To the Son of Heaven,
Forbidden City, Peking
May Your Majesty live ten thousand years! Do not lend Your ears to eunuchs who deem the slightest violation of protocol ill-omened: they are lusting after scandal. Indeed, the British ambassador did conduct himself scandalously, and I, the Imperial Interpreter Second Class, had to pay dearly for it. If I should lose my life in this dungeon, let the coroner mention two causes of death: hunger for paper and thirst for ink.
I make no complaints; Your Majesty’s Guards treat me well. Yet there are better ways to serve the Throne than by lingering in a palace dungeon! Alas! I cannot squeeze a decent proposal on the one scrap of paper allotted to Your humble servant. I hope I shall be granted, ere I part from All-Under-Heaven, writing implements to utter a request worthy of Your Majesty’s scrutiny.
Oh Son of Heaven, Exalted One! I am a relative of the late Cao Xueqin, the true author of Dream of the Red Chamber — a magnificent novel, written decades ago but only recently published in print. Without the reed-pen my spirit dies; when paperless, ideas wither. I am sure Your Majesty will understand: Are You not a poet Yourself?