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王守仁《七盤》“Seven Coils” by Wang Shouren

赴謫詩。正德丁卯年赴謫貴陽龍場驛作

A poem on the way to exile. The dingmao year [1507] of the Zhengde era [1506-1521], on [my] way to the place of exile, Longchang Courier Station, Guiyang.


鳥道縈紆下七

古藤蒼木峽聲

境多奇絕非吾土,

時可淹留是謫

猶記邊峰傳羽檄,

近聞苗俗化衣

投簪實有居夷志,

垂白難承菽水[1]


Birds’ paths winding down at Seven Coils, [2]

Old vines and aged woods, the gorge sounds chilly.

The landscape is so utterly extraordinary – it is not my land.

If ever [I] would dwell [here], it is because of demotion.

[I] still remember the feather-edict [3] delivered from the peaks of the borderland,

[And] recently heard that the Miao folk are converted to civil attire.

Throwing away the cap-pin, with a genuine intention to settle among the barbarians,

The grey-haired one finds it difficult to endure the joy of beans and water.


[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] Qipan 七盤 (“seven coils”) refers to the ridges along the northern border of modern Sichuan and the southern border of Shaanxi. [3] Yuxi 羽檄 (feather-edict) refers to official documents dispatched as express post, as if they would fly to their destinations.


 

Speaking of the history of Guizhou, Wang Shouren’s 王守仁 (i.e. Wang Yangming 王陽明; 1472-1529) may be one of the first names that comes to mind. This eminent Neo-Confucian thinker was exiled to Guizhou after offending a eunuch at court in 1506. As suggested in the poem above, he clearly didn’t look forward to it. Guizhou was perceived as a backwater for officials who had lost favour at court. Alien landscapes, foreign ethnic groups, and coarse food: the poem encapsulates the perceptions of this area in the poet’s days. I’m glad that I didn’t have to travel there with his concerns. On the contrary, the landscape, ethnic minorities and food of Guizhou have now become the highlights of precious local culture for tourists to discover.


After spending two days (which is far too short) exploring the natural treasures, I went to the provincial museum on the third and last day of my stay in Guiyang. On a visit to Guangzhou last year, the Guiyang Provincial Museum attracted my interest with a nice exhibition about the Kingdom of Yelang 夜郎, held in the Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King 西漢南越王博物館. I thought the museum that curated this exhibition seemed to be a place worth visiting, and indeed it didn’t disappoint. I had great fun there, watching a 4D film about pre-historic life in Guizhou and then spending hours in its galleries of very diverse topics, ranging from dinosaur fossils from some 200 million years ago to various ethic costumes of the present day.



The galleries of various ethnic minorities in Guizhou are fascinating. There are displays of artisanal workshops with videos showing traditional craftsmanship, including pottery, bamboo weaving, papermaking, weaving, etc. On another floor, the gallery of costumes showcases a variety of daily and festive hairdos and costumes as well as exquisite silverwork for headwear.



(1-4: photos from the museum's WeChat account; 5-17: taken by me on site)


The narratives are intriguing. Instead of stressing the uniqueness of each ethnic group, they try to show how the costumes of ethnic minorities have preserved certain features of historical costumes of the Han people that are now largely lost. This practice then offers a perfect example of what Master Kong allegedly said: “lishi er qiuzhuye” 禮失而求諸野 (When the rites are lost, [one may] seek them in the wild).[4]


Of course, storytelling is one thing. Whatever one makes out of the overlaps between modern costumes of ethnic minorities and historical documentation of Han garments, it doesn’t change the fact that the museum has a fantastic collection of costumes. I feel that the designs in the shop that draw inspiration from these costumes are also more interesting than many museum shops.


It only occurred to me after I left the museum that there wasn’t much stuff about food. I would love to learn a bit a more about the amazing sour soup tradition in Guizhou, a region with proverbs like “zou bu li pan, shi bu li suan” 走不离盤,食不離酸 (There is no road without coiling, no meal without acidity). Many believe that the tradition of seasoning food with acidity is a result of the lack of salt in the region.


I always have a taste for sour stuff, which is also an important part of my local food culture, so I was really looking forward to that. For my first dinner in Guiyang, my mother and I ordered a big pot of sour soup fish, and I think I had four servings of this delicious soup.



I wonder whether Wang Shouren changed his opinion about local food, but it is almost certain that the red sour soup that I had did not exist in his days. Its main ingredients, tomatoes and chillies, weren’t introduced into China until the end of the sixteenth century.


There is also another white sour soup that gets its acidity from grain fermentation, which can be traced back to the Tang-Song period. Unfortunately, I didn’t try it this time as I was occupied with something else on the second evening – shanji doufu 騸雞豆腐 (castrated chicken in tofu). And it’s easily one of the best tofu dishes I’ve ever had! Extremely tasty tofu (similar to my aunt’s tofu), mashed and mixed with shreds of chicken. The soup has delightful freshness and rich flavour. Totally different from the sour soup, but also great. It would have made a good addition to the healthy diet of a grey-haired person. The dish does look very special in photos, so perhaps check out this video.


All in all, a breath-taking landscape, fascinating ethnic cultures, and amazing food constitute my first impression of Guizhou. Though still listed among the poorest provinces in China, Guizhou is certainly a world away from what Wang Shouren, among many other pre-modern writers, had believed. I’ve got a new wish list of Guizhou destinations. I’d also bought books about dinosaurs and the history of the earth. Looking forward to enjoying more of this region on my next visit...


[4] Quoted in the Hanshu 漢書, see https://ctext.org/han-shu/yi-wen-zhi (passage 349). “In the wild” is perhaps the most direct reading of the word ye 野, but people interpret it differently. The main commentary on the Hanshu by Yan Shigu 顏師古 (581-645), for example, reads it as “the outskirts [of the capital]”. It has also been suggested that ye indicates “the masses / common people”.


 

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