Most people know Ancient China as a hub of invention and wisdom: the home of silk, fireworks and Confucius. Yet there was also a much darker, stranger and more blood-thirsty side to China’s earlier days.
From piss-drenched eggs to the first flamethrowers to men willingly castrating themselves, here are 10 facts that prove Ancient China was a strange, strange place.
10 Shocking Facts About Ancient China.
Number 10 – Revenge Cannibalism
Here’s a phrase we never thought we’d hear- “revenge cannibalism”. It may sound like an expression straight from the bloodstained mouth of Hannibal Lecter, but it was actually a practice that occurred numerous times during the Tang dynasty. If the people of a town were angry at their local government official, they would chop up his body and consume him. In 739 a.d, an officer of the court took a bribe to cover up his colleague’s error. That turned out to be a bad idea. People found out and beat him almost to death before cutting out his heart and eating his flesh. It’s a pretty brutal tactic to use to improve local government, but I bet revenge cannibalism would probably get your bins collected on time.
Number 9 – Urine Eggs
What is your favorite meal? If your answer at any point included the word urine, stop watching this video and seek help. It’s pretty hard to imagine piss enhancing the flavor of any dish, yet in the ancient province of Don Yang, eggs soaked in the urine of prepubescent boys were considered a delicacy. Called “Virgin boy eggs”, the eggs spent an entire day soaking in a simmering pot of wee before being served up. Urine was considered healthy in ancient China and was believed to increase the effectiveness of medicine. To this day no one knows why the piss had to come from little boys… just that it was always done that way. Surprisingly Virgin Boy Eggs have held their popularity and are still enjoyed in Eastern China. They even sell for twice the price of regular eggs. Much less surprisingly the dish hasn’t caught on worldwide.
Number 8 – Exams
If you struggle with exams you would have hated the ancient Chinese government. No one likes cramming algebra or rote learning how to ask where the swimming pool is in French, but at least your tests don’t last for 72 hours. Under the Song dynasty the exam to join the civil service went on for up to three days. During it applicants were locked in a small room with whatever food they brought. A board for a desk and a bucket to use as a toilet. They had to write as many as eight consecutive essays on governance and society, as well as demonstrating an almost perfect knowledge of the works of Confucius. Of course under such conditions people routinely died in the middle of the test. But since no one was allowed to interrupt the exam, parents couldn’t come and collect their children’s bodies. Instead the deceased were wrapped in straw mats and tossed over the walls of the building.
Number 7- They Invented Booze
If you’ve ever enjoyed a tall cold one at the weekend, you have the Chinese to thank. Until 2013, historians thought the Sumerians were the first to distill drinkable alcohol. Now they think that the ancient Chinese were getting smashed as far back as 7000 bc. In fact some archaeologists think that the first crops the Chinese grew were used for alcohol rather than food. Yep, getting drunk was literally more important than eating. The popularity of early liquor actually started to cause problems and by the 5th century A.D. the emperor had brought in laws punishing the production, sale and consumption of alcohol with beheading.
The ancient Chinese may have invented booze, but before you start toasting them, they’re also the reason your favorite tipple is so expensive.
Emperor Yu brought in the first alcohol tax almost as soon as the hard stuff was invented.
Number 6 – Lice Lunch
Lice were widespread in ancient China, mainly because of the poor hygiene of most of the citizens. The rich might have been able to indulge in baths, but most of the peasantry, if they washed at all, had to do so with water already used to cook rice. Predictably this meant that most people were crawling with lice. The poor were so used to the lice that many would compulsively pluck them off their bodies and eat them. Well if your alternative is piss-soaked eggs, lice probably don’t seem so bad. Eating lice became such a habit in China that local doctors had to come up with a cure. For people who scoffed too many and ended up with lice still alive inside them. The remedy wasn’t much more pleasant than the problem with doctors prescribing ash and boiled water to kill the lice inhabiting their patients insides. The patients would then have to go to the toilet and pass the dead insects from their systems.
Number 5 – Human Sacrifice
The Aztecs may be the most famous fans of human sacrifice, but the ancient Chinese were just as bloodthirsty. Starting during the Shang dynasty over four thousand years ago, human sacrifice continued in China until around the 1600s. The Chinese mainly sacrificed people to mark the death of a king or queen, but they also believed that it was a way to bless new buildings. In 2013 archaeologists discovered a wall made out of the skulls of 80 women who had been sacrificed to celebrate the construction of a new city. On another occasion the crown prince of Tsai was captured by enemy forces in order to strengthen a dam. Apart from being a religious rite, human sacrifices also serve to keep the people obedient. After all, being killed to appease the gods is not how anyone wants to spend their Friday night.
Number 4 – Silk To Die For
Apparently the ancient Chinese discovered silk in 2696 B.C., when the wife of the yellow emperor was having tea in the imperial gardens. A silkworm cocoon fell into her cup and she noticed that the cocoon was made of a strong and soft thread. Whether or not you believe this explanation, the Chinese definitely knew how to make silk and it soon became one of their biggest exports. The Chinese nobility kept the process secret from the rest of the world for over one thousand years, deciding that a monopoly on silk was too valuable to give up. Under the Han dynasty, silk became China’s main export, with over 40 tons of silk carried by six thousand camels being sent to Iran alone. By 301 A.D. the Han government had a surplus of 40000 tons of silk stockpiled in the imperial treasury. How was such precious information kept hidden for so long? Well, like most things in ancient times, it was done with extreme violence. Anyone caught discussing the silk making process or trying to smuggle silkworms out of the country would face the death penalty… which meant being boiled alive, beheaded or hung, drawn and quartered. It wasn’t until a group of Buddhists escaped China with silkworms hidden in sticks of bamboo that the rest of the world finally found out the truth.
Number 3 – Foot Binding
Foot binding began among the upper class women of the Shang dynasty in 1600 B.C.. The women would have their toes broken and bound until they grew into a cone shape. The crushed misshapen pulp was called a ‘lotus-foot’ and was supposed to be incredibly sexy. Unbelievably, to men at the time it was. Foreplay always started with worshiping the feet, and the later Qing dynasty even published a sex manual with 48 different ways of fondling them. Foot binding spread quickly to the masses and at its peak in the 1600s around 50 of the female population were getting their feet broken into the shape. Infection was rife and with blood circulation to the feet almost entirely cut off, toes would often rot and fall off. It’s thought that as many as 10% of the girls who had their feet bound, actually died.
Horrifyingly, the practice was not banned until 1912 and even then it continued across china until the 1940s. The last factory making shoes for women with lotus feet only shut down in 1999.
Number 2 – Chariots of Fire
Ancient China was not a place you’d want to mess with. Over the millennia the Chinese created a series of terrifyingly named weapons, including the triple crossbow, the dragon rocket and the hundred arrow launcher. They even invented the first flamethrower using an early form of gasoline called “fire oil” to power it. But the most terrifying military invention the Chinese developed was an early form of the unmanned tank. According to legend the Han empire was trying to quell a rebellion in the Lingling district.
Outnumbered by the locals, commander Yang Hsuan designed the world’s first unmanned vehicle. Loading up a row of chariots with automatic crossbows, he linked the firing and reloading mechanisms to the wheels, meaning the carts would shoot arrows as they moved. He then set fire to the tails of the chariot horses causing them to run madly into the enemy. Unsurprisingly the sudden appearance of self-driving death carts, led by flaming horses caused a bit of a panic in the enemy army, allowing the hand forces to rush in and defeat them.
Number 1 – Court Castration
What would you be willing to do for a well-paid job? During the 15th century the Ming dynasty ruled from the forbidden city, an enormous palace complex so named because access to it was extremely limited. Apart from the emperor, no men were allowed to stay there. Even the emperor’s male relatives had to leave at night so that there was no chance of them sleeping with his many concubines. But working for the inner court of the city was a fast track to success meaning that many poor Chinese men willingly castrated themselves to work in the palace as eunuchs. You might think that such an unpleasant job requirement resulted in only a few applications, but at its peak over 3000 units worked in the forbidden city. In fact so many men took a blade to their balls that the palace had to turn applicants away. Yes, there were actually men in ancient China who ended up chopping off their nuts for absolutely nothing.
Those were our 10 shocking facts about ancient China. Did any surprise you? Were there any that we missed? Let us know in the comments below and feel free to share this video. See you next time.
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