So there I am, minding my own business, you know, my business of ploughing that putrid piece of land that his freakin’ feudal lordship allows me, when Blossom is enveloped by a storm of midgets, and he twitches and moans in pain, and all I could do is snap my whip, and I do it so well that thirty leeches fall off him, fat and dead, and midges die in their thousands. Well, I say to myself, this is a satisfying day. I may be small, but I’m good. So I unhitch Blossom from the plough, and lead him towards the city road, and spit at the freakin’ feudal lord (may the leeches consume him), and walk a bit, and, boy, is it hot.
I stop for a brief break, and Blossom is pleased, I think, for he nibbles on some grass, and I ponder great things. I chop down a little tree with my faithful axe, and I shape it into a signpost, and I carve out a message.
This way went Gole the Warrior, vanquisher of Saracens, thirty knights undone by me, and countless forces of infantry.
And I clamber onto Blossom, and whisper to him, and he waggles his ears at me, and we are back on the road.
And then we hear frantic clip-clops approaching us from behind, and a great knight stops us, and says, “Have you seen Gole the Warrior?” and I say, “That’s me, buddy.” and he nearly falls off his destrier. “Ride on my right,” I say, nudging Blossom on, and the knight obeys, and I can see his brow is furrowed and his nose is wrinkled, for I haven’t washed in days, and I am fairly ripe, and Blossom’s scarcely much to look at, and he is thinking, “Can this be? A stinky peasant on a half-dead horse? Is there some enchantment?”
“Who are you?” I say, and the knight shakes himself alert, and bows from his saddle.
“Bova, the king’s son,” he says, and rides beside me, thinking deeply.
And then we hear frantic clip-clops approaching us from behind, and a magnificent knight stops us, and says, “Bova! Have you seen Gole the Warrior?” and Bova points silently at me, and the knight is so surprised that a prince is riding with a peasant that he bows to me, and says, “Yeruslan, at your service.”
I bid him ride on my left, and he does so, and raises his eyebrows at Bova who shrugs. They think I don’t notice. I do, but do I care? They are warriors of legend, and many a tale is told of their doings in Rus, but I’m no less after all. I am Gole the Warrior.
And then we hear frantic clip-clops approaching us from behind, and a young knight overtakes us, and, recognising Bova and Yeruslan, he bows to me and exclaims, “Churila, sir, at your service,” and I reply, “Gole, at yours.” and he takes Bova’s side, and we go on for some miles, and I don’t speak much except to say, “I’m grateful for your company, my brothers,” for that is how I fancy knights talk among each other.
And we come across fine meadows and lush pasture and there are fine cows too many to count, and I direct Blossom towards them when Bova shouts, “Stop, Gole. These are the domains of the Saracen Queen!” and I say, “Long has she menaced Rus. Let us rest and refresh ourselves on her lands.”
And Yeruslan turns to me, and I can see he is worried, and he says, “The Saracen Queen’s forces are mighty – twenty-two knights, and Zilant the Undefeated.”
And I say to him, “Mere mosquitoes! Are they too much for you?” and he is struck dumb. The knights follow me onto the meadow, and I let Blossom graze, and I take my sweaty shirt off, and I lie down beneath an ancient oak, and the knights bestir themselves to do battle with each other, to test their strength and mettle. To each his own, I think, and I close my eyes.
And the knights chase the shepherds away, and the meadow is pummelled into mud under their war-horses, and they come back to sit near me, to wonder at my calm.
For the bells are pealing and the gates to the Saracen Queen’s city are opening, and trumpets are blaring, and Churila is shaking me awake, saying, “Gole, there’s a force sent against us.”
I open one eye, and I say, “A force? Three knights – three leeches. And a division of infantry? All mosquitoes. Go on, Churila, deal with them, and send one to the queen with a message to marry me.”
Off Churila goes, and fights hard, and cuts down one knight and then another and he spares the third, who drags himself back to his queen, and she, clearly is not happy, and she sends six champions against us with three divisions of infantry. Churila is exhausted but he shakes me awake, and I take a look, and I say, “Six knights? One blow and they are dust. Go on, Bova, surely you can manage?” and I go back to sleep.
And Bova fights long and hard, and he takes them apart, and sends one man to tell the Saracen Queen to marry me.
But she sends twelve knights now against us, and six divisions of men-at-arms, and they blow their horns and wave their maces and make a godawful din.
“Yeruslan,” I say, “Sort them out, there’s a good fellow.”
“If you can’t,” I add, “We’ll help you.”
And he is as good as they say, for he charges the enemy and fights them like a lion, and though they are so many, he outdoes himself, until he crushes the lot, and, barely able to stay up on his saddle, sends one man to the Saracen Queen, demanding that she marry me.
And then appears Zilant, a giant of a warrior clad in iron. The earth shakes as he emerges from his iron nest that is stretched across twelve trees that bend under the strain.
Zilant roars and the grass flattens before him, and I awaken again.
My brothers are exhausted and there is nothing for it, and I put on my shirt and I’m sweating again, and I clamber onto Blossom, and he staggers forward, and I squeeze my eyes tightly shut, and I cross myself, and I think, “Here I go to my death, and it is an honourable one.”
And I wave my axe over my head, and I whisper to myself, “Fathers and brothers, remember my name.” and later they tell me that Zilant cannot believe his eyes and roars, “Is this for real? A silly peasant? Against me? A flick of a finger and he’ll fly a furlong!” and he crouches close over his horse’s neck for a better look, and then Blossom jumps, and I rise on my stirrups, and I chop hard against Zilant’s head, and he goes down pole-axed, and I strike him as he lies stunned on the ground, and I cut him as I would an oak, and then I shrug, and Blossom limps back to my friends.
And they gape at me unbelievingly, and meanwhile the Saracen Queen is filled with grief and foreboding, and she can do nothing other than to open the gates and come out herself and bow to me. And she is puzzled by me and shakes my hand and crushes it so hard that I have to clench my mouth shut not to shout, and I jump from the agony in my breaking fingers and jerk my hand back. And she says, sweetly, “I’ve always honoured courage.” And she puts her hand on my shoulder, and I can scarcely withstand her strength, and I stagger, and she says, “Protect my kingdom! You are our defender now.”
So I bow to her and worry how I am to save my head.
And she throws a feast in our honour, and she brings out her best mead thinking to muddle our heads, but I refuse, and I say, “After a day’s hard work, I drink nothing except the Water of Champions.”
And the Saracen Queen says, “We have a little of the mighty water.”
And I say, “How much of it do you have?”
And she says, “A bottle full.”
And I say, “Is it any good? The usual variety is no better than beer.”
And she orders it brought before me, and I pour myself a glass and swallow it in one, and she says, “How is it?” and I say, “I have hardly got a taste.”
And I pour myself out another glassful and I down it, and then I down three more, and the queen shouts, “Enough, enough! You’ll leave none for me!”
And I say, “Excellent water. How strong am I now?”
And I ask that a length of ship’s cable be brought, thick as an oak tree, and order it tied into a knot, and I take a destrier from the stables, and I ride him full pelt towards the rope, and the knot slips over my head, and I tear it open, and all who see it, fall onto their knees in awe, and raise their hands to the heavens, and praise my name.
And soon I am known far and wide as the Gole the Great, and the Saracen Queen marries me, and she gives me two daughters, Luck and Fortune, and I look upon them and am proud.
And nobody can doubt again that I once felled thirty knights with one terrible blow of my hand.
[Based on the Russian folk tale. Crossposted from here.]
[Haraprasad Ray, a Sinologist of considerable expertise, wrote several monographs on Sino-Indian relations, history, trade routes and so on. His 1993 book, Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations: Study of Bengal During the 15th Century, was reviewed by Denys Lombard1. I translate that review loosely here.]
Although the title does not explicitly state so, this is essentially a rereading by one of the few Indian Sinologists (a lecturer at the Jawaharlal Nehru University) of the Chinese sources of the four missions to Bengal during the reign of the Yongle Emperor (between 1412-1414, 1415-1416, 1420-1421, and 1422-1423). As Pelliot has already assumed, it seems clear that Zheng He did not participate in any of these visits but left the responsibility to three of his associates: Yang Min, Hou Xian and Zhou Ding.
Mr Haraprasad Ray’s work is based mainly on the text Xiyang Chaogong Dianlu, “A Report on the Tributes sent to the Court from the Countries of the Western Seas” by Huang Shengceng, a native of Suzhou (1490-1540), and recently published by Xie Fang, based on seven different versions (Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1982). He tells us of having also ‘discovered’ by himself an unpublished manuscript in the City Library of Shanghai, which, unfortunately, he hasn’t used in this work. Huang’s text, certainly inspired by the Xingcha shenglan and the Yingyai shenglan, includes as well other unpublished sources, whence its interest.
The observations of Mr Haraprasad Ray, who is himself of Bengali origin, are invaluable. He establishes that the Chinese went well past Pandua (itself about 30 miles north of Gaur, a site not mentioned in the Yingyai edited by J.V.G. Mills) to Gaya, Delhi and up to Jaunpur. It is not without interest to see that the Chinese emissaries stopped at Jaunpur, that ‘enigmatic’ kingdom, where, under Ibrahim Shah Sharqi (1402-1440) an amazing cultural development inspired by Persia was flourishing at precisely that same time, Jaunpur being known then as the ‘Shiraz of India.’ Further, Mr Ray identifies certain Bengali fabrics that previous translations from the Chinese had hitherto omitted: manzheti, which appears to correspond to panchadi, a sort of calico; xinbailedali, corresponding to jhamartali, a sort of muslin; chaotaer corresponding to chautar, a thin cotton material; moheimoluo corresponding to mahmal, a velveteen fabric, and so on.
The glossary of Chinese terms (listing unnecessary characters like those of Zheng He and Yongle, but omitting those of Pand-du-wa and Zhao-na-pu-er) remains incomplete, and it is regrettable that the author was not better acquainted with the fine work of G. Bouchon (although a 1973 article by her on the Muslims of Kerala is cited) and L.F. Thomaz2, or R. Ptak3. Nevertheless, we eagerly await his forthcoming observations concerning Calicut, Quilon, Cochin and the Maldives (probably deriving from the same Xiyang chaogong dianlu).
We must in particular highlight the appendix (pp 147-160) in which Mr Haraprasad Ray returns to the question of the reasons for the termination of the famous voyages after 1433: “Cessation of the Voyages : A New Look into its Causes.”
Far from inferring a “Chinese decline” from the reduction in naval expeditions, the author suggests rather that state enterprises began to be taken over by private firms. This view (admittedly not entirely new, found as it is in the works of Wu Han and Lo Jungpang) is certainly a fine one, and we risk little more if we make a quick comparison between the Chinese trade, now almost free of any interference from the state, and future European commerce, which would have to endure more than two centuries of the yoke of the Estado da India. If we agree with Mr Ray, and there are, in our view, compelling reasons to do so, we must conclude that the Chinese interlopers had won the game long before the Europeans began to play it.
1. Denys Lombard. Haraprasad Ray : Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations. A Study of Bengal during the Fifteenth Century, Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 1994, vol. 81, n° 1, pp. 388-389.
2. Regarding Bengal, we would have expected at least a mention of the fine edition of the first Portuguese evidence on the region: G. Bouchon, L.F. Thomaz, Voyage dans les deltas du Gange et de l’Irraouaddy, 1521, Paris, Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian, 1988.
3. When, for instance, Mr Ray addresses the issue of the trade in horses (p. 120), it is unfortunate he does not mention the little monograph by R. Ptak, Pferde auf see, Chinas Pferdeimporte von den Riukiu-Inseln und den Ländern Südostasiens und des Indischen Ozeans (1368-1435), Bamberg, 1991.