People Are Buying Astronomically Priced Cucumbers
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“Little Miss, what item are we making right now? The sky’s so dark, why can’t we light a lamp?”
Shiliu placed some powder into the paper before placing it inside the little strip that Little Mister and the both of them had already made over there, rolling up the paper according to how Wang Juan had taught her. For this entire morning, nearly 1,000 had already been made and they were still continuing to make them so this caused Shiliu to be confused.
“It’ll be used for New Year’s time; it’s to replace the exploding bamboo.1 They don’t need to be thrown into the fire. Just light them up for a bit and they’ll make a “pi-pa” sound. Shiliu, these things that you went to go buy, you must not tell anyone else, ~oh. Once this stuff meets with a bit of fire, it’ll instantly burn up. Lighting a lamp will get us all burned to death.”
Wang Juan made another string of wick and placed it gently to the side as she explained it to Shiliu. She knew a bit more about gunpowder than Zhang Xiaobao did. If she was willing to, she could even make an improvised bomb2 of great power.
Shiliu only knew a bit here and hadn’t been able to completely comprehend it as she’d never had any contact with it before so she nodded and pledged: “Little Miss, you [honorific] rest assured. I definitely won’t tell anyone else. Not even to my family members will I say anything. This stuff has an even bigger sound than exploding bamboo?”
“Big—even bigger than an exploding bamboo that’s had salt added and been thrown into the fire. If this stuff is made bigger, it can blow up and kill people.” Zhang Xiaobao also finished making a strip and placed it together with Wang Juan’s. His face and head as well as clothes were all stained with gunpowder but he didn’t dare reach out a hand to brush it off and even more, didn’t dare use his hand to scratch his head.
“Xiaobao, do all of the peasant families need to be given cucumbers? Will they talk?” Wang Juan also felt like this work was too dull. If it weren’t for her and Zhang Xiaobao and it had been any other child, they wouldn’t be repetitively doing a single thing for an entire morning.
“Give—of course, they have to be given. They already knew early on what was being grown there. It’s the Great New Year’s3 so they all want to eat something fresh. If they really were to blab, would they be able to wait till now? I’m looking at them as all not that bad—popular support can be used. Wait until next year. We’ll work hard together to make their lives even better.”
Right now, Zhang Xiaobao was extremely envious of the people in this day and age. Those who planted the land really were too honest. If you gave them a little reward, then they would remember it; if there was just a little hope in living, then they would stake their lives on doing so. Each and every family and household of the two manors all actually didn’t lock their doors—he really didn’t know how the people of the two manors had been selected before they’d arrived.
Wang Juan, seeing that the wick had been more or less done, also stopped to rest. Thinking of the two families having so many people and yet didn’t have any disagreements, she also felt like happiness wasn’t anything more than this. Thinking on it for a bit, she then asked:
“Xiaobao, that curved plow has already been confirmed to not exist yet. You’re expecting to use this thing to increase productivity? Think of some more ideas. Are there any better ways?”
“Yes.” Zhang Xiaobao sank into thought for a while before he finally spat out a word. Then, he said: “We can have them save the seeds for some of those individual plants with good yields. After a few generations like this, high-yield variants will be able to appear and not be that unstable.
There’s also another way. Wait until after New Year’s and have Erniu bring two people to go on a trip to Shandong, which is over there in the Henan Circuit.4 Buy some stones back here and place them in the fields. We can also use them to drink water and bathe with. They can even be fed to animals like oxen or horses. Just don’t know if Erniu will be able to find them.”
“What stone? They can be placed in the lands and can be eaten, too?” Wang Juan really didn’t know what stone had this many capabilities.
“Wheatrice stone.5 I remember there are three places—the other areas I can’t remember anymore—Shandong, Liaoning,6 and Mongolia.7 This stuff is just like saline solution. Don’t just look at how small of a proportion it has but the effect it produces is quite large.”
“This I do know about. So it was this kind of stone. In the past when I showered, they had this specific sort and the places that make mineral water also had it. Don’t go to Mongolia as it’s too dangerous—the Gokturks8 are occupying it, ~ne. Let’s go to Shandong. What’s it called? Henan Circuit? There a more specific location, ~ne?”
Wang Juan was familiar with it once she heard this name. The places it could be used were indeed very much so she rather agreed to it.
“Don’t know. Who knows the specific location? Originally didn’t think of this stuff and occasionally learned about it so that I had a bit of an impression here. Whenever I was outside, I drank only natural soda water, the taste of which when it’s drunk isn’t even that good—it’s not even as tasty as the water from that river in back of the orphanage before it was polluted, ~ne.”
Zhang Xiaobao exasperatedly curled his lips as he thought of that river back then and felt a little uneasy in his heart. The water had been polluted; later, the factory had also closed down.9
“Fine, if you don’t know, then you don’t know. Shiliu, let’s stop for a bit. Let’s eat. Today, make some more cucumbers and dip it in sauce to eat. Also, don’t forget the meat broth.”
Wang Juan wasn’t ready to continue thinking on these matters either as she gave an order before going outside with Zhang Xiaobao. Shiliu put down the work in her hands and exited the room last to lock the door. After arranging for Little Mister the both of them to wash up, she then went to the kitchens to make the arrangements.
“Cucumbers, cucumbers in the winter! Our dynasty’s auspicious favor! Everyone quickly come over to invite it home to eat! It’s the New Year! Eat some fresh cucumbers!”
In Sanshui County, located by the yamen [govt. office] entrance, the constables were still taking turns shouting. In the beginning, there was nobody buying it as the people who came over to watch the commotion weren’t affluent so when they heard that it was 30 wen [cash] to buy 1 catty of cucumbers, they had all been fearfully shocked. It really was too expensive. During the summer, 1 wen [cash] money could buy 3 catties and one chicken could get quite a few in trade so who would be willing to use 30 wen [cash] to buy several cucumbers?
Magistrate Cheng and these people were in no hurry though as they hadn’t expected for these commoners to buy it. As long as they came by to surround them, it was fine. By then, there’d naturally be a few servants from the other families who would learn of the news.
Sure enough, after yelling for an hour, there were two people who walked over here. From the attire on their bodies, one could tell that they were servants of wealthy families.
The two people squeezed up front and looked at the cucumbers, nodding their heads before shaking their heads. One of the people said: “It’s all right. It’s not missing the flowers or thorns. Just feel like it’s not that green. 30 wen [cash] for 1 catty is a bit expensive, ~ah.”
As they spoke, this person raised their head to glance at the constable selling the cucumbers, their eyes containing a different sort of content. The constable understood it with just one look. This was to let him lower the price for them so that they could keep that portion of the money. The constable had this kind of insight as well.
Without even needing to turn his head to ask the Lord Magistrate, this constable straightforwardly said: “30 wen [cash], you can only invite 5 catties at one time. Auspicious favors—how can they be haggled over?”
The constable essentially disregarded that demeanor of this person like they were a superior person of the first order. The other people next to him was also like so. Furthermore, there was a constable to the side who chimed in and said: “This type of thing isn’t something that can be invited by ordinary families. Auspicious favor, ~ah! Can ordinary folks withstand it?”
These words were to deliberately belittle the identities of these two people. Sure enough, once the two people heard these words, their expressions changed. This was just like they’d been insulted.
That person who hadn’t spoken yet spoke up at this time: “Don’t presume that you guys are of the yamen [govt. office], do you guys know what people we are?”
“What people? People who aren’t even able to invite auspicious favors—what people can that even be? Of this county’s auspicious favor, Milord has already sent up a report. Not to mention you but whoever comes here, it’s all at this price. Only 5 catties can be invited at one time. You want more? Line up.”
Normally, the constable would be a bit worried but today, he basically didn’t even need to think. Who’d dare to look for trouble at this time? Not talking about anything else but the people above would also know all the same. Kaiyuan year 2, the current Holy Highness10 was waiting for the good news, ~ne.
Magistrate Cheng hadn’t gone inside and had continued standing outside. It wasn’t that it wasn’t cold outside. Since it was an auspicious favor, then it would only do for him to set an example. At this time, he also opened his mouth to speak.
“How can such auspicious favors be bargained and haggled over? Truly such profanity! Today, no matter how much money you offer, inviting it won’t be at all possible.”
Seeing that the county magistrate didn’t even bother to ask what both of their identities were, the two people were rather completely deflated. They originally had thought to get some benefits but who knew that it’d become like this? The two of them weren’t people who expressly went out to purchase supplies and had simply run across this. When the people in supply procurement for the mansion came over and bought it back, then once the Master of the mansion ate it, there definitely would be a reward.
It wouldn’t do to just miss such an opportunity in vain. The attitude of the person who had spoken first changed as a smile appeared on their face: “Auspicious favor—it indeed is an auspicious favor. Before, we two were kidding with everyone for a laugh, ~ne. How could we bargain? 30 wen [cash] for 5 catties—invite, we certainly must invite it. Load us up with 5 catties first.”
Seeing him speak like this, the constable also didn’t know whether to sell it or not and turned their head to look toward the Lord Magistrate.
Magistrate Cheng Lingxiang also considered it for a bit. Just before, the words had already been spoken out loud so it wasn’t good to just sell it right away. But if it wasn’t sold, they’d genuinely offend people and furthermore, these two people were the first to come buying. So thinking on it slightly, he said:
“Unh, since you two sincerely wish to invite it, then stand to the side and wait for someone to finish their inviting. Let’s see whether or not under the snow, you two people are sincere and then, we’ll talk again.”
Once those two people heard this, they finally relaxed in relief. They also understand that those words that had been spoken just before had been too absolute11 so naturally, it wasn’t possible to instantly change their minds. To have the two of them stand in the heavy snow to wait was the best way to deal with the matter of the auspicious favor and them.
They no longer dared to say anything more. The second one to buy was the second one to buy. It was always better than giving the opportunity to another. So they docilely stood by the sidelines, allowing the heavy snow to continuously drift down on their bodies.
Here were people who wanted to buy it so the surrounding commoners also didn’t wish to leave either as they wanted to see just how many people there were who’d buy such an expensive thing. Or rather, it could be said to invite.
Things really did stack up. Before, there had been two people who wanted to buy it and following afterward, there was another person who came over to inquire after the price. They were probably a maidservant as their body was actually clad in silk clothing all over. Once they squeezed inside, they saw that there were actually cucumbers being sold; then hearing the price, they didn’t even say a second word and threw out 1 silver tael.
“Good. The auspicious favor’s good. I’ll first invite 20 catties. Just this much money.”
The constable also hesitated again, unsure whether it should or shouldn’t be sold. It was Magistrate Cheng Lingxiang who had a solution: “Here, Miss, only 5 catties of these auspicious favors can be invited at one time. Miss can first buy 5 catties and wait till other people line up to buy it before Miss buys more.”
During the time it took to speak, the constable had already weighed out 5 catties and also weighed 5 catties for those two people. He waited for those two people to leave before he then weighed 5 catties for the maiden. After asking if there was anyone who was inviting it and the surrounding people didn’t reply, it was easier to do this now as he gave 5 catties twice in succession to this maiden and that was considered as having lined up.
Taking the cucumbers, the maiden gave a slight smile: “Many thanks. To still be able to get cucumbers in winter, Milord Magistrate indeed has good abilities. Wait until I return to inform Master Yu.”12
The surrounding people didn’t have any more people saying anything about whatever high price at this time. There really were people buying it and even people who overpaid in price.
Magistrate Cheng Lingxiang gave a look at the constable and the constable once again began to shout: “Auspicious favors! Winter’s auspicious favor! Our dynasty’s auspicious favor!”
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“Baozhu” (爆竹) literally means “exploding bamboo” and though it now refers to firecrackers in modern Chinese, Xiaobao is using this term literally here though because before firecrackers were invented along with fireworks and gunpowder during the Tang dynasty, ancient Chinese people would heat up bamboo so that it’d make exploding sounds. This predecessor to the firecracker then got phased out and supplanted by the firecracker once it got invented though the name itself was retained over time. Obviously, the author is using artistic license here so that Xiaobao and Juan-Juan are now the first people in China to make firecrackers instead of when it was supposed to be first invented. ↩
“Tu zha dan” (土炸彈) literally means “earth bomb” and is actually an abbreviation for “tu zhi zha dan” (土製炸彈), which means “earth-made bomb.” This makes more sense once you realize that “tu zhi” (土製) basically means “primitive or improvised” in Chinese as it is used to describe making something using makeshift materials or methods. Since “tu zhi zha dan” (土製炸彈) is actually a synonym of the Chinese term for IEDs (簡易爆炸裝置), I’ve chosen to translate “tu zha dan” (土炸彈) as “improvised bomb.” ↩
Since there’s a “Little New Year,” the actual New Year would sometimes be referred to as the “Great New Year” or “Da Guo Nian” (大過年) to differentiate the actual day of the New Year. ↩
“Henan Dao” (河南道) or the Henan Circuit is an administrative division of ancient China during the Tang dynasty. These circuits were inspection areas that imperial officials patrolled and whose boundaries were determined based on the ease at which communication with the imperial capital could be maintained. The Henan Circuit encompassed a large geographical area and included what is now modern-day Henan (河南), Shandong (山東), northern Jiangsu (江蘇), and northern Anhui (安徽). ↩
I translated “Maifanshi” (麥飯石) literally because there is no real equivalent name in English for this type of stone. It was likely so named because of its appearance and use as it is a rock that is dappled in appearance due to its heterogeneous composition and was also suitable for human consumption. It was made up of several types of minerals, which include feldspar, hornblende, biotite, and others. Other elements these rocks contained were calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, and selenium—all essential nutrients for humans. So it is actually a type of rock that contains a mix of components that are considered beneficial for medicinal or nutritional use in Asia, which is why such stones are used in water filtration or for health purposes. They are also made into various tools and utensils such as cups, pots, or bowls, etc. For pictures on what they look like, please visit the Baidu page here. For the sake of limiting the pinyin used for Chinese terms and since there is no existing technical/scientific name in English for it, I will be translating the Chinese name for this stone as “wheatrice stone.” ↩
Liaoning (遼寧) is a modern-day province of China that was the southernmost part of Manchuria and is also known as the “Golden Triangle” in Chinese due to its strategic location (though that is a nickname shared by a number of other geographical places). Its name is derived from combining the character of liao/遼 from the river that flows through it, Liao River (遼河), and the character of ning/寧 as in “pacified” because of the conquest required to claim this area due to its turbulent history. Liaoning is a geographical area that has belonged to many different parties in the past before as it was territory belonging to the Zhou and Han dynasties as well as subsequently part of several Korean kingdoms such as Gojoseon (고조선/古朝鮮), Goguryeo (고구려/高句麗), and Balhae (발해/渤海) in addition to having once been ruled over by the Khitan, Jurchen, and Mongols before it ultimately returned to Chinese control in the 20th century. ↩
“Menggu” (蒙古) is the Chinese name for Mongolia, which is sometimes referred to by the name of its historical predecessor Outer Mongolia or “Wai Menggu” (外蒙古) in contrast to the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia or “Nei Menggu” (內蒙古). ↩
“Tujue” (突厥) is the Chinese name for the group of people known as the Gokturks who are also known as the Celestial Turks, Blue Turks, or Kok Turks. The Gokturk rulers, the Ashina clan, established the Turkic Khaganate, which controlled a great expanse of the Silk Road, before it got split apart into the Eastern and Western Turkic Khaganates. They eventually got subjugated by the Tang dynasty under the rule of Emperor Taizong leading to his gaining an additional title of “Tian Kehan” (天可汗) or “Heavenly Khagan.” Though they ended up succeeding in rebelling against the Tang dynasty to form a Second Turkic Khaganate later on, they were ultimately defeated and supplanted by the Uyghurs and the Uyghur Khaganate. ↩
The Chinese used here was “huang le” (黄了) or “yellowed” which is referring to green plants yellowing, withering, and then dying. So anything that is referred to have yellowed in Chinese like a deal or a business, it basically means that it died or failed. ↩
“Sheng shang” (聖上) is one of the styles that the Emperor of China might be referred to by and literally means “holy up” as in “holy on high” so it is usually translated as “Holy Highness.” If you’re wondering why it sounds like something you would call the Pope, this is because the Emperor of China was considered to be the Son of Heaven or “Tianzi” (天子) who ruled by divine favor, which is in turn based off of the Mandate of Heaven or “Tian Ming” (天命) that determined whether a dynasty had the right to rule and explained the rise, fall, and subsequent succession of different ruling houses in ancient China’s history. ↩
The words used in the original text are “spoken dead” as in the words were “spoken dead” or “shuo si” (說死) which is a Chinese idiom for speaking with absolute certainty and leaving no wriggle room or space to bargain with like it was set in stone and inescapable as death. ↩
“Yu Laoye” (於老爺) is surnamed Yu/於 and “Master” is the title that servants or members of a household would use to refer to their patriarch or a master of the house—like how the Zhang Manor servants address Xiaobao’s father. However, she is likely name-dropping that she works for someone who has enough status for Magistrate Cheng to take note of here.