Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XLIII - Wealth, Sports, Etc.
A traveller in modern China may still wonder at the utter absence of any sign of wealth or luxury except in the very largest towns. Fine clothes, jewels, concubines, rich food, aphrodisiacs, opium, land, cattle–these represent “wealth” as conceived by the Chinese rich man’s mind. In 655 Ts’in is said to have paid five ram-skins to Ts’u in order to secure the services of a coveted adviser. Not many years after that, when the future Second Protector was making his terms with the King of Ts’u, he remarked: “What can I do for you in return? You already possess all the slaves, musicians, treasures, silks, feathers, ivory, and leather you can want.” In 606 a magnificent turtle was sent as a new year’s dinner present from Ts’u to Cheng; in modern China this form of politeness would never do at all, as the turtle has acquired an evil reputation as a term of abuse, akin to the Spanish use or abuse of the word “garlic”: however, I myself once experienced, when inland, far away from the sea, a curious compliment in the shape of a live crab two inches long (sent to me as a great honour) in a small jar. Of course chairs were unknown, and even the highest sat or squatted on mats; not necessarily on the ground, but spread on couches. Hence the word survives the object, just as with us ("covers” at dinner are “provided” but never seen; thus in China a host is “east mat” and a guest “west mat.”) In 626, when the ruler of Ts’in was talking politics with the Tartar envoy just mentioned above, he allowed him, as a special favour, to sit alongside of his own mat (on the couch). These couches probably resembled the modern settee, sofa, k’ang, or divan, such as all visitors to China have seen and sat on. Tea was quite unknown in those days, and is not mentioned before the seventh century A.D.; but possibly wine may have been served, as tea is now, on a low table between the two seats. “Tartar couches” (possibly Turkish divans) are frequently mentioned, even in the field of battle, and in comparatively modern times. In 300 B.C. Ts’u made a present to a distinguished renegade prince of the Ts’i house of an “elephant couch,” by which is probably meant a couch inlaid with ivory, in the present well-known Annamese style.
In 589 B.C., when Tsin troops reached the Ts’i capital and the sea (as already related in Chapters VI. and XXXIX. under the heads of Armies and Geographical Knowledge), T’si endeavoured to purchase peace by offering to the victor the state treasure in the shape of precious utensils. In 551 a rich man of Ts’u was considered insolently showy because he possessed forty horses. In 545 the envoy from Cheng, acting under the Peace Conference agreement so often previously described and alluded to, brings presents of furs and silks to Ts’u; and in 537 Tsin speaks of such articles as often being presented to Ts’u. In 494, when the King of Yiieh received his great defeat at the hands of the King of Wu, his first desperate idea was to kill his wives and children, burn his valuables, and seek death at the head of his troops; but the inevitable wily Chinese adviser was at hand, and the King ended by taking his mentor’s advice and successfully bribing the Wu general (a Ts’u renegade) with presents of women and valuables. When this shrewd Chinese adviser of the Yueh king had, by his sagacious counsels, at last secured the final defeat of Wu, he packed up his portable valuables, pearls, and jades, collected his family and clients, and went away by sea, never to come back. As a matter of fact, he settled in Ts’i, where he made an enormous fortune in the fish trade, and ultimately became the traditional Croesus of China, his name being quite as well known to modern Chinese through the Confucian historians, as the name of Croesus is to modern Europeans through Herodotus. He had, between the two defeats of Yiieh by Wu and Wu by Yiieh, served for several years as a spy in Wu, and the fact of his reaching Shan Tung by sea confirms in principle the story of the family of his contemporary, the King of Wu, having similarly escaped to Japan. The place where he landed was probably the same as where the celebrated pilgrim Fah Hien landed, after his Indian pilgrimage, in 415 A.D., i.e., at the German port of Ts’ing-tao.
We do not hear much of gold in the earlier times, but in 237 B.C., when Ts’in was straining every nerve to conquer China, the (future) First August Emperor was advised that “it would not cost more than 300,000 pounds weight in gold to bribe the ministers of all the states in league against Ts’in.” Yet in 643 B.C., on the death of the First Protector, the orthodox state of Cheng (lying between Ts’i and Tsin to the north and Ts’u to the south), was bribed with “metal” of some sort–probably gold or silver–to abandon Ts’i. In 538 the celebrated Cheng statesman Tsz-ch’an informs his Ts’u colleagues that the Tsin officers “think of nothing but money.” What kind of money this was is doubtful, but it will be remembered that about this time the “powerful family" of Lu had succeeded in bribing the Tsin ministers, or the “six great families” then managing Tsin, to deny justice to the fugitive Lu duke. In 513 B.C. the powerful Wu king who made (modern) Soochow his capital is said to have possessed both iron and gold mines, and it is stated that not even China proper could turn out better weapons. Large “cash” are said to have been coined by the Emperor who reigned from 540 to 520 B.C.; and in 450 B.C. the King of Ts’u is reported to have “closed his depot of the three moneys.” As only copper was coined, it is not easy to say now what the other two “moneys” were. In 318 B.C. a bribe of “one hundred golds” was given by Yen to one of the well-known political diplomats or intriguers then forming leagues with or against Ts’in; it is not known for certain how much this was at that particular time and place; but a century or two later it meant, under the Ts’in dynasty, twenty-four ounces; during the Han dynasty, conquerors of the Ts’in dynasty, it was only about half that. Cooks seem to have held official positions of considerable dignity. “Meat-eaters” in Confucian times was a term for “officials” or “the rich.” Thus when the haughty King of Wu was suddenly recalled home, from his high-handed durbar with Tsin, Lu, and other orthodox states, to go and deal with his formidable enemy of Yueh, he turned quite pale. By dint of bold “bluff” he managed after all to gain most of his political points, and to retire from an awkward corner with honour; but Chinese spies had their eyes on him none the less, and reported to the watchful enemy that “meat-eaters are not usually blackfaced"–meaning that the King of Wu evidently had some very recent bad news on his mind, for “the well-fed do not usually look care-worn.”
Silk was universally known. When the Second Protector (to be) was dallying with his lady-love in Ts’i, the maid of his mistress happened to overhear important conversations from her post in a mulberry tree; the presumption is that she was collecting leaves for the silkworms. Again in 519, a century later, there was a dispute on the Ts’u-Wu frontier (North An Hwei province), about the possession of certain mulberry trees. Cotton (Gossypium) was unknown in China, and the poorer classes wore garments of hempen materials; the cotton tree (Bombyx) was known in the south, but then (as now) the catkins could not be woven into cloth. It was never the custom of officers in China to wear swords, until in 409 B.C. Ts’in introduced the practice; but it probably never extended to orthodox China, so far, at least, as civilians’ were concerned. The three dynasties of Hia, Shang, and Chou had all made use of jade or malachite rings, tablets, sceptres, and so on, as marks of official rank.
As to sports, hunting, and especially fowling, seem to have been the most popular pastimes. In 660 a prince of Wei (orthodox) is said to have had a passion for egret fights. In 539 four-horsed chariots are mentioned as being used in a great Ts’u hunt south of the modern Teh-an in northern Hu Peh province, then mostly jungle: these hunts were used as a sort of training for war as well as for sport. The celebrated “stone drums” discovered in the seventh century A.D. near the old Chou capital describe the war-hunts of the active emperor mentioned in Chapter XLI. As might be expected, Yen (Peking plain) would be well off for horses-to this day brought by the Mongols in droves to Peking: in 539 it is said of Yen: “She was never a strong power, in spite of her numerous horses.” In 534 a great hunt in Lu is described with much detail; here also chariots were used, and their shafts were reared in opposite rows with their tips meeting above, so as to form a “shaft gate,” on which, besides, a flag was kept flying. The entrance to Chinese official yamens is still called “the shaft gate";-in fact, the ya was orginally a flag, and “yamen“ simply means “flag gate.” In the Middle Ages the Turkish Khans’ encampments were always spoken of as their ya–thus: “from hence 1500 miles north-west to the Khan’s ya.” Cockfighting was a common sport in Ts’i and Lu. In 517 B.C. two prominent Lu functionaries had a quarrel because one had put metal spurs on his bird, whilst the other had scattered mustard in the feathers of his fighting cock: owing to the ambiguity or double meaning of one of the pictographs employed, it is not quite certain that “mustard in the wings” may not mean “a metal helmet on the head.” Lifting weights was (as now) a favourite exercise; in 307 a Ts’in prince died from the effects of a strain produced in trying to lift a heavy metal tripod. In Ts’i games at ball, including a kind of football, were played. As a rule, however, it is to be feared that the wealthy Chinese classes in ancient (as in modern) times found their chief recreation in feasting, literary bouts, and female society. Curiously enough, nothing is said of gambling. Women are depicted at their looms, or engaged upon the silk industry; but it is singular how very little is said of home life, of how the houses were constructed, of how the hours of leisure were passed. In modern China the bulk of the male rural population rises with or before the dawn, and is engaged upon field or garden work until the shades of evening fall in; there is no artificial light adequate for purposes of needlework or private study; even the consolations of tobacco and tea–not to say opium, and now newspapers–were unknown in Confucian days. It is presumed, therefore, that life was even more humdrum than it is now, except that women at least had feet to walk upon. We gain some glimpses of excessive taxation and popular misery, forced labour and the press-gang; of callous luxury on the part of the rich, from the pages of Lao-tsz and Mencius; the Book of Odes also tells us much about the pathetic sadness of the people under their taskmasters’ hands. In all countries popular habits change slowly; in none more so than in China. We are driven, therefore, by comparison with the life of to-day to conclude that life in those times was sufficiently wretched, and it is therefore not to be wondered at that the miserable people readily sold their services to the first ambitious adventurer who could protect them, and feed them from day to day.