"Where tea and horses run"

Iakov Borisovich Kniazhnin (1740?-1791) was a well-known author of tragedies, comedies, and satires. Kniazhnin was the son-in-law of Alexander Sumarokov, the father of classical theater in Enlightenment Russia.


In his one-act comic opera The Miser (1772), a servant woman named Marfa pretends to be a rich countess in order to deceive the eponymous miser, Skriagin, into marrying her. Marfa’s co-conspirator, Prolaz, sings an aria extolling the wealth of Marfa’s faraway (and nonexistent) villages, from whose agricultural produce and trade she can expect a handsome income:

   Ее деревни... говорят,
   Их много... а лежат...
   Они вблизи Китая,
   Вот там, где много чая,
   Где чай и лошади едят.
   Вот так-то говорят;
   Там горы, горы золотые,
   И там по улицам блестят
   Везде каменья дорогие.
   Мужик, коль хочет что испечь,
   Одной корицей топит печь,
   А сапоги гвоздикой подбивает;
   Не квас, мадеру испивает.

Or, as it runs in English (my translation, which sadly lacks the rhyme of the original):

    Her villages, so they say,
    Are many, and lie
    Right next to China,
    There, where there is so much tea
    Where tea and horses run.
    There, they say,
    There are mountains, mountains of gold
    And there the streets shine
    All over with precious stones.
    If a man wants to bake something,
    One stick of cinnamon will heat the stove,
    And his boots are soled using cloves;
    Not kvas, but Madeira he enjoys.

The reference to cloves is a play on the words "nail" (gvozdik) and "clove" (gvozdika), a clove being so named in Russian presumably because of the physical resemblance between nails and cloves.

Anyway, I think this little aria is interesting because China has little to do with the plot of the comedy, but serves only as a stand-in for unimaginable wealth. Prolaz endues this imaginary China with all the luxuries he can think of: gold, tea, spices, and inaccurately, Madeira. He also erroneously assumes that the Chinese must cook with stoves of the Russian type. Another aria later in the opera describes Chinese boats and caravans arriving at Marfa’s villages bearing gold and silver. (When Skriagin inquires as to the exact amount in puds, Prolaz pleads ignorance.)

In the minds of these characters, and possibly in the mind of the author, Kniazhnin, China was a land far off on the borders of imagination, a place where precious stones were so common that streets were paved with them.

The irony of the plot is that Skriagin and Marfa are both trying to deceive each other into believing the other is rich, so as to benefit fiscally from an amorous liaison. In the final scene, they discover each others' schemes; Skriagin is humiliated, and Marfa and Prolaz laugh him off the stage. In the end, Kniazhnin seems to be saying, chasing after fabled foreign wealth leads only to deceit and disappointment. So much for the land where tea and horses run.