By Elizabeth Smithrosser
The humble donkey was a constant presence across Tang China and a regular feature in the day-to-day business of people from all walks of life. How were these animals remembered by writers of the time?
In 2012, when a team of archaeologists set about excavating a recently discovered tomb in the vicinity of the Tang capital Chang’an, they found two skeletons they had not been counting on. As they carefully dismantled the brick walls to gain entry to the tomb itself, the daylight was quick to inform them that its contents had been looted long ago. Instead, the otherwise bare cavern greeted them with the sight of two large animal skeletons: horses. To find horses buried with a human was nothing strange, but size-wise, something was not quite right. Were they smallish adult horses, or big foals? As it turned out, these were not horses at all, but rather, donkeys.
These were two donkeys that had led fairly cushy lives, at least prior to their presumed ritual slaughter that had sent them to join their mistress in the afterlife. They had been the pet donkeys of a certain Madame Cui, who, according to the researchers who examined their bones, kept them for the purposes of her beloved hobby of polo. Donkeys being smaller and slower than horses were thought to make them practical polo partners for women. In life, these two six-year-old donkeys had given Madame Cui much joy, and upon her death her family saw to it that they would continue to do so for all of eternity.
Compared to the rest of their kind, Madame Cui’s donkeys had it easy. Just as elsewhere in the world, in Tang China donkeys were used primarily as beasts of burden, especially when it came to carrying goods long distance. Something else that was often seen on their backs was human riders. To be sure, donkeys had less of a prestige factor than horses, but that doubled as their selling point: donkeys were cheaper to purchase and less effort to maintain. Donkey rental stalls were a common sight at bustling urban marketplaces. The law of the land, astutely aware of their uses in the economy, agriculture and even warfare, took great interest in the ownership and welfare of donkeys. It should not surprise us, then, that the poets of the Tang, ever keen observers of the world that surrounded them, were no strangers to donkeys.
Donkeys were one of the go-to companions for long-distance travel, and long-distance travel lends itself well to poetic composition. Time on the road not only gave poets endless time to mull over their verse, but also endless inspiration in the form of the natural scenery that ushered them onwards on their way. A great deal of the most hallowed poems in Chinese history have been written on the road; it is not going too far to say that at least some of those classic features of today’s Chinese school textbooks were composed astride or beside a donkey.
These trusty travel companions appear with some frequency in the poems themselves. Not merely implanted as part of the descriptions of the scenery, when donkeys appear in Tang poems they do so often with a palpable degree of fondness: some poets express an appreciative camaraderie with their donkey partners through adverse weather conditions, while others applaud their innate hardiness in the face of tough-going terrain.
In one poem written for a close friend in celebration of the fact that a career relocation had brought them back within easy reach of each other, Yuan Zhen (779–831) romanticized their days of donkeys past:
On my lame donkey and your ailing horse
As partners in the dust
With officialdom’s vermilion robes
And purple tassels
We garbed our dreams
By this point in their lives, the two friends’ positions in the state bureaucracy most likely came with a “company car” in the form of one (or more) fine equine steeds. But, as Yuan Zhen reports, once upon a time, getting from A to B meant relying on more rickety and temperamental means of transport: side-by-side on a bumpy ride, one friend on a limping donkey and the other a gaunt horse. Having ridden out the dusty road to arrive at his successful present, Yuan Zhen looks back to remember his past longing for what he had now achieved with a subtle nostalgia. Work, after all, was not all it was cut out to be.
Bai Juyi (772–846), the close friend addressed by Yuan Zhen in the above poem, had his own donkey memories to share:
Whenever I lodge at the ministerial complex,
We reminisce on our time at Princess Huayang’s Abbey.
How as dusk fell
I was going on ahead
Pantry matters ever on my mind
How the mud was deep
When we stepped out
How you lent me your donkey.
Your company these days—
Forsooth! It disturbs me.
For who now fills the shoes of the well-to-do gents
Of those bygone years?
You look at me, I back at you—
Us, with our snow-white crowns!
Old as we are
Let’s not hold back.
Bai Juyi has made sure to inform us that the mud of his memories was deep. Deep mud, as we all know, is in the habit of splashing upwards. In that respect, when it came to trudging through the muddy abbey scene, a stocky donkey was no match for a lofty horse, whose height could keep its rider up out of the reach of the dirt. But on the other hand, the long, spindly legs of horses are ill-suited to deeper mud, being prone to losing their shoes or getting stuck. Thus, in practice, deep mud represented a choice between two undesirable alternatives: either being splattered with mud on a donkey or risking an injured horse. Bai Juyi, having already hinted at his financial anxieties, tellingly opts for the former.
This is just one example of how references to donkeys in Tang poems tend to carry an intrinsic yet unspoken comparison with their more elite cousin, the horse. While horse travel was often presented as the preserve of the state-recognized and salaried, donkeys were an inevitable feature of a humble and hard-going lifestyle. Yet, with a pinch of nostalgia at the hands of a poet, they became symbols for a halcyon age of one’s younger years, when the official career had been the object of aspiration and yearning, rather than a lived reality of obligation and stress.
In other words, we are looking at rose-tinted donkeys: beasts of burden and carriers of nostalgia. Poetic images such as in these two poems painted out the discomforts, inconveniences, and uncertainties inherent both to a reliance on donkey transport and the lifestyle conditions that had given rise to this reliance in the first place, along with any wistful yearnings for recognition we find in the poetry of their younger, unemployed counterparts.
Was there also a rose-tint to Madame Cui’s pet donkeys, laid to rest alongside her as immortal polo partners? To be sure, the researchers’ surprise at finding donkeys sharing the grave of the well-heeled wife of a high-flying bureaucrat springs from that very same implicit comparison with horses and the presumed inferiority of the donkey. But in the end, for Madame Cui, the humble donkey offered something that the horse, for all its relative prestige, was less equipped to provide: a steed of the perfect height, temperament and agility to complement her personal physicality in a way that empowered her to fully indulge in her beloved hobby of polo.
Dr. Elizabeth Smithrosser holds a PhD in Chinese history from the University of Oxford. She is currently a Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden. Click here to see her Institute page.
Note on the poems: The extracts are from Chou Letian xi linjun (酬樂天喜鄰郡) by Yuan Zhen (元稹); Chouji Niu xianggong tongsu huajiu quanjiu jianzeng (酬寄牛相公同宿話舊勸酒見贈) by Bai Juyi (白居易). The second poem is not a reply to the first, but rather addressed to a third friend: the important minister Niu Sengru (牛僧儒; 780–848). As is often the case, there are several to ways interpret the specifics of these poems.