My mum has bought my dad a tiny olive tree shrub for father's day, with the intention that he uses it to grow his own olives (apparently, due to global warming, Britain's climate will now support the growth of olive trees). Alternatively, she said, he can 'bonsai it'.
I decided (mainly just to see how my mum would respond) that I didn't agree with bonsaiing because it's cruel to the plant, in the same way that corsets are cruel, or when Mongol children had their heads stretched so they'd fit into their pointy helmets. 'Yes', she said, 'or when the Chinese peasants put babies in jars so they'd grow deformed, and they could beg'.
This sounded like crap. Why would they go to such lengths to cripple their children just so they could put them out to beg? Wouldn't an able-bodied child who worked bring in more income than a crippled begging one? Alternatively, if all they want is a disabled child, couldn't they just chuck them down a flight of stairs or something? Then they could use the jar to keep pickles. Anyway, I didn't believe it.
'They didn't keep them in jam jars, you know! It was a child-sized jar!' Yeah, I guessed that. It wasn't the jar thing I had a problem with. I believed that the Chinese might have kept children in jars because of some extreme fashion for tiny, child-like bodies or something- like when people broke children's feet so they'd fit in tiny shoes, or castration of choir boys etc. It's not unheard of. It was the beggar thing that didn't make sense. 'Well, ask your father about it', she said. (My dad knows everything.)
My dad confirmed that the practise of growing children in constricting jars filled with oil did indeed go on in ancient China. He remembered reading about it in Marco Polo, or something. But it wasn't so they could beg. It was, and I quote, 'because they made really good shags. The oil made their skin very soft and their limbs were incredibly supple.'.
Writing this out it strikes me that if I had come across this information any other way, it would be probably the most disturbing thing I've ever heard. That I heard it from my parents seem to completely take the edge off it somehow. This is one of the things I love the most about my parents; even as a child, they could talk to me about things like child prostitutes grown in jars with the same casuality and matter-of-factness as if they were explaining how honey is made or the theory of evolution.