Welcome to the decadent world of Song Dynasty China (960 -1279). For hundreds of years China was the most advanced society in the world. The Emperor and his officials ruled a vast land of teeming cities and toiling peasants; wealth and bitter poverty; the highest, most sophisticated culture alongside brutal repression. This was a society starting to use paper money, gunpowder, mass printing and a range of engineering advances that would not appear in Europe for centuries.
For many, perhaps the majority of Chinese, this era was to be a golden age of peace and prosperity.
Yet threats from nomadic armies from the North threatened to tear Song Dynasty China apart.
First the Kin ‘barbarians’ (sometimes called the ‘Jin’ – see map below) invaded from Manchuria in 1126, occupying half the Empire. Peace was only maintained by humiliating annual bribes and tribute sent to the Kin Emperor.
Then the Kin Empire itself fell in an orgy of bloodletting at the start of the 13th Century – for the Mongols had arrived. (See ‘Breaking Bamboo’)
Yun Cai, the hero of Taming Poison Dragons, has conventional aspirations. He seeks to pass the Imperial Examinations that will lead to a lucrative job serving the Emperor as a civil servant. This class of scholar-officials was the most powerful in China and everyone wanted to join its ranks.
Luckily for Yun Cai, a natural poet, part of the examination involves writing verse in a number of styles.
Strangely for people of our own time, poetry had an amazingly high status among all classes of society. Popular poems were inscribed on tavern walls and it was possible to buy tea or a meal for a sheaf of poems! Poets were the celebrities of their day and even the illiterate would know their poems by heart.
Song Dynasty China was famous for its ‘singing girls’. These ranged from poor prostitutes called ‘flowers’ to exclusive courtesans for the rich. Su Lin (‘Taming Poison Dragons’) is a talented musician, as well as a universally admired beauty. Her services would be richly rewarded – and far beyond the purse of a poor poet like Yun Cai.