About two thousand years ago in Northern China there was a fairly steady low grade war between the Xiongnu people of the steppes of Central Asia and the Han Chinese who lived in more urban type environments further to the south and east. The Xiongnu, a confederation of tribes, were pastoralists, they foraged for plant food and hunted and trapped. They rode horses and were nomadic. The Han were agriculturalists. They lived in the same place year round. They also hunted and trapped but were clearly more geared towards a more centralized type of government.
These two peoples fought over the same ground often with each side often pressing deep into the territory of the other with great regularity. Obviously the fuel for this conflict was multivariable and isn’t as straight forward as ‘they wanted land’ or ‘they wanted livestock’ or ‘they wanted access to resources’. But suffice to say it went on for a long time with plenty of loss of life and property.
In the Shih-chi, written in 100 BC, a Han Chinese author wrote
“The Xiongnu have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture…They have no writing, and ever their promises and agreements are only verbal. The boys start out by learning how to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow…Thus all young men are able to to use bow and act as armed cavalry in times of war.”
We can see from this letter that the Han valued walls, cities, fixed dwellings, agriculture, writing, written agreements and childhoods not devoted to war. This isn’t to say that these are good or bad things but just to see the world view embedded in their language.
The Xiougnu could launch many quick raids and escape before army divisions could be rallied. So often the counter attacks would be weeks later.
Now, If I said “Quick! Give me your top three associations about silk! Go!”
You might stop for a second and say “uh….China…made from silk worms…and fancy”
I actually tested this with a few friends (this was informal testing, of course) and China and silk worms came up very consistently. ‘Fancy’ was there. But so was ‘smooth’ and also ‘sensual’ and ‘expensive.’
There might be some others but that is kind of the rap that silk has gathered. It is an upscale sort of a material.
Sericulture in China has 9000 year old history. There is so much to say about it. But I’ll say this – how to make silk became a highly guarded secret by the Han Chinese and as silk became finer and smoother and more elaborate the secret became even more well protected. People who were caught smuggling out silk worms and related materials were often fined into permanent poverty or killed.
So let’s get back to this low grade war. At some point the Han Chinese got sick of the war and wanted to set up a permanent peace process. Their plan was diplomatic in scope.
First there would be a marriage between the two sides.
Second a great wall (which became The Great Wall) would mark the boundary of their territories.
Thirdly, an agreement that the two peoples would become ‘brotherly’ with neither subservient to the other.
And then was the fourth part. The gifts of silk.
During the war the Xiongnu would steal all sorts of things from the Han – livestock, grain, weapons, functional metal like iron and copper and valuable metal like gold and silver, charcoal, wood, and…fabric. Often, but not only, silk.
So the Xiongnu had a little taste for the beauty of silk. We know this because lots of Han silks have been found in ritual burials sites in far Northern Mongolia. The fourth part proposed was that there would be an annual meeting between the two leaders of the Han and the Xiongnu to exchange gifts and also that trade posts would be established where the two could meet and peaceably exchange goods.
This plan didn’t happen all at once but was part of a longer term strategy to undermine and bankrupt their northern enemies.
As one Han official wrote “A piece of Chinese plain silk can be exchanged with the Xiongnu for articles worth several pieces of gold and thereby reduce the resources of our enemy. Mules, donkeys and camels enter the frontier in unbroken lines; horses, dapples and bays and prancing mounts, come into our possession.”
And then there was one defector – a Han official who told the Xiongnu they were being played for fools.
“When you get any of the the Han silks, put them on and try riding around on your horses through the brush and brambles! In no time your robes and leggings will be torn to shreds and everyone will be able to see that silks are no match for the utility and excellence of felt and leather.”
The plan worked. Year by year the Han Chinese brought finer and finer silks to the chiefs of the Xiongnu as gifts and sold and traded silks during the years with the tribesmen at trading posts. Slowly they changed the tastes of their enemies but they were the sole source for the goods which deepened their strategic advantages.Now before I continue let me say this and try to be as plain and clear as I can. At this moment in time with this novel coronavirus and COVID19 running rampant around the world there are some who point to and blame China, the Chinese people, and the Chinese government for the virus because the virus vectored from a market in Wuhan, China. And in so doing there is an attempt to tag Chinese people as disgusting, disease ridden, or scheming and lying.
I reject that entirely as racist.
But I am writing about a historical time that involves Han Chinese people and some of the actions they took then to use as a point of reflection for the times we are in. No greater statement is being made nor implied about Chinese people more generally with this piece.
What does this have to do with Primal Derma? With skincare? With the times we find ourselves in?
Let me see if I can gather in the threads, so to speak.
So much of the consumer culture of the West has been driven by seeking fine items, rare items from places that are not our own. And this is the way it has been for a long time. The mandatory growth economy relies on it. George W Bush after 9/11 implored the country to ‘get shopping’ and Donald Trump wants to get people killed in order to ‘get the country back in business.’ Consume. That is the directive. And there is a cost to that. In order to consume, the producers have to look in more and more places for worthy items and materials. We are in the wake and consequence of culture that knows nothing of limits and less. What is happening is not punishment. Simply consequence. No criticism here, we were all veiled from this.
A pressure is rising now for ‘getting back to normal’ and that means to return to the way things were – blind consumption without a sense of a deeper cost. And now there can be a wondering for how that cost might either be paid in any number of dimensions – financially, ceremonially, mythically, culturally, or not incurred in the first place at all because the cost might be too high. And now we can start to see these broader costs that are woven into and stand as foundations for the financial costs. The attempt to forget what is happening and to call it ‘just a blip’ and a distraction is starting to play out. May we remember this time as not a blip.
And yet reading about what happened to the Xiongnu is instructive. They were seduced to treasure silk – as fine as it was – and started to value less the plainer but more practical and functional felt and leather that derived from their own native animals and traditions. These traditions that married them to rhythms of their land and their ancestors. Which is not to say they should never have had silk. Some. Less. A treasured bolt used sparingly.I don’t know how this will all play out and certainly the outcome will not be uniform. But aren’t we in the west so much like the Xiongnu? Seduced by consumption of goods from far away that undermine our capacity to be in relationship with where we are from? The analogy is not one to one. There is a complexity here. We have seduced ourselves and also the seduction has deep roots in history and social patterning. But I pray that Primal Derma, and other ones like it, are part of the dreaming of a different mode of consumption. Smaller. Slower. Drawn from the near local and the costs are known and spoken to as best as they can be and woven into beauty making that has the thumbprint of humans upon it.
Thank you so much for your ongoing supports.