Ash Animals

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.
琇性豪侈,費用無復齊限,而屑炭和作獸形以溫酒,洛下豪貴咸競效之
(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 ElderNatural 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?

6 thoughts on “Ash Animals

  1. Does that 競 in the first passage mean, as it seems to me, that the wealthy actually competed with each other on the grounds of wasteful extravagance? Because that’s another part of the inequality engine right there — straight-up gilded age.

    It may interest you to know that the word 獣炭 made it into Japanese, with a nativized pronunciation (kemonozumi). It seems that in Japan they typically contained incense too. According to the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten, it’s even considered a “seasonal word” in haiku (associated with winter).

  2. Matt, you’re absolutely right – there’s kind of a “keeping up with the Joneses” thing going on here. A more literal translation would be, “All the powerful and wealthy who lived beneath the River Luò vied to imitate [this practice].” I was hoping my use of “all” would convey that sense while being a little more idiomatic.

    Very interesting about the term’s Japanese afterlife – thanks for passing that on!

  3. Hi, there. I don’t quite get how those ashen figurines work. Are the ashes mixed with some substance (resin, perfume, wax?) for making the figures? How are they used for ‘heating ale’? Are they burnt to create a small fire?

  4. Hi, FraVerno. Frankly, I don’t know! Other texts (besides the ones I translated in this post) mention ash animals, but none of the ones I’ve seen go into further detail about their composition.

    Most interestingly, there is a ninth-century fù 賦 (long descriptive poem in mixed meter, sometimes called “rhapsody”) on ash animals by a writer named Jiǎng Fáng 蔣防 (b. 792). Briefly skimming it over, it seems to mostly go into detail about the shapes of the animals depicted and their bright colors. Perhaps I’ll translate that poem at some point and post it.

    But alas, this doesn’t help us with your questions. I’m afraid I won’t be able to answer them in any more detail without doing significantly more research.

  5. If the Japanese word is any indication, maybe “charcoal” would be a better translation? You could carve and arrange that more easily, get it hotter to put drinks on and warm them up, etc.

  6. Hi Matt, “charcoal” probably does make more sense in this case. In early/medieval Chinese, the character refers to wood that has been burnt (without specifying the size of the remains), so it’s used in the sense of both “charcoal” and “ash” (and even “coal” in some dialects, according to the 漢語大辭典). Thanks for the clarification.

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