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Great Tang Idyll - Chapter 44

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Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan both indeed didn't sleep for a whole night. Zhang Xiaobao even went with his family members to make offerings to his ancestors. Early on the New 1st,1 there were peasants from the manor who came over to wish a happy New Year2 to the master-family. Yesterday night, everybody had been burning exploding bamboos and they had all heard that the noises coming from the master-family's courtyard house weren't the same so when each and every one of them were giving their New Year's greetings, they also inquired after it as well.

Wang Juan discussed it for a bit with Zhang Xiaobao and decided to take out a firecracker string to let everybody see the commotion. Yesterday night, it was Shiliu who lit the fire. So today, they still had her be responsible for doing it. Shiliu finally had a chance to appear in front of the peasants here now so she excitedly ran to get the firecrackers.

Returning in not a long while and hanging the firecrackers on a tree in the courtyard, she grasped an incense stick to ignite that wick that was extending outward for as much as 1 chi [foot]. The other people still didn't know what was going on when the ring of ’’pi-pa’’ sounds began to reverberate throughout the entire courtyard house.

Now, this was just too much. Yesterday night, everybody had also been burning bamboo sticks in their homes and had heard the noises from the master-family, which were all in a row and were much louder. So they were standing nearby at this moment while watching those things suddenly fall down and turn into confetti one after another as their ears rang till they were buzzing.

A firecracker string was all gone but everybody was still in the middle of their astonishment. What exactly was this thing that was only that big yet each and every single one of them was like a thunderclap? The master-family was really amazing.

Mrs. Zhang-Wang had been frightened once already yesterday night so seeing the expressions of awe on each and every one of the peasants' faces at this time was as if this stuff called firecrackers had been made by her. As she listened to the sound of the crowd talking and then looked over at her relatively unconcerned son and future daughter-in-law, she nodded her head in satisfaction.

It was at this time that Wang Juan's parents arrived here together. Hearing the commotion from outside the courtyard, they knew that it had been the firecrackers that had been sent over to their house yesterday. Today, the two of them had also come over for the sake of this matter. Yesterday, when it had been lit up, the entire family had been frightened. Afterward, they had been happy since with such a huge commotion, it could be considered that the ox demons and snake spirits3wouldn't dare to harm people.

Once the two people entered the courtyard house, they first gave each other New Year greetings. After the excitement had passed, Wang Juan's mother grasped Mrs. Zhang-Wang's hand as she said:

’’[Older] Sister, after our family over there lit up this thing called firecrackers yesterday night, the noise was that big, ~ah. Today this morning when the peasants came over to give New Year greetings, they had even asked about it, ~ne. Knowing that stuff was all made by Xiaobao and Juan-Juan, we hurried over here to see.’’

While Mother Wang sighed over the wonder of the firecrackers, she was also a bit worried. Yesterday, one of the people who went over to light it initially didn't know the power of the firecrackers. So even though he'd been told to take cover when the firecrackers had been sent over, he still stood right next to them. The firecrackers had made a crackling ’’pi-li-pa-la’’ sound and the person who had lit the fire had been scared silly at that moment and stood there in a daze. One of the firecrackers that had been blasted out went flying over by this person's hand and exploded so that person's hand immediately swelled up.

Early this morning, the Wang Family's steward saw that this person wasn't working so agilely and only learned about this after asking before they'd hurriedly went to inform the patriarch. Here now, Mother Wang was scared. A single item blasting onto someone was that powerful so when they were being made, piles of them were made. If there was a bit of a spark of fire here, then wouldn't the two children have been blasted to nothing?

In the beginning, Mrs. Zhang-Wang had been smiling as she listened to this future in-law talk there but as she listened, she also became scared in hindsight. Hurried pulling her in-law to go over to the two children there and not saying any words, they carefully inspected one for each person, touching their faces and pinching their hands for fear that anything was missing.

’’Mom, what are you [honorific] doing this for?’’ Zhang Xiaobao had been pinched to the point of bafflement as he looked up and asked.

’’Xiaobao, tell Mom. Can those firecrackers blast people to death? Tell the truth.’’ Mrs. Zhang-Wang worriedly asked.

Zhang Xiaobao nodded and thinking for a bit, he replied: ’’They can. They can if there's a lot. Not only can they blast people to death, they can even destroy mountains and crack the earth. The ones we made don't have that much power. It'll be fine if we're a bit careful.’’

’’What a bit careful? Yesterday, there was someone from the Wang Family who had been injured from the blast. Their hand is all swollen. When you guys were making that ten-string, if there were to be a mishap, then what to do? From now on, you and Juan-Juan aren't allowed to raise a hand.’’

Upon hearing this, Mrs. Zhang-Wang got frightened. This son and daughter-in-law really weren't ordinary people, ~ah. To destroy mountains and crack the earth weren't those actions of immortal sages?

Both of them gave the two children a lecture and had them guarantee that they wouldn't do such a dangerous thing anymore before they then began to discuss family affairs. As they chatted, Mother Wang suddenly said to Mrs. Zhang-Wang:

’’[Older] Sister, the sound of these firecrackers is big. If any family was holding a wedding or large event, it'd be lively if even one string were to be set off. Why not have people make some more and take it out to sell? It'd be another way to make money.’’

’’[Younger] Sister, this matter doesn't seem to be doable. What if it causes people to learn it? By then, what to do if they use this stuff to harm people?’’ Mrs. Zhang-Wang had already considered it yesterday morning so she was a bit concerned.

Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan were also listening to the side. Seeing that in meeting someone who would think of how to make money from this, they could only exclaim over the effect profit had on people and didn't know whether or not the formula should be given out.

’’Xiaobao, looks like my Mom has seen that your family's daily life is getting better and better and is also a bit anxious. What do you say we should do?’’ Wang Juan herself couldn't decide.

Zhang Xiaobao was also a bit hesitant and wanted to reject it but afraid that Wang Juan's mother would be unhappy, he wanted to promise it. But if he wanted to promise it, then he was also worried about the formula being leaked.

’’[Older] Sister, [Younger] Sister has a method that can let the formula not be leaked. Over here, [Older] Sister can make ready those things and [Younger] Sister will find people to transport it back so at that time, it can be made at Wang Manor. With two portions divided, the people making it would basically not even know the formula.’’

Mother Wang was eager to make money so in a flash of inspiration, she thought up this idea. Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan's eyes also lit up. Initially, the two of them had kept on thinking of the consequences of it being leaked so hadn't given any thought to this area.

Mrs. Zhang-Wang also inwardly agree and called over Shiliu who was at their side and instructed Shiliu to specifically make the stuff inside those firecrackers from now on so that by then, they could be sent over to Wang Manor.

This matter could be considered to have been decided upon in this manner. Over there, the Wang Family would dispatch people over here to learn how to make the firecrackers while Shiliu would individually oversee the raw ingredients.

That day, people from over there arrived. The process of manufacturing the firecrackers was simple. The issue of safety was the part that required the most attention. Shiliu emphasized over and over various kinds of details and had the people do it according to the requirements, not allowing for any error.

The morning of New 5th, starting from Wang Manor over there, they went house to house to give firecrackers to the peasants of the two manors. Each string had 100 heads and wasn't made to be that long unlike the ones that Zhang Xiaobao and Wang Juan had made. When a family was given firecrackers, the family would be told of the areas to pay attention to as other people mustn't be injured and fire also had to be prevented.

Every one of the peasants accepted the firecrackers in joy while giving thanks to the master-family. What they were thinking of was rather simple since if their own family set off the firecrackers, the commotion would be great, ~ah, and those ox demons and snake spirits wouldn't dare visit their own homes.

Amidst this anticipation, night arrived. Normally, this one day of the New Year would no longer require burning the exploding bamboo but the people of the two manors still lit up the firecrackers. Several households set them off at the same time with one household following after the other. For an hour, those sounds from the two families of the Zhang and Wang Manors didn't even break off.

The people of the two manors were happy but the people of Ge Manor over there became anxious. Listening to the activity on that side of the river, each and single one of them were on tenterhooks as they didn't know what was the matter since it was just like those thunderclaps. The little kids all laid belly-down on the couches and covered their heads, not daring to poke their heads out.

Early on the New 6th, when Erniu left leading two people along with him while bearing the expectations of Little Mister, the people of Ge Manor couldn't hold back from coming over to make New Year greetings. They said it was to pay a New Year visit but it really was to ask after the yesterday's matter.

The result was that after inquiring about it, the peasants of the two families of Zhang and Wang manor began to talk. They talked of how the manor's master-family was that so and so good by giving them things for New Year's and even gave them this type of plaything called firecrackers for them to set off in order to drive away all those dirty things4 hidden away in the dark places.

This caused the people of Ge Manor to be envious and jealous while at the same time, also frightened. If these two manors drove away the dirty things, then wouldn't they all run over there to their own side? Not good. Whatever else was said, they had to get some of these firecrackers to better get rid of the bad luck.5 After asking around, they finally learned that they were sold within the general goods store that had been set up by the two manors over here two months before and rushed over there in succession.

With one look upon reaching the place, they saw that they really did have them. This had been discussed in advance by the two families of Zhang and Wang. If they wanted to sell firecrackers, then they had to let even more people know of them. Thus, they had given one string to every family on the manor.

Ge Manor's people asked after the price. Each string of 100 heads was 3 wen [cash], each string of 500 heads was 12 wen [cash], and each string of 1,000 heads was 22 wen [cash]. They could be purchased using ready cash and could be traded for using items.

When setting this price, Wang Juan's mother's breathing grew a bit strained. Shiliu had told them the upfront money and an individual string of 100 heads didn't even reach 1 wen [cash]. As for the labor costs, it was all people bought by the manor who normally were working anyway. So to let you have a bit more grease in your dishes when you ate, that was considered to be not bad.

When Ge Manor's people saw this price, they were also a bit undecided in their hearts. 3 wen [cash] could only hear a single bang like that so they really were a bit unwilling. But upon thinking that this stuff could repel dirty things, they then felt like it wasn't that expensive. To be able to make such a loud commotion, they thought that the original cost to make this stuff shouldn't be too low.

Amongst them were two of those whose families could be considered to be making an adequate living so they gritted their teeth and returned home to take out several brined chicken eggs that had previously been pickled to bring to the general goods store to exchange for a firecracker string in preparation to be set off in the evening.

With someone taking the lead, the other people also felt that this money was worth spending and they all returned home to get things in succession. They normally also came to this general goods store to buy or trade for items and knew that this general goods store accepted anything and was fair when it came to pricing, giving them quite a bit of convenience. This was due to the two master-families of other people who especially set this up for the peasants. When compared to their own manor's master-family, they couldn't say anything other than to sigh.

In turn, there were people from Ge Manor bringing things over in exchange. And they didn't even use money to buy it as there were ones who used rice grains to trade, ones who used salted meat to exchange, ones who used some of the staple foods that had been steamed for New Year's to barter, and there were even people who pushed a large cart of paddy and wheat stalks to trade for it.

The general goods store welcomed all visitors. Those paddy and wheat stalks could be made into firewood, composted into manure, or sent over to Wang Manor there to raise earthworms. As long as they hadn't gone bad, the edible items were fine as the servants of the two master-family's courtyard houses could eat them. There were also some handicrafts that, if more were accumulated, could all be transported to outside areas to sell as the prices of prosperous places were a bit higher.

The people of Ge Manor's constant activity elicited their master-family's notice. This generation's patriarch was Ge Family's eldest son called Ge Yingxi.6 Standing by the doorway and seeing the peasants were all carrying objects to go towards that side of the river, he finally couldn't help stopping a person to ask: ’’Wu Family's Xiaosan,7 where are you going here to do?’’

’’In reply to Master's words, I'm now preparing to go over to the general goods store on that side to trade for some things a new thing, firecrackers, that can drive away those dirty things. When that plaything begins sounding, it's just like thunder.’’


  1. ’’Chu Yi’’ (初一) is the generic way of referring to the 1st day of the month in the traditional Chinese calendar and literally means ’’initial 1’’ as the first 10 days of a month are referred to as the initial 10 days before every following day is just referred to by the number of its date. However, because this is referring specifically to the 1st day of the new year, I am translating this as ’’New 1st.’’

  2. ’’Bai nian’’ (拜年), which literally means ’’to greet year,’’ is the catch-all term in Chinese used to describe all the social festivities associated with Chinese New Year, especially since tradition expects the younger generation to pay their respects to the older generation within the family as well as to visit relatives along with friends and neighbors. It can also refer to the time period that includes New Year's day as well as the first month of the New Year as every day had associated activities in the Chinese culture. The New Year greetings were all well wishes for a good year, fortune, health, etc in an atmosphere not unlike the one that the Western world has with Christmas. Drinks and refreshments as well as gift giving during these visits are a custom and explain a great deal of the expense involved in celebrating Chinese New Year since even the poorest of families would wish to keep up a certain level of appearances for visitors.

  3. ’’Niu gui she shen’’ (牛鬼蛇神) basically refer to ox-headed ghosts/demons (which look similar to the Minotaur of Greco-Roman myth) and gods/spirits with the bodies of serpents as representatives of the kind of monsters that are representative of bad luck and disaster. ’’Niu gui’’ (牛鬼) is shorthand for ’’niu tou yuzu’’ (牛頭獄卒) or ’’ox head jail guard’’ which is briefly described in the Mahayana Buddhist text, the Surangama Sutra or otherwise known as ’’Leng Yan Jing’’ (楞嚴經) for short in Chinese, as a ghost or spirit responsible for guard duty of Diyu (地獄), the underground jail that was the Chinese underworld/afterlife. It is often paired with a horse-headed demon/ghost and most Westerners probably know of the ox-headed demon through the Japanese version known as the ushi-oni or gyuki (牛鬼). ’’She shen’’ (蛇神) might refer to nagas, which are beings that can take the form of giant cobras and described in Buddhism and Hinduism to possess varying degrees of malevolence or ambivalence to humanity, as well as other similarly serpentine spirits. Snakes also tend to be viewed in very different extremes in Chinese mythology. The more positive portrayals can be seen in the river deities as well as the two sibling gods of Nüwa (女媧) and Fuxi (伏羲) who were together responsible for creating humanity and are described as having human faces with the bodies of snakes according to Chinese folklore. However, snakes are also considered one of the Five Venoms or ’’Wu Du’’ (五毒), which include scorpions, centipedes, geckos (sometimes replaced by spiders in the list), and toads as well. In any case, the ox demon and snake spirits together are a popular expression to symbolize the evil and misfortune that people wish to keep away from their lives so the symbolic exorcism of Chinese New Year signifies a new year without any bad luck.

  4. I translated ’’zang dong xi’’ (髒東西) literally. It is being used as an euphemism to refer to all the secret and hidden devils and spirits out there that might cause harm to people. The peasants are avoiding outright naming individual ones out of superstitious fear that they get summoned by name, similarly to how the word for ’’bear’’ came about as the etymology is derived from a placeholder term people used to refer to bears that means ’’brown one.’’

  5. The Chinese believed that luck or bad luck had a physical presence in the air so ’’hui qi’’ (晦氣) or ’’unlucky air’’ had to be repelled as part of the New Year festivities. This is also why sometimes people down on their luck were avoided because it was believed that bad luck could be contagious.

  6. Ge Yingxi (葛迎喜) is surnamed Ge (葛) and his name, Yingxi (迎喜), means ’’welcoming joy.’’

  7. The Chinese text is ’’Wu jia Xiao San’’ (吴家小三) which means ’’Wu family little three’’ and is probably a nickname rather than a given name. It can be inferred then that this guy is the third child or son of the Wu family. A funny fact is that ’’xiao san’’ (小三) can also be slang in Chinese for a mistress or other woman since they make up the third side of a love triangle.



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