice for our calligraphy. Copying books is difficult, slow, and laborious. Most importantly, we can't let them become reliant on Daxing Village for free assistance."

    Sang Luo thought of moveable type printing, but considering the current price of paper, which was still too expensive for ordinary villagers, she also recalled the imperial examination system that the emperor had implemented. The first batch of candidates had yet to arrive in the capital. She decided it would be best not to challenge the intellectual elite's monopoly on knowledge.

    While pondering ways to solve the problem of providing primers for the students, Shen Lie offered a suggestion.

    "We have a ranking wall in our provincial school, made of wood, similar to your blackboard. After each monthly exam, the rankings are posted. I think we could create a few large board walls in front and back of the classroom, slightly offset from your small blackboard. We can write the 'Thousand Character Classic' on large sheets of paper and paste them up."

    "This would last longer than chalk, and if we write the characters bigger, even students sitting at the back would be able to see them. It's like everyone has their own book, right?"

    This idea illuminated Sang Luo's mind. Yes, wasn't this similar to the notice boards in her previous classrooms? Only now, they would be transformed into teaching walls.

    Given the earthen houses with mud walls, it wouldn't be easy to attach paper directly. However, she did have Fan Fei's recipe for wall painting, but the walls needed time to dry. For now, using board walls was an excellent solution!

    "This is a great idea. We can make several more sets to display against the walls, ensuring we have all the textbooks covered. Not only will it be convenient for leading reading during breaks, but those truly committed to learning can copy an entire volume on their own."

    Recalling his frequent use of charcoal pencils for drawing, he suggested to Shen Ning, "When we're back in class, remind everyone that writing with shaved charcoal on wooden slats works too. For those who can't afford pens and ink, they can use charcoal pencils to copy the texts for practice."

    Upon hearing this, Shen Yin returned home and promptly shared the story of Gan Erlang using wooden slats and charcoal pencils after class.

    Shen Lie chuckled, "It's evident that those with a sincere desire to learn can overcome any obstacle."

    The family was known for their efficiency. Shen Lie and Shen An went to gather wood to construct the standing board walls, while Shen Ning and Sang Luo experimented with the appropriate font size to ensure readability for students sitting at the back of the classroom. After confirming the dimensions with Shen Lie and Shen An, the two sisters went inside to choose paper.

    The Shen household was not short of paper; in fact, they had already taken a small step towards luxurious toilet paper usage, albeit in a modest way. Of course, after testing various methods, they couldn't make the paper overly soft. They manually crumpled it and prepared some water, moistening their hands before using the paper.

    Digressing, it should be mentioned that the few types of paper available on the market were refined using Sang Luo's techniques. The Shens could easily replicate these papers, and to make them indistinguishable from store-bought ones, they purchased large, uncut sheets. In the fourth courtyard, they crafted frames identical to those used in papermaking, experimenting with different recipes while also producing paper for their own use.

    Now, they selected unwieldy sheets of mulberry bark paper. Dividing the 'Thousand Character Classic' into upper and lower parts, each took responsibility for half, beginning to write.

    Given its nature as a textbook, the effort put into this was meticulous, as it would also serve as a calligraphy guide for beginners.

    As for He Changshi, he was so thrilled by the impending progress in his work that he couldn't sleep through the night. There was no doubt that Zeng Ziqian's three-year term would end with a promotion due to his excellent performance. There was a chance that He Changshi might become the next governor of Shezhou. Starting the education initiative now might not yield significant results during Zeng Ziqian's tenure, but it could potentially be a major accomplishment under his own administration.

    After all, not everyone is as fortunate as Zeng Zixuan, who rose to higher ranks after only three years in office.

    Therefore, establishing a thriving rural school was not just part of his duty as the Shexiu Prefecture's chief secretary; it could also pave the way for his future. How could he not be thrilled?

    Excitement kept him awake until the late hours of the night. The next morning, he woke up refreshed and headed to the government office, eager to get started. However, upon recalling Fan Feiniang's glowing description of the Daxing Village School, he decided to suppress his eagerness. He waited until sunset, around the hour of You (5-7 PM), before leaving the city to visit the renowned school.

    Upon entering the village, there was no need to ask for directions. The sound of children reciting books echoed from afar. Following the voices, he easily found the school.

    A simple mud-brick house illuminated by lamplight drew his attention. Several people, including adolescents, teenage girls, and young men in their mid-twenties, were gathered by the windows and door. As he approached, he realized that they were also reciting along. Finding no space by the window, he stood behind a few shorter adolescents and peered inside.

    Initially, he had intended to witness the grand spectacle of the Daxing Village School with its claimed forty or fifty students. However, at first glance, his attention was captivated by three wooden boards hanging at the front of the classroom.

    The center board was dark in color, with white characters written on it – seemingly the blackboard and chalk that Fan Feiniang had mentioned. The boards on either side were familiar too, resembling the notice boards commonly found outside provincial schools, county schools, and government offices. However, these were more simplified, displaying segments of the Thousand Character Classic.

    A young girl, appearing around ten years old, held a slender wooden rod, thinner than a ruler, leading the recitation while pointing at the corresponding sentences with the rod. Perhaps to avoid damaging the paper, the tip of the rod seemed to be wrapped in cloth.

    Textbooks, weren't these textbooks?

    Madam Fan had not mentioned this, implying that it was something the Shen family had added only today.

    He Changshi was thrilled in his heart.

    This was excellent! This was truly excellent! Even donating books could be spared!

    After standing by the window and listening for another half an hour, he no longer lingered but instead went to the Shen residence to visit Shen Lie and his wife.

    The next day, Madam Fan heard about the textbook solution and was naturally overjoyed.

    For the entire latter half of January, Xizhou was bustling with the establishment of private and rural schools.

    Meanwhile, far away in the capital, in the court, the emperor and his officials had been discussing the army's food shortage for several consecutive days.

    They were at a loss for a solution.

    Now in its fifth year of establishment, the Great Qi Empire, if one discounted the initial period, had actually existed for less than four years. Furthermore, they had initially occupied only a few prefectures and counties. The kingdom had been gradually conquered later on. Whenever they captured a new territory, they would issue an edict to exempt taxes for three years as a means to stabilize and nourish the people. Currently, there were very few prefectures and counties left that could collect taxes.

    At first, victory allowed them to seize supplies from the defeated, and local influential families also offered grain. Supporters contributed significantly as well. But now, their resources had long been depleted. Fortunately, last year, the imperial court had gained control over papermaking technology and monopolized the salt and iron industries, thus filling the national treasury with silver. Starting from the autumn harvest last year, they ordered all provinces to purchase grains from the people. However, even up till now, the total amount of grain reported by the various provinces to be available for the court to buy was insufficient to sustain the army until June.

    The imperial court's three major expenditures were the maintenance of officials, soldiers, and public works for the people's welfare.

    Currently, officials relied entirely on their assigned fields and tax collectors, while public works and people's welfare were even more neglected. The emperor now feared hearing reports of natural disasters, as the mere cost of supporting the army was already suffocating the court, leaving no resources for disaster relief.

    Ironically, just as civil wars had ceased, external foes were encroaching, making it impossible to reduce the number of soldiers.

    Both the emperor and his ministers knew that this year's grain could still be purchased with hard currency, squeezing the wealthy aristocratic families for more. But what about next year?

    Could the aristocrats be so easily exploited? If they could, the treasury wouldn't have struggled to purchase enough grain for all the provinces until now.

    Each party had its own calculations. While the court sought to extract a stone of grain from the aristocrats, the aristocrats aimed to take a bite out of the court!

    ...

    "Your Majesty, in my humble opinion, we should still collect land taxes from the people," proposed the Minister of Revenue.

    Xue Yan stepped forward to refute, "Since an edict has already been issued to exempt taxes for three years, many prefectures and counties have only enjoyed one or two years of relief. To now reverse the decision and collect land taxes would surely undermine the trust of the people."

    "In that case, Minister Xue, please present a superior solution. It's not just six months but even half a month without provisions that could cause chaos in the military. If Your Majesty fears losing the trust of the people, in my view, it's not a difficult matter. We can simply impose another name for the collection."

    "Alternatives can be found! Is it not still deceiving the people if you simply change the title? Governor Chen has mastered the art of covering one's ears while stealing a bell!"

    "How is this covering one's ears while stealing a bell? Hasn't every dynasty done the same?"

    "The previous dynasty was an exemplar in this, and yet their reign lasted only a few decades before collapsing! Do you intend to let Great Qi meet the same fate and end after two generations?"

    Someone then proposed the system of military farming, only to be met with rebuttal.

    "Centuries ago, others have attempted this as well. What was the outcome? The farmers supporting the military received much lower yields than civilian farmers, leading them to flee. Of course, it might have worked initially, but does our Great Qi lack land now? We lack farmers to cultivate it! With only one hundred and sixty thousand households in the entire nation, who would willingly become military farmers instead of civilians? If we force this system, will those who have fled to the mountains and swamps dare to return?"

    As a professional novel translator, I will provide you with an elegant and contextually coherent English translation for each line. Please provide the lines you would like me to translate, and I will ensure they are rendered accurately and gracefully in English while maintaining the integrity of the original narrative.

    A coterie of courtiers engaged in a verbal joust, their tongues so sharp they seemed to ignite sparks, yet no solution emerged from their debate.

    The emperor listened for more than half an hour, his brows knitting into a deep V. At that moment, a palace guard from Taiji Hall entered to report that Governor Zeng Zixuan of Xizhou had returned to the capital and was now waiting outside the hall, requesting an audience with the court!

    The chattering ministers suddenly fell silent, turning to look at the guard in confusion. They were in the middle of an intense debate, and this official dared to interrupt for an audience? Had Zeng Zixuan lost his mind? What audacity did he possess?

    And then, suddenly, realization dawned.

    Wait!

    Who?

    Zeng Ziqian???!!!

    Third Son Zeng is back in the capital???!!!

    ...

    Indeed, it's true! Zeng Sanlang, the legendary governor, has returned once again to the capital with great fanfare!!!

    Other provincial governors might be fortunate to visit the capital once a year and barely become recognizable to the Emperor. But not him; he stirs up major events every few months!

    All the court officials looked up simultaneously towards the imperial throne. True enough, the Emperor, who had just moments ago appeared troubled with knitted brows and pulsing temples, instantly perked up at the mention of Zeng Ziqian's request for an audience. He sat up straighter, leaning forward slightly, his irritability vanishing as a hint of a smile graced his face.

    The word "admit" spontaneously escaped his lips, spoken with eagerness, urgency, and remarkable clarity!

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