Almost a millennium ago, a minor Chinese government official about whom little is known penned a travel memoir that is still remembered today.
Things that are known:
- The years recorded spanned 1241–1274.
- The book comprised twenty long scrolls.
- The author, Wu Zimu, who wrote endlessly of food and drink and festivals in the Song Dynasty capital of Linan (modern-day Hangzhou), must have been wealthy
But despite his position from on high, he is remembered not for his writing of the luxurious but for his writing of the mundane: scenes of daily life, its seasons and street vendors and moons.
He called it:
a dream tale of an ordinary grain.
This author is the one who recorded for the first time the Seven Essential Things for daily life in China:
In eight hundred years, six of the seven things have not changed. Rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea can still be found in almost every self-respecting Chinese household. It’s true that
has given way to gas, electricity, coal. But all four epitomise the same essential: fuel. Bodies that burn and turn into something else.
What I want to know, though, is what happens when you have fuel, but not fire? No spark arrives, and all that you own is bereft potential. I fear that my dreams will decay if I put them aside for too long. Cradling an idea, I am sometimes afraid to fall asleep because of sleep’s erasure.
The Seven Essential Things fulfil the bottom and widest tier of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s pyramid model of human needs, first theorised in 1943. The base of Maslow’s pyramid involves physiological needs: food, water, breathing, sleep. Once those fundamentals are covered, human needs expand to the next level of the hierarchy: safety and security. Only after that comes the level of love and belonging, the level of esteem and achievement, and the upper level of self-actualisation. I think of it as ‘the worry pyramid’, meaning once you've secured one level (no need to worry about rent anymore), it’s onto the next (time to worry about love)!
But what if your pyramid is upside down? Three years ago, I was more worried about stifling my creative potential than any practical concerns. The idea of continuing to go to work in the tall building was unbearable. To continue meant continuing to ignore my writerly dreams for the comfort of a corporate identity. It meant crying in the stairwell of the seventeenth floor, or in a bathroom stall with knees up to hide identifying feet. And the work wasn’t terrible by any means—but I have always been extremely sensitive to environments. In the tall buildings there lived something quiet and in distress. An insidious if-not-anxiety then melancholy. Or at least it felt that way to me. I’m not sure how the numberless others survive.
To quit meant shame, becoming the quintessential stereotype of an entitled millennial. To quit meant losing not only my pride but also the source of my sustenance (i.e., groceries) in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Still.
My mother tells me not to have big ambitions in the first place. To care about the daily necessities, not inessential dreams.
She places the photo of the bodhisattva Guanyin facedown on the stereo that is our family’s makeshift altar when we fight, always about this inability of mine to put down roots, to tend to survival. Mother thinks it is a choice. Mother blinds and deafens Guanyin to our discord while saying it is no use burning incense to her.
Meaning: Why doesn’t she make you listen to me? Her name 观音 guān yīn means listening to the sounds of the world.
Guanyin is the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva being one who reaches individual enlightenment and chooses not to go on to Nirvana until every living being can go there also. Delaying her own ticket to paradise is an act of true compassion; it means not only that what is mine is yours, but what is mine I will not take until it is yours, too.
When we fight and my mother places Guanyin’s photo in a golden halo facedown on the stereo-altar, I want to say that compassion doesn’t work like that. It is not as simple as obedience. Nor is religion something to be used, like capitalism.
But I know what my mother would say back. That my cousin quit smoking and drinking when he converted to Mormonism, that his belief was beneficial for something. That he grew rich, too, despite arriving in America on the bottom deck of a Caribbean cruise ship. The Chinese labourers had been promised an easy life on a boat for a thousand US dollars per month, but they weren't told they would be charged exorbitantly for the only room and board available on that open ocean. When the ship docked in Miami, my cousin left all his worldly goods behind, save for an outfit of full denim, jacket and jeans, and sunglasses. He took a bus to New Jersey, to his only relatives in America— to me, nine years old and missing a sibling I never had.
I called my cousin ‘big brother’, 大哥哥 dà gē gē. His first job on American shores was washing the sticky leftover
from plates in the only restaurant in my town that would take him. My mother has been a lifelong lover of rice; even after twenty years in the States, she still cannot get used to the breadiness of bread. She has acquired a recognition of it, knows which types are fancy, buys the rosemary and olive oil focaccia, for me, because sometimes love means waiting in line for things one doesn’t want oneself—but she will never crave its textures.
Some people simply don’t like bread. Whole countries eat rice, or almost nothing at all. In her youth during the Cultural Revolution, my mother was given the choice of working in the damp fields of rice paddies full of leeches and snakes or in the dry wheat fields that produced only dough. She chose the more gruelling paddies for the privilege of rice. As a city girl deemed ‘too bourgeois’ by the government, she was forced to spend five years being ‘re-educated’ there in mud up to her knees. Her sole consolation was that she chose it, the daily rice served with chillies and often nothing else.
I pray: May I love something enough to choose suffering for it. My father spent his re-education years in the wheat fields north of Beijing (he did not love rice as much as my mother). At night, he would recite from memory the Chinese classic Tale of Three Kingdoms to his bunkmates. Even after ten hours of work for five cents a day, with mice chasing one another along the rafters of the warehouse wherein they slept, the city boys would let rest their bodies and stretch their minds. The Three Kingdoms is not a simple tale. My father would speak it into the dark, to rapture muted by fatigue.
Maslow’s pyramid, having been climbed, cannot easily be toppled. Intellectuals who lose everything and go into the fields still hanker after literature. Formerly great empires always remember their glory. This is beautiful and sad both. I wish sometimes I’d never seen that display of stars in the Himalayas so that I wouldn’t then begrudge the specks in Manhattan or Shanghai. If only my first love had been less adoring, I’d have had a lot more men to date. A friend says if I had ever worked at McDonald's, I'd be grateful for any work with paid bathroom breaks. But our essentials change.
In Wang Leehom’s song of the Seven Things—whose title is simply the string of their names 柴米油盐酱醋茶, which rolls off the Chinese tongue as easily as a song in English called ‘Salt & Pepper’—he sings of a boy who wants a big blue plane with which to travel the world. When he grows up, the man in the song wants a small red answering machine instead. The song is meant to be a love song. The answering machine conveyer of a cute domestic task that couples do together, recording, “We are not home.” (This was in the 1990s, when people still used answering machines.)
Because of you, he sings to her, blue becomes red.
Because of you, a boy grown settles down, forgets his dream, is content to become old sharing meals that the woman brings to the table with six of the seven daily essentials.
The dream of the girl is never sung.
In late 1970s China, just after the Cultural Revolution’s programmatic plain living, everyone knew not only about the 七件事 qī jiàn shì Seven Essential Things but also the 四大件 sì dà jiàn Four Big Things, the then-symbols of material wealth:
- a sewing machine
- a bicycle
- a wristwatch
- a radio
A friend told me that initially her mother didn’t like her father, but that her mother persuaded him to woo her with a watch. In the end, she liked the two months’ salary timepiece so much that she married him. Later variations of the Four Big Things included a refrigerator and a television. When my father’s sister fell from a flight of stairs at age nine, breaking her neck, her last wish was for China’s first colour television. My grandma complied. The neighbours’ schadenfreude was shaded with envy.
New-found capitalism meant efficiency meant consumerism meant coveting meant the loss of something pure, the social scientists say. I think only of my calligraphy teacher who lamented the simplification of traditional Chinese characters—a government project aimed at increasing literacy. More people can read now, but something essential in the text has been lost.
The calligraphy teacher told us the Chinese word for air 气 qì (simplified) originally came from rice. It was previously written as 氣 qì (traditional), the character for rice in the centre (米) representing a fresh rice ball and the three wavy lines above (气) the steam rising from it. The modern word for air no longer has that vital something that gives off steam in the first place. We forget about the rice that made air visible.
Love 愛 aì (traditional) with a heart 心 xīn character is now written love 爱 aì (simplified), replacing the radical of heart with the radical for friendship. Love did not need its heart taken out like that, comrade. The Essentials of Love in Modern China:
- a house
- a car
- credit cards to spare
Without these, don’t expect a Shanghainese woman to even date you, it is said.
The Chinese have gone through decades of loss and starvation. The essential is consumption, as exemplified by an infamous line from a participant on a Chinese dating show: “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.” It didn't matter how she felt on the inside so long as she appeared glorious to the world. In the lean years of her childhood, says my mother, she and the other kids in the neighbourhood would smear their lips with leftover
to pretend they had eaten pork that day. The others would be jealous upon seeing this primitive form of lip gloss—even though everybody else did it too, and no one could tell anymore who really had meat or not. All gloss is to make another envious of your shine.
I understand better now why my mother wants a daughter who is a banker, a doctor, even an accountant: an oily career.
During the months that I was jobless after quitting the tall building, and lived at home, my big brother 大哥哥 dà gē gē took me on roundabout drives through Manhattan in his hulking white renovation truck. He had me do small tasks for him, like drawing a set of cabinets or writing an inventory. Trifling things, really, but I was glad for a duty, any duty, to remind myself that I wasn’t useless, merely lost.
He asked me about boys, and whenever I despaired of my joblessness and datelessness, he who had left his home behind but flourished nevertheless would tell me to ‘add oil’. To add oil 加油 jiā yóu is used in Chinese as words of encouragement. It means to add fuel to the flame, to fan the already existent fire. (That question again: what if you don’t have fire in the first place? What good is oil then?) Adding oil is how the Chinese cheer on their favourite athletes or those who have suffered temporary defeat. It is how, in The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man stops squeaking, walks smoothly down the yellow brick road hand in hand with Dorothy. The Wizard wasn’t a charlatan at all because he taught that the most essential thing was believing.
Seeking career counsel, and in an attempt to satisfy my higher Maslow need for self-actualisation, I went to a Gallup StrengthsFinder workshop. The other participants were almost all founders of or working for startups, possessing that enthusiasm I emulate but cannot fake. I learned the subtlety between the similar-sounding strengths of Includer and Harmony. The one works to bring those on the outside in—to include them—while the other works to keep those on the inside happy.
In the workshop we learned that often it is not our weaknesses that are our downfall, but the overabundance of our strengths. In this sense, the strength of Harmony can result in cowardice. It wants to keep things too well-oiled, smooth like a road without character. A Harmoniser wants what is safest, least disruptive: whatever the masses are doing, and not necessarily that which matters most.
My parents have harmony in their veins. They don’t want to shake the boat; they have already met too many storms, shed too much in the wreckage. People with too much harmony in them are afraid of deviating from the accepted path. Harmony makes sense for those who have suffered.
When I found myself incapable of working in those tall buildings, I hated the part of me that couldn't just ‘deal with it’ like everybody else. The part that couldn't choose an easier life of harmony. During the workshop, the host running the PowerPoint presentation asked the participants to stand up if a statement was true, and I was the only one in the room of thirteen who stayed seated when the slide said, ‘I try to find the positive in every situation.’ I remained in my hard, white plastic seat in the back row and everyone turned to look at me.
“I’m a writer,” I said, and because I convey my thoughts less fluently by mouth, I said no more. I meant, I want to feel everything. I meant, sometimes I feel like the New Age Positivity Police are going to arrest me for being only human. I meant, startup people are not my people but I feel like I should hang out with them more because there are a limited number of dreamers who are also doers in any city.
What I meant is that I know I should be grateful for my many privileges, but also that I savour sadness. I swim in it at times, though I don’t consider it wallowing. Without despair, I might just muddle on, unmotivated to ever change. Sorrow, for me, is often a better catalyst than happiness. Perhaps that is positivity?
after all, is one of the essentials, not sugar. But we all have different essentials, don’t we?
My love is Italian so he believes he has cultural hegemony when it comes to food, but it is only because he grew up with Western essentials. He puts two sugars in his coffee every time, no matter how small the cup or how large the packet. I cringe at how cloying the dregs must be. We moved recently—my first time relocating somewhere as a pair, meaning my first time dealing with an avalanche of possessions not exclusively mine—and I wanted to throw out all the stuff except that which belonged to me. His I considered European excess. Mine? Necessary. I cringe at the things I consider inessential. To me.
Prior to industrialisation, salt was scarce; it used to be a form of currency in China more precious than silver. Only the Qing Dynasty emperor and his kin tasted salt regularly. Everybody else ate plain fare. Salt was precious elsewhere in the world, too: the word ‘salary’ comes from salt, as even the Roman legions accepted it as payment.
We are all living like emperors with our electric firewood, our marathon water pipes, our everyday shakers of salt. Better than emperors. Let me not forget salt as luxury.
The main course is essential but dessert is not. Sweat is essential but pleasure is not. Says my mother, who saves and saves. Who would be appalled at my trash can, at so many valuable things cast aside. My mother grew up with famine, a family of six, and a shortage of the Seven Things—of course the tangible items of this earth are vital to her. Insurance, a house, a pension. When calamity runs in your veins, saving is the safest thing.
Flotsam is debris left over from a shipwreck—an accident; jetsam is cargo that has been deliberately discarded to make the ship lighter. Flotsam, which derives from the word ‘float’, is unintentional; jetsam, a shortened version of jettison, the deliberate unwanted.
My parents have plenty of flotsam, pieces unwillingly let go and drifting across oceans. Flotsam they understand. My voluntary jetsam they are disconcerted by, since, after all, my ship is in no danger of sinking. But still, it seems that I have jettisoned a career for passion, money for love, recognition for freedom, the ordinary for… something outside the ordinary.
I once read a short story in which each person’s soul was represented by an object. The person whose soul was represented by a salt shaker seemed your average unremarkable salary man, but he moved quickly through the company ranks because he enhanced the ordinary. If I had such a physical soul, I would want it to be something like this that makes the little things grand, without blowing the little things out of proportion. A magnifying glass and not a microscope, say. Quietly: headphones, not speakers.
And yet I would be lying if I said I wanted the essentials and nothing else—because I want the extras as well. I want the salt and the
too, which means all sauces—but which every Chinese knows refers to soy. It is our sauce, the way Vegemite is iconically Australian. Soy is implied even without a parenthetical.
In modern Chinese slang, ‘to get soy sauce’ 打酱油 dǎ jiàng yóu means ‘to mind your own business’. It came from a Guangdong TV interview in 2008 in which the reporter asked a man on the street what he thought about the latest sex photo scandal with Hong Kong actor Edison Chen. Everybody else interviewed expressed shock and condemnation. The man on the street said, “Doesn’t matter to me, I’m just out to get soy sauce.”
To get soy sauce is to take care of your household: to manage your essentials and not be concerned with anything else. This is what my parents, whose cells remember calamity, want for me. Whatever happens in the outside world, they see only what they want to see. China recently passed a national Good Samaritan law because there have been multiple widely publicised cases where bystanders left an injured person on the street out of fear of being sued. Passive bystanders and soy sauce buyers want harmony at whatever cost. Theirs is the freedom of blindness, the opposite of the compassion of Guanyin. Meanwhile, the ‘soy sauce man’ was celebrated by Chinese netizens as a hero.
Sauce is not just modern slang; it has been part of popular vernacular for centuries. The first known use of the word ‘saucy’ was in 1508, in the strict culinary sense of something served with sauce. But by the 1520s, saucy was already used in ‘sauce malapert’—meaning impertinence, or ‘piquancy in words or actions’. When the Chinese translate this version of saucy, it becomes:
Beautiful and rude in the same set of definitions. To be so beautiful that you are allowed to be rude, like newborns who cry anytime they please. To be saucy is to be at once sweet and sour, like the essential
in Shanghai’s classic dish of 糖醋排骨 táng cù pái gǔ, sweet and sour spare ribs.
In elementary school science class, we left a chicken bone to soak in vinegar for days. When we finally uncovered the Saran wrap, the bone was rubbery and bendable as intended. The acid in vinegar eats the calcium in the bones. Is a bone that is not brittle still a bone? Is firewood that never burns still firewood or just wood? Is it only the intention that counts, as with flotsam and jetsam?
In Chinese, to eat vinegar 吃醋 chī cù is to be jealous. That sharp taste in your mouth when you are envious of another’s sweetness. Sour jealousy can compel a response just as powerfully as sweetness or sorrow. To have a 酸心 suān xīn sour heart means that you ache for something so deeply that the wanting has overtaken honeyed platitudes.
gone bad, an overabundance of the strength of yeast. In every ancient Chinese poem, there are three prevailing characters: the poet, the moon, the jug of wine. If not moon, then mountain. The famous Chinese poets tended to be scholarly government officials too forward-thinking for their governments and sent to live in exile. The moon is a sad kind of moon when you are in exile. Wine helps.
Note that wine is not officially part of the seven essentials. The original essentials numbered eight. Wine was the fifth, after salt and before sauce. Wine was the line of separation between the truly cannot-live-without—fuel, rice, oil, salt—and the extras: sauce, vinegar, tea. But in the dynasty that followed, wine was no longer deemed a household necessity. The decision probably made by those who lived in the city and were not exiles who dreamed.
I only learned the essential things as they are today numbered seven from a
salesman, tea being the seventh and last, and him wanting to make a point.
Growing up, my mother had mentioned only the first four things: 柴米油盐, she said, firewood rice oil salt. Always while reminding me I needed these essentials of life more than I needed my dreams. Everybody needs 柴米油盐, she said. Even you. One could do without tea, but you need fuel and rice and oil and salt at home, at least. At least. After all, she said, can you eat the wind?
I’d like to add an essential of my own.
I’d like to add that once I tried explaining to my father, a practical man, a software programmer, why writing was essential to me, how it was not even a choice, and he understood.
“Yes, like Hitler,” he said.
He told me that he had read an article about how young Adolf wanted to be a painter. He had wandered the streets of Vienna with his watercolours, painted still lifes of buildings, and tried again and again to get into art school. But at the time the art world was into nudes, not architecture, and Hitler kept getting rejected. My father’s logic was, well, Hitler wasn’t allowed to create so he ended up doing the opposite because that energy had to go somewhere. Somehow, that made sense to me. That bad things happen when you neglect your essentials. That creation and destruction are two sides of the same strength.
The philosopher Zhuangzi wrote, “The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”
Language becomes no longer essential when you understand its root meaning. But I want the words, too, imperfect conveyers of truth as they are. Words are crude bodies for meaning, even for poets. As the poet Jack Gilbert wrote, “How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, and frightening that it does not quite.” Sometimes I wonder what the point is of all this print. But words serve as pointers to something greater.
In the popular rendition of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the tip of the pyramid stops at self-actualisation: humanity’s search for meaning. But towards the end of his life, Maslow amended his own model. He added a new level at the very peak: self-transcendence. Self-actualisation is the fulfilment of one’s potential, but transcendence is the act of going beyond your individuality to reach, in Maslow’s words, “the unity of all things”—Guanyin’s compassion.
But for self-transcendence to occur, first there must be a self to do the work of transcending. Language, too, can lead to transcendence, but imperfect words must strive.
In Wuyuan, Jiangxi, the tea salesman poured me cup upon cup and told me of how he could not escape his fate. He had not wanted to be a tea salesman. In fact, he had tried selling everything else: car parts, radios, things more modern and lucrative than leaves. Always, they had failed. Always, tea had called to him and he ignored it. But tea was like a persistent lover, he said. It showed up in the most improbable of circumstances. Never aggressive—just ever-present—following him wherever he went. Eventually, he succumbed. He grew to be successful and to welcome the little leaf; I’m not sure which came first. And tea would speak to him in the tiniest of voices. “Listen,” he said, holding a ceramic thimble of oolong close to my ear.
When I think about him, I think about how tea gets stronger the longer you steep it, like the best kind of love. Like all the things we can’t escape from. The essentials.
Once I woke up next to someone with my hands grasping the air. In my dream I had been searching, but I couldn’t remember what for. He told me I had been murmuring in my sleep, hands flailing, saying over and over again: “Where are the words? Where are the words?”
This piece was a runner-up in the 2017 Lifted Brow/non-fiction Lab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction and published in The Lifted Brow #36. You can purchase a copy here.
Lei Wang is confused about her identity as a Chinese-American living in Shanghai, where she helps run a spoken word poetry series with the International House of Poets. This is her first publication.
Rachel Ang is a comics artist from Melbourne, Australia. You can find her work at drawbyfour.com