The Seven Necessities
In ancient Viet culture, there is a very famous old saying: Quan môn thất kiện sự, sài, mễ, du, diêm, tương, thố, trà” When translated, it means, “The seven necessities to begin a day: firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.”
It was very underwhelming to be honest. What in the world do basic kitchen ingredients have to do with anything, and if it was so banal and outdated, why would my family insist on transferring this stuff down to us? As a kid, I didn’t care to learn. I just happened to remember it because I had heard the Việt iteration repeatedly growing up.
The chant,“củi, gạo, dầu, muối, tương, giấm, trà” (4) meaning ‘Firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea‘, was just some children’s rhythmic mantra that could be said while one was jumping rope or skipping down the path to get to school.
You have to forgive me. Boring old stuff that made no sense didn’t really excite my imagination.
The older I got however, the more I realized that it was not boring at all. Au contraire, it was the super old stuff that was truly exciting, especially when very ancient teachings make no sense but continues to remain within the culture and continue to be passed onto future generations. This usually means there’s a hidden mystery in there somewhere.
I gradually became more convinced that there was more to the story than what the surface might indicate.. Let’s take a look at this more closely.
When you do a quick search online, it shows that this line was taken from a travel memoir written by Meng Yuanlao (孟元老) dated 1147 and published in 1187, during the Song dynasty. It was entitled Dongjing Meng Hua Lu ( 东京梦华录), Dreams of Splendor of the Eastern Capital.
This was a memoir that was written by a low-level scholar who had been displaced from Kaifeng (Dongjing), the thriving capital of the Northern Song dynasty, after the Jin dynasty conquered northern China and forced the Song court to flee to Lin’an, what is modern day Hangzhou. (1)
In his memoir, Meng Yuanlao described the city of Kaifeng in a very detailed and nostalgic manner. He detailed the old capital’s urban life, seasonal products, and festivals, as well as foods, customs, and traditions, painting a colorful picture of affluent Chinese culture.
It came to be synonymous with the aristocratic Chinese tea culture which included many fancy customs such as using preserved rainwater from the previous summer, or snow water collected from the snow on plum blossoms.
In terms of being old, it wasn’t that old, being less than a thousand years ago. Remember, to be considered ancient in the Asian tradition, stuff has to be super old–more than a thousand years at least. This book barely made the requirements…if we were to be generous.
I wasn’t in a very generous mood.
First of all, it didn’t make sense that it would be something that should be solely attributed to some ancient no-name scholar from China when even I knew about it and my family is not Chinese.
Secondly, the Chinese considered that phrase to signify how the affluent take their tea, which went from simple household pleasures when combined with salt and firewood and vinegar, to ostentatious tea ceremonies where the tea had to be made a certain way with certain ingredients and then had to be served a certain way, etc. etc. etc.
To all that, I say phooey.
How is it that they completely left out the importance of the other six items in the phrase and only placed importance on the very last item which, by the way, is something that was attributed to my ancestral Grandpa. Yep. He was the one credited for introducing tea to us, among other super important things such as acupuncture and herbal medicine.
Since the Han Chinese hadn’t quite figured out what that chant was all about, I figured I’d better dig around the Viet knowledge base to see if I could find anything about it.
The Real Source
My first search struck gold. It turns out, this phrase is only a partial section of a much longer saying which includes the line Hiếu, đễ , trung, tín, lễ, nghĩa, liêm, sỉ’ and ends with the words Thất bất xuất, Bát bất quy .
Let me put it all together for you.
Quan môn thất kiện sự,
Sài, mễ, du, diêm, tương, thố, trà
Hiếu, đễ , trung, tín, lễ, nghĩa, liêm, sỉ
Thất bất xuất, Bát bất quy
The seven necessities to begin a day
Firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.
Filial piety, kindness, loyalty, trust, ceremony, righteousness, integrity, humility
Seven don’t go out the door, eight don’t return home.
On the surface, this makes zero sense, and most likely why the Chinese disregarded the last two lines (if they even knew about it in the first place). The lines didn’t fit in with the ostentatious ‘ceremonial tea’ idea. For those who don’t have access to the deeper philosophical works of the ancients, their explanation was that on the 7th lunar day, you should not go out, and on the 8th lunar day, you cannot return home. They then applied this saying to other dates of the calendar such as the 17th, 18th, 27th, and 28th, which made even less sense.
The last line was then dropped because it was seen as a superstitious and outdated concept passed down by ancestors who were seen to be unenlightened. The third line was also dropped because it made no sense when read together with the first two lines.
So what exactly does this mean?
The Eight Basic Moral Rules
To explain this, I have to point out a few small facts about ancient Asian culture. Most women in ancient times did not leave the house except for critical emergencies. Their job was to keep the home and to care for the children and elderly parents and grandparents.
For the man who must leave the home to provide for his family, sometimes for days and weeks on end, this saying is to remind him that before he leaves the house, those first seven necessities must be met so that his wife could have what she needed to care for the vulnerable within the home.
Not enough firewood? Go chop some and stack it up for her to use for cooking and heating the house. Out of rice or salt or oil or tea? Procure them and make sure everyone is provided for before leaving.
Notice that tea, when interpreted in this manner, is part of the seven necessities for the family and not something that stands out as the luxurious ceremonial elite thing that is done by aristocrats and the royalty.
This is because serving tea to the elderly in the home as well as using them as daily offerings for the ancestral altar is a filial duty that the woman must do as part of her daily work. The man must provide tea for her so she can fulfill her own duties.
Once the man leaves the house, the second part of the saying kicks in. It has eight components: filial piety, kindness, loyalty, trust, ceremony, righteousness, integrity, and humility. The saying states he must fulfill all eight of those traits with the people he meets and works with during the day. Only then is he allowed to return home.
Of course, everyone who has been taught in the ways of the ancients understand what the eight basic moral rules consist of. Back in those days, they didn’t have to explicitly state out what the last line meant because the eight moral rules were so widely known. Violating any of the eight moral rules meant you were at fault with your ancestors, and since Vietnam’s first religion was ancestor veneration, these eight rules needed to be followed as part of their religious beliefs.
Once ancestral veneration got tossed out in favor of other religions, the general knowledge of the eight basic moral rules also fell by the wayside, leaving behind only the salt and vinegar and tea part.
And that’s how an ancient saying filled with wisdom and guidance turned into a vitriol chant for the wealthy elite tea drinkers of the Chinese world.
Next post: How elite aristocrat tea drinkers make and drink their tea. Spoiler alert. It’s NOT dunking an orange pekoe Lipton tea bag into a cup of water that’s been heated up for 2 minutes in the microwave.