Early Medieval China

Just for fun I have been reading Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook.1 It is a very good book, written by a collection of the superheros of the field. The advertising blurb from Columbia calls it “innovative” and it indeed is. Normally a sourcebook is a collection of primary sources aimed, mostly, at undergraduates. This book is rather more ambitious. There are probably a few places where undergraduates take courses specialized enough to merit assigning a book like this, but not many. Mostly it is aimed at scholars, being intended to summarize some of the most important recent work and suggest what might be done in the future. Thus we get Yang Lu explains and translates some of the wooden slips dealing with local administration found at Changsha in 1996, and we also get various tomb texts that have never been translated into English. The introductions to the volume and to the individual sections are the best short introductions to these topics2 available in English. The introductions and notes matter a lot. In a more traditional sourcebook editors often look for readings that an undergraduate would be able to get something out of without too much of an introduction or too many footnotes. Sometimes this is not too hard. Confucius talking about being a good person and Xunzi talking about good government are things that most students should be able to pick up on without too much hand-holding.  This period is different, however, and while the editors are at pains to point out that there was more going on in the culture of the period than “insect carving”, i.e. the incredibly recondite, allusive writing that the era is notorious for (although they do include Pei Ziye’s ‘Discourse on Insect Carving.’) they have put a lot of work into introducing the otherwise obscure readings and glossing everything that needs to be glossed.

There are, for instance, a whole set of texts that deal with topics that most people who teach the field talk about a lot. There is a nice reading from Ge Hong on the cultural differences between North and South, which is, of course one of the traditional themes of the period. The reading also gives something of the importance of Philology (and Phonology) in the scholarship of the time, as well as the importance of language, a theme that runs throughout the book.

Ge Hong
“ON PRONUNCIATION AND SPEECH”
(YINCI) (EXCERPT)
People of the Nine Provinces speak in different dialects. This has been the norm since the beginning of mankind. [ … ] The land and waters of the South are mild and gentle; [thus] the sound [of Southern speech] is bright and crisp. The shortcoming is its shallowness. Its expressions are mostly vulgar. The mountains and rivers in the North are solemn and deep; [thus] the sound (of Northern speech] is baritone and rotund, taking after the simplicity and ruggedness [of the landscape]. The expressions contain many ancient terms. However, Southern [speech] is finer when spoken by nobles and gentlemen; Northern [speech] is better when spoken by villagers and peasants. One could distinguish in a few words a Southern gentleman from a commoner, even if they exchanged clothes. One would have difficulty differentiating between a Northern courtier and a countryman even after listening [to them] all day from behind a wall. Moreover, Southern speech has been influenced by [the dialects of] Wu and Yue; Northern speech has [the languages of] barbarians and captives mixed into it. Both have deep flaws that cannot be discussed in detail here.[ … ] Since I arrived at Ye, I find only Cui Ziyue and his nephew Cui Zhan Li Zuren and his younger brother, Li Wei to be knowledgeable in speech and slightly more accurate [in pronunciation]. Resolving Doubts About Sounds and Rhymes composed by Li Jijie [lived during Northern Qi], contains many mistakes. The Classification of Rhymes, devised by Yang Xiuzhi is perfunctory. The [pronunciation of the] children of my house, since their childhood, has been watched and corrected. I take any mispronunciation of a character as my own fault. When determining what an object should be called, I dare not utter its name without first consulting books and records-this you know well.
[Yanshi jiaxun jijie, 529-45]

On the other hand they also have all sorts of things that don’t fit the traditional picture of the period as well. Shu Xi’s “Rhapsody on Pasta” is a good example.

…At the beginning of the three spring months
When yin and yang begin to converge,
And the chilly air has dispersed,
When it is warm but not sweltering,
At this time for feasts and banquets
It is best to serve mantou. 32

When Wu Hui governs the land,33
And the pure yang spreads and diffuses,
We dress in ramie and drink water,
Cool ourselves in the shade.
If in this season we make pasta,
There is nothing better than bozhuang. 34

When the autumn wind blows fierce, 35
And the great Fire Star moves west,36
When sleek down appears on birds and beasts,
And barren branches appear on trees,
Dainties and delicacies must be eaten warm.
Thus, leavened bread may be served.37

In dark winter’s savage cold,
At early-morning gatherings,
Snot freezes in the nose,
Frost forms around the mouth,
For filling empty stomachs and relieving chills,
Boiled noodles are best.

Thus, each kind is used in a particular season,
Depending on what is apt and suitable for the time.
If one errs in the proper sequence,
The result will not be good.

Ok, so just like in the ancient texts, you need to adopt your foods to the season. Obviously if one does not the results for your health and the balance of the universe will not be good. Is there anything that, like chicken soup with rice, is good all times of the year? Yes, there is.

That which Through winter, into summer,
Can be served all year round,

And in all four seasons freely used,
In no respect unsuitable,
Can only be the boiled dumpling. 38

And then, twice-sifted flour, 39
Flying like dust, white as snow,
Sticky as glue, stringy as tendons,
Becomes moist and glistening, soft and lustrous.

For meat There are mutton shoulders and pork ribs,
Half fat, half skin. It is chopped fine as fly heads,
And strung together like pearls, strewn like pebbles.
Ginger stalks and onion bulbs,
Into azure threads are sliced and split.
Pungent cinnamon is ground into powder,
Fagara and thoroughwort are sprinkled on.
Blending in salt, steeping black beans,
They stir and mix all into a gluey mash.

And then, when the fire is blazing and the hot water is bubbling,
Savage fumes rise as steam.
Pushing up his sleeves, dusting off his coat,
The cook grasps and presses, pats and pounds.
Flour is webbed to his finger tips,
And his hands whirl and twirl, crossing back and forth.
In a flurrying frenzy, in a motley mixture,
The dumplings scatter like stars, pelt like hail.
Meat does not burst into the steamer,
And there is no loose flour on the dumplings.
Lovely and pleasing, mouthwatering,
The wrapper is thin, but it does not burst.
Rich flavors are blended within,
A plump aspect appears without.
They are as tender as spring floss,
As white as autumn silk.
Steam, swirling and swelling, wafts upward,
The aroma swiftly spreads far and wide.

So now you have a recipe to try. Thoroughwort is, I think, Bone-set, and I would not use it in food, but the rest should be easy enough to find.
There are also readings on topics that have always been aspects of the Great Tradition, but have gotten less attention in the past. Thus we have a whole section on Auto-cremation. If you have been wondering how immolation fits into the Buddhist tradition there are readings here for you.

THE SONG MONK HUIYI (D. 463)
OF ZHULIN SI IN THE CAPITAL

Huiyi was from Guangling. When he was young, he left home and followed his master to Shouchun During the Xiaojian period of the Song [454-456] he arrived in the capital [Jiankang] and resided at Zhulin si. He diligently practiced austerities, and he vowed to burn his body. When his fellow monks heard of this, some castigated him while others praised him. In the fourth year of Daming [460], he began by abstaining from cereals and ate only sesame and wheat. In the sixth year, he stopped eating wheat and consumed only oil of thyme.17 Sometimes he also cut out the oil and ate only pills made of incense. Although the four gross elements [of his body] became feeble, his spirit was clear and his judgment was sound.

Emperor Xiaowu [r. 454-464] had a profound regard for Huiyi and respectfully inquired [as to his intentions]. He dispatched his Chief Minister Yigong, Prince of Jiangxia. [413-465], to the monastery to reason with him. But [Hui] yi would not go back on his vow. On the eighth day of the
fourth month of the seventh year of the Darning reign period [May 11, 463], he prepared to burn himself.

He set up a cauldron full of oil on the southern slope of Zhong shan That morning, he mounted an oxcart drawn by humans and was going from the monastery to the mountain. But then he realized that the emperor was not only the foundation of the people but also the patron of the three jewels
He wanted to enter the palace under his own strength, but when he reached the Yunlong gate he could no longer proceed on foot. He sent a messenger to say, “The man of the Way, Huiyi, who is about to abandon his body, is at the gate and presents his farewells. He profoundly hopes that the
Buddha dharma may be entrusted [to his majesty].” When the emperor heard his message, he was upset and immediately came out to meet him at the Yunlong gate. When [Hui]yi saw the emperor, he earnestly entrusted the Buddha dharma to his care, then he took his leave. The emperor followed him. Princes, concubines, empresses, religious, laity, and officials flooded into the valley. The robes that they offered and the treasures that they donated were incalculable.

Huiyi now entered the cauldron, lay down on a little bed within it, and wrapped himself in cloth. On his head he added a long cap, which he saturated with oil. As he was about to apply the flame to it, the emperor ordered his chief minister to approach the cauldron and to try to dissuade him. (Yigong pleaded], “There are many ways to practice the path; why must you end your life? I wish you would think again and try a different track.” But Huiyi’s resolve was unshakable and he showed no remorse. He replied, “This feeble body and this wretched life, how do they deserve to be retained? If the mind of Heaven and the compassion of the sage [i.e., the emperor] are infinite, then my wish is merely that twenty people [be allowed to] leave home.” An edict ordering these ordinations was immediately issued. [Hui]yi took up the torch in his own hand and ignited the cap. With the cap ablaze, he cast away the torch, put his palms together, and chanted the “Chapter on the Medicine King.” As the flames reached his eyebrows, the sound of his recitation could still be clearly discerned. Reaching his eyes, it became indistinct. The cries of pity from the rich and poor echoed in the dark valley. They all clicked their fingers [in approval]; they intoned the name of the Buddha and cried, full of sorrow.

The fire did not die down until the next morning. At that moment, the emperor heard the sound of pipes in the air and smelled a strange perfume that was remarkably fragrant. He did not return to the palace until the end of that day. In the night he dreamed that he saw Huiyi, who came striking a bell. Again [the monk] entrusted to him the Buddha dharma. The next day, the emperor held an ordination ceremony. He ordered the Master of Ceremonies to give a eulogy for the funeral service. At the place of the autocremation was built Yaowang si in an allusion to [Huiyi’s recitation of] the “Original Acts.”

As I said above, I can’t imagine teaching a class where I would be able to assign this to students, but it is a great beach read.


  1. Swartz, Wendy, Robert Ford Campany, Yang Lu, and Jessey J. C. Choo. Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook. Columbia University Press, 2013.  

  2. “Relations with the Unseen World, Everyday Life, Imaging Self and Other, Cultural Capital, Governing Mechanisms and Social Reality, The North and the South” 

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