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Cao Baoqin
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?