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Liao and Jin

From the tenth century onward, North China fell into foreign hands: the Liao, Jin, and early Mongol invaders. (The most detailed history of these conquest dynasties is Franke and Twitchett 1994; for Song it is Twitchett and Smith 2009. These are basically narratives. For more interpretation, see Brook 2010; Mote 1999.) Little is known about food in north China during the earlier periods. The population declined; by early Ming, the North China Plain may have had as few as seven million inhabitants, comparable to Shang Dynasty levels.

The expectable Chinese prejudice against "barbarian" food came into play; one Chen Liang griped: "Is there none who thinks it is wrong to submit to the foe, whose stink of mutton spreads for miles and miles[?]" (D. Kuhn 2009: 167).

The Khitan from the northern steppes took over north China in 947 and founded the Liao Dynasty. Their word for "land of the Khitan," Khitai, gave us the old name of Cathay for China. Their origin myth is of interest (Sinor 1998). The Khitan were supposedly the offspring of a man riding a white horse and a woman riding a gray cow who met at the sacred mountain where the sacred rivers join. Possibly the original myth had only the horse and the cow begetting the Khitan. Among the early kings of the Khitan was one who was just a skull. He took human form only for the annual sacrifice, when in proper totemic style a white horse and a gray cow were sacrificed for the ancestral ones. Another king had the head of a boar. Another had twenty sheep—always exactly twenty. Every day he ate nineteen of them (a lovely thought), but next day there were twenty again.

Abaoji, the great founder of Khitan power, was born of a sunray. Like many Old World heroes, he allegedly had the body of a three-year-old at birth, could crawl on all fours as soon as he was born, could walk after three months, and at one year he could speak and foretell the future (Sinor 1998: 228). These were a horse-riding people, and horses can run within a few hours of being born. The temptation for humans to rival them, mythically if not in reality, was great.

Liao emperors were embalmed carefully; among other things, their bodies were stuffed with "fragrant herbs, salt and alum," and drained of body fluids, resulting in a dried mummy that an irreverent Chinese observer called "emperor jerky" (Steinhardt 1998: 226). Some corpses have lasted long enough to be excavated by modern archaeologists (such as Steinhardt). Copper wire suits and gold and silver face masks decorated the bodies, as the Liao court records had said. Food offerings were included but seem not to have survived. Liao, and Central Asian, food of the time consisted of the usual dairy and grain products, plus meat when available, wild vegetables, melons, grapes, and the other foods still familiar there (Kasai and Natsagdorj 1998).

The Jurchen Tungus conquered the Khitan, drove them from north China, and established the Jin Dynasty. The Khitan then set up an empire in east-central Asia that was notable for its religious tolerance. Like many central

Asian peoples, including the Jurchen and the Mongols (and, much earlier, Cyrus's Persians), the Khitan were quite prepared to welcome any and all religious communities (Biran 2005: 180-91). Their open-mindedness stood in extremely dramatic contrast to the increasingly rigid Muslims and Christians of the western approaches. One wonders what the world would be like if this attitude had prevailed. Unfortunately, it lost out during the succeeding centuries.

One thing is clear, however: their lack of religious bigotry did not prevent war. It did prevent anything comparable to the utterly gratuitous and horrific violence of the Crusades and the Wars of Religion, but it most certainly did not bring peace. The Mongol hordes needed no religious justification. Nor did Islam make Central Asia less peaceful (or more peaceful, either) when it triumphed. Central Asians fought quite openly for power and loot, whereas the Western world cloaked its struggles for power and loot under hypocritical guises of religion. In the West, and rarely in China too, religion often took on a hideous life of its own and led to mass bloodshed—supposedly pacific Christianity having as bloody a record as militant Islam. (It is all too typical, historically, that George W. Bush started a gratuitous and bloody war against Iraq because he wrongly suspected those Muslims were warlike—or simply because he wanted their oil—and that he called his war a crusade, thus alienating the entire Muslim world.) But in Central Asia, war was constant and terrible, as much under the tolerant Khitans and Mongols as among later and far less tolerant Muslims and Christians. The twentieth century managed to make things even worse: modern political ideologies—communism, fascism, and to a lesser but real extent corporate postcapitalism—mixed with resurgent Islam created violence that dwarfed even the Crusades and the Mongol conquests.

The subsequent Jin Dynasty is known, among other things, for introducing the word "shaman" to the world (Tao 1976: 12-13; see also Tillman and West 1995 and esp. Jin 1995: 217-20). The Jin were Tungus-speaking, and "shaman" is a word from that language. More to our point here are the surprisingly complex Central Asian recipes they prepared at court (Buell et al. 2000).

A trivial, but very revealing comment on Chinese food history concerns the fried dough strips known in ordinary Chinese as youtiao (which just means "fried dough strips"). They are colloquially known as "fried ghosts" (or "devils"), at least in the Cantonese world I know. They commemorate the betrayal of the great resistance general Yue Fei (1103-1142), who almost saved the northern part of Song from the Jin. He was betrayed and poisoned by a capitulation advocate, the minister Qin Gui (1090-1155), and his wife. Qin convinced the Song Emperor Gaozong to cashier Yue (see, e.g., D. Kuhn 2009: 77-78). The result was transient peace for Song and eternal hatred for Qin Gui. To this day, Chinese, when they fry the entwined dough strips, revel in thinking of him and his wife frying in hell. Jian gui, "fried ghost," sounds close enough to "Qin Gui" to make the point. Revisionist historians have recently tried to give Qin a fair shake (see D. Kuhn 2009 for full discussion), but my heart is with the traditional Chinese on this one. Yue Fei may have been excessively rash, but treachery and underhanded murder were hardly the best counter to that.

Populations crashed in each conquest episode. Apparently "a population of 108 million in 1210 fell to 75 million in 1292, rose to 87 million in 1351, and fell again to 67 million in 1381" (P. Smith 2003: 9, citing several authorities). Of course these figures are highly tentative.

 
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