Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thousand-year jujubes

Three lovely paragraphs from Eliot Weinberger's NYRB piece on China under the T'ang Dynasty (hmmmm, the clever reader will deduce the true fact of the matter, which is that the print issue of the NYRB, once it arrives, sits open in front of the spot at the desk where I eat my meals - it is interesting enough to engage my attention, but not so thoroughly and obsessively gripping that it will lure me away from whatever the next thing is I am supposed to be doing!):
Every aspect of life was codified and enforced by imperial edict: the length of tunics, the price of each item in the market, the colors that may be worn by ministers of certain ranks, the number of blows with a thin rod that a speeding coachman should receive. There were prohibitions against eating a white sheep that had a black head or a dish of pheasants with walnuts. Censuses of every village were taken to ensure an exact collection of taxes and to fill the ranks of compulsory labor and conscription. The country was converted to a cash economy and the foundation of imperial wealth became its tax on salt, a commodity everyone needed. Under the T'ang, the system of strict examinations on the classics as a requirement for entering the civil service became universal; one census listed 130,000 students. Although this hardly resulted in a meritocracy, it meant that some young men who did not come from well-connected families could rise to powerful positions in the government, and an increasing number of talented—or, at least, educated—people entered the bureaucracy.

The T'ang became rich on trade, promoted by a new merchant class along the Silk Road (where Sogdian was the lingua franca) or on the sea routes that led to the port of Canton (where the sailors spoke Persian). Coral from the Mediterranean or Ceylon; golden peaches from Samarkand; cardamom from Tonkin; "thousand-year" jujubes from Tabaristan; ostrich-egg cups from Bukhara; various peppers from Burma; feathers from the white egrets, peacocks, and kingfishers of Annam (one princess had a dress made entirely from feathers); pistachios from Persia; furs of sable, ermine, miniver, steppe foxes, and martens.... The list of T'ang imports is endless, and T'ang coins have been found as far west as the coast of Somalia.

The masses, who rarely saw these treasures, told tales of strange objects with magical powers, brought from abroad: a single bean that was sufficient food for weeks; a certain wheat that made the body so light that one could fly; a crystal pillow that gave the sleeper visions of strange lands; a piece of rhinoceros horn that could heat a palace; hairpins that turned into dragons; pots that cooked without fire; the translucent stone that emitted a cool breeze; the plant that was always surrounded by darkness.

1 comment:

  1. 1) Awesome list - more peacocks! 2) I just need John Barrymore at the end howling "AND SAND FROM THE HOLY LAND!!!" 3) Didn't Weinberger edit Viking's edition of Borges's non-fiction? JLB would fall in love with above list. 4) Someone call that mogul with the awesome library, he needs this stuff!