Episode Ten: Great Tang Records on the Western Regions Pt. I
We have a new collection to jump into this week, featuring tales which may or may not be considered too civilized to be 'medieval.' These wide-ranging tales cover the Middle East and furthest reaches of Western Asia, and are sure to surprise!
The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域记), or as we'll call it here on out, the Great Records, is a collected travelogue of buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘), who complied his observations and records of legends throughout modern day Afghanistan, Nepal, India, and parts of China. This area was controlled largely by the Tang dynasty, but he travelled into parts of the Indian and Turkish empires at the time as well. Xuanzang travelled from around 620-640 A.D. This episode covers five short folktales from various places he travelled.
The first tale comes from Kuchê, a town near a great lake where dragons were said to live. The locals grazed their horses near the lake, and the dragons bred with the horses to produce a superior breed of horse. The local folk had no well, and were also accustomed to going to the lake for water. The dragons often shapeshifted into beautiful young men and coupled with the young women of the town. These unions led the folk to becoming more fiery and fierce, but had corrupted spirits as a result. The king of these people was known as King Gold-flower, and he supposedly could yoke the dragons to his chariot and, upon spurring them on, could become invisible. We believe that these horsemen might have had stirrups, and were thus superior horsemen, giving rise to the dragon-horse legend.
The second tale we have dubbed the 'Legend of the Starfish King.' In this tale, the reigning king left his post for a time to go on a pilgramage in the pursuit of the 'three precious ones' (the buddha, the law, and the community). When he left, he set his brother in charge. His brother accepted the post, and, in order to ensure his integrity, castrated himself. He placed his member in a golden casket and presented it to his brother, telling the king to open it upon his return. When the king returned, his corrupt advisors told him that his brother had been cavorting with the royal concubines. The king's brother declared that the kind should open up the box. Upon realizing what was inside, the king was astounded and declared that his brother could have full sway inside the palace (since, of course, he could not consort with the concubines). The brother enjoyed this position for some time until he discovered that his member was, in fact, growing back. To furthur preserve his integrity, the brother once again refused to enter into the concubines' chambers. The king was so amazed at this that he granted his brother more power, and eventually the Starfish King became the leader of his own convent of former concubines.
The third tale is more of a traveller's warning. Xuanzang records the warning that in the region of Oxu, there are dragons at the top of a mountain at the Great Sing Lake. In order to traverse this area successfully, travellers must not wear red or carry very loud calabashes (these are gourds used to carry water) so as not to wake the dragons.
The fouth tale tells about a stupa (a holy shrine) which is known for oozing black goo. The legend states that a man, after getting permission from the king to create a stupa, had nothing to fill the stupa with. As he was travelling, he came upon a wanderer who happened to have several relics of Buddha in a casket (not a golden one, however). The man takes these relics to the new stupa, sanctifies it, and places the relics inside. As he tried to step out of the stupa, he caught his robe on the edge, and the stones closed in around him. He, apparently, is the resulting black sludge that oozes from this stupa.
The final tale tells of an arhat (a holy man) and his foolhardy apprentice. This arhat would often visit the king of the naga (a legendary snake-people in Indian folklore). One day, his novice grasped onto the magic rug as the arhat was taking off, and both flew to the naga king's palace. The naga king welcomed them both. He provided the arhat with immortal food (for he had achieved enlightenment), but gave the novice mortal food. When the novice saw the dregs of the immortal food, he cursed the naga and wished himself to be a naga king. This came to pass, and the new naga king (in his pride) made great trouble on the mountain, for the neighboring village, and destroyed the king's temple. When the local king arrived atop an elephant with his army, he ordered his soldiers to fill the lake with stones. The naga king grew upset at this, and explained the naga are brutish creatures, but still have the capacity to reason. He made a deal with the king not to destroy the temple again, but warned that he might forget this promise. To prevent further destruction, the king should send a man to look at the mountain top everyday. If there was a black cloud over the mountain, he should sound a ghanta (a bell drum) to settle the naga.
These tales are beyond the normal repertoire of our individual expertise, but provide a great opportunity to discuss what medievalism actually means. Generally, when people think of the Middle Ages or the medieval period, they thing of knights in shining armor and probably King Arthur. These certainly were elements of the medieval period, or at least idealizations of it, but the medieval period is much more complex.
The Middle Ages, or worse, the "Dark Ages," were named as such during the Renaissance. People during the Renaissance and Early Modern period wanted to modernize themselves and separate themselves from their forebears. In doing so, they characterized the medieval period as a 'darker age' where the brilliance of the ancient classiscs was lost, only to be brought back to light by the glorious minds of the men in the Renaissance. This outlook is, in slim part, true. However, the medieval period was by no means a 'darker age;' manuscripts were being widely copied and disseminatted, and the Middle East was enjoying its own Golden Age of scientific discovery and literature which, in turn, influenced Europe. The Middle Ages were only 'dark' insofar as they were dimmer than the developments of the Renaissance. The Renaissance relied on the developments of the Middle Ages, and the Middle Ages relied on the Classical Antiquity in turn.
The term medievalism is also usually applied in a Euro-centric context. This tendency is due to the fact that while Europe was in its "Middle Ages," other places in the world were in their own developmental periods. As mentioned earlier, the Middle East was enjoying a Golden Age, and China, like these stories illustrate, was in the middle of the Tang Dynasty. Historians have various names for these periods, and traditionally, the "Middle Ages" has referred to Europe between 500-1500 A.D. As mentioned in the episode, however, this definition can be expanded and altered, so it's worth considering in what context any author might be using it!
Final Rating: 7.75
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