From Quanzhou to Shantou, known to the West as Swatow, is a two hour bus
trip with a fast connection to a local bus for the one hour ride to
Chaozhou. In China it was often one man who made a city famous and
thereby assured its place in history, and unquestionably Chaozhou is Han Yu's city.
What makes Han Yu particularly interesting is the the juxtaposition within his character of straight laced Confucianism, stubborn iconoclasm and a light sense of humor, which at times he was not even aware of himself! The latter is what makes him seem human; without it he might appear to be a stubborn pedant.|
Han Yu was exiled to Chaozhou in 819 due to his famous memorial to the emperor criticising the worship of the Buddhas finger sequestered in the Famensi in the outskirts of Changan, and the parading of this upright finger through the streets of Changan. This relic of the Buddha is a single hollow bone, about 2-1/2 inches tall which is housed in a small golden stupa. It appears to be too large to be a finger bone. But if it really is the finger bone of the Buddha, the Buddha must have been a very large man, and the size of the bone would seem to determine that it was his middle finger. Han Yu felt that it was disrespectful and offensive to the Emperor to have this bone paraded before the Emperor through the streets of Changan. From the vantage point of the 21st century we tend to agree....
However, the Emperor did indeed take offense, but not from the Buddha giving him the finger, but from Han Yu's temerity for criticising the Emperor's decision, and Han yu was exiled to Chaohou. This was fortunate for the history of Chinese letters for in Chaozhou Han Yu's independent character again asserted itself in the case of the maurauding crocodiles.
China is home to a species of crocodiles that have lived in the swamps and rivers of southern China since before recorded history. Perhaps this toothy creature is the source for at least a portion of the wonderful mythical beast, the Chinese dragon. China's crocodile is not very large, only ten to twelve feet long and not much of a threat to man. But man came in conflict with them when the Chinese expanded cultivation of wet rice culture and invaded the crocodiles home in the southernwetlands. Not only did the crocodiles muck around in the rice fields, they ate the farmers pigs and fowl, and generally made a nuisance of themselves.
This was the situation in Chaozhou when Han Yu arrived to take up his exile
position in this small outpost town. The villagers asked for help
from their new official, and Han Yu, capable and responsible Confucian that
he was, decided to do something about it. Public opinion was as important
then as it is now and Han Yu knew that only a concerted effort by the entire
community could rid the swamps of this vexing creature. So, in all
seriousness, he sat down an composed an edict addressed to the crocodiles
putting them on notice that they could not continue their disruptive ways in
Imperial China. He gave them three days to remove themselves beyong the seas and warned them that if they still remained in 5 days they would be hunted down and exterminated. He told the crocodiles that he was making sacrificial offerings of pig and water buffalo to them to show his kindness, but warned them that they should take hima at his word!
This edict was distributed throughout the town and the people
assembled to watch the sacrifice and were mobilized to make a concerted effort to rid the land of these pesky creatures. This is the only known instance in China of an edict being addressed to crocodiles and it is not known if the crocodiles responded in kind. But what is clear is that Han Yu's efforts were succesful for today the crocodile living in the wild in China number less than 100 and are an endangered spicies.
On a mountain across the 韓江 Han river from Chaozhou is the Han Yu Memorial and on the 廣濟橋 Guangji Bridge. Before it stands the statue of one of the sacrificial water buffaloes offered to the crocodiles on that fateful day.