Today, as I read through the biography of the third-century official Yáng Xiù 羊琇, I came across the following remarkable passage:
He was prone to profligacy and wasteful without limit. He would make animals out of his ashes and use them to warm his ale. Soon, all the wealthy of Luòyáng began to imitate him.
(Jìnshū 晉書 93.2411)
Yáng started a craze for making little animal figurines out of the ashes of his fire. The fad spread like – ahem – wildfire by the Táng dynasty, but to the underclasses it seemed wasteful, unnatural even. Most of them followed a more practical route: they reheated their ashes since they couldn’t afford to have new coal every day. Similarly, the Romans reused their ashes, in their case to make soap (see Pliny the Elder, Natural History: “Soap, too, is very useful for [getting rid of sores], an invention of the Gauls for giving a reddish tint to the hair. This substance is prepared from tallow and ashes, the best ashes for the purpose being those of the beech and yoke-elm”).
This little detail from Yáng Xiù’s biography was later picked up by at least two poets of the tenth century as a symbol of income inequality:
豪家應不覺 The wealthy seem to be unaware,
獸炭滿爐紅 Filling their furnaces red with ash animals.
—Lǐ Zhōng 李中, “Written at the End of the Year” 臘中作
豪家捏為獸 The wealthy mould theirs into animals:
紅迸錦茵焦 The red ones spurt out and scorch their brocade blankets.
—Qíjǐ 齊己, “Thankful for Ashes” 謝炭
The second excerpt, in particular, is striking for its bitter humor: the poet-monk imagines the heated ash animals coming to life in a fiery rampage, burning the aristocracy’s finery.
It’s a reminder of the gross inequality seen by the entire world for the majority of history. The gap between rich and poor had became especially pronounced in China in the early tenth century. The Huáng Cháo 黃巢 rebellion of the 880s permanently destabilized the Táng dynasty and led to its complete collapse in 907. This led to great unrest: anyone not a member of the ruling elite or a warlord’s family was likely to suffer severe losses. The scope of the suffering experienced by the populace can be glimpsed in several recent scholarly works, such as Glen Dudbridge’s A Portrait of Five Dynasties China and the last chapter of Nicholas Tackett’s The Destruction of the Medieval Chinese Aristocracy.
So while the rich could hold on to their wealth and shield themselves from all the chaos flaring up during the tenth centuries, ascetic monks and empathetic poets would rail against them in their verses.
What looked like a cute, harmless toy turned out to be a powerful symbol of widespread injustice to which many were oblivious.
Fortunately, more than ten centuries later, we have solved these problems and are no longer prone to excessive waste. And such symbols of inequality have been eliminated. Now where did I put my iPhone?