Tag Archives: Chinese history

A Poor Chinese Communist’s Guide to Cooking

Context: I collected this from a high school friend when we were on a camping trip together over Spring Break.

Background: My friend is Chinese on his mother’s side, and she grew up in a poorer part of Communist China.

The Cooking Method: Because of the lack of proper food that poor Chinese people had to eat, they adopted a method of cooking that involved simply throwing whatever was edible and available together “in ways that made it taste good.” Over time the method became just the natural way of cooking to the people, even once regular food and ingredients became available.

Analysis: I like that the originator of this method of cooking is merely the will to survive, rather than simply a single person who decided to start cooking things a certain way. It’s also interesting to point out that these are folk recipes that emerged from a certain socioeconomic climate, a product of a generally difficult time period for the proletariat Chinese. More ties to folklore and the history of a culture.

Chinese historical legend: 四面楚歌


Si Mian Chu Ge

Four Sides Chu(a kingdom/state in ancient China) Song

Songs of Chu on all sides/Surrounded by songs of Chu

“After the Chun Qiu (Autumn Spring) period in ancient China, when the seven kingdoms were fighting for control of China, the Qin army surrounded the army of the Chu, and the general of the Qin, Yong Li Zhao, came up with a military strategy called “si mian chu ge” to get the Qin army to surrender without having to sacrifice his soldiers. It worked like this: these people’s hometown is Chu, right, and every hometown has traditional songs. And when you hear these songs, you are reminded of your home and your family. So the Qin army sang songs from the Chu kingdom all day and all night, so it seemed to the Chu army like their hometown songs were coming from all four sides, like the music was surrounding them. And so the Chu army wanted to go home, didn’t want to fight anymore, and they surrendered.”

When I asked my informant to tell me any stories he knew, he insisted on first giving me a history lesson on ancient China to ground the stories. This legend is set during the Seven Warring States period (which lasted from about 475 BC to 220 BC) towards the end of Zhou Dynasty China. The Qin state eventually defeated the other six states, including Chu, and reunified China under the Qin Dynasty.

My informant wasn’t sure where he’d heard this legend, but believes that it might have been from his father, who is particularly interested in ancient Chinese history. My informant took a sort of nationalistic pride in the legend and seemed almost offended when I asked him whether he thought the legend was true. “Of course,” he said, “it doesn’t have anything to do with magic.” He found the story compelling because it showed that battles could be won without violence.

While the story does seem to endorse nonviolence, the fact that my informant ended his story with, “But I think the Chu army were all killed in the end, because the Qin general never took prisoners,” suggested a dissonance in the legend—we associate home with safety and comfort, but in this story, the Chu army’s home and loved ones were used against them.

I think that the Chinese take a lot of pride in their ancient history, before China came under Western influence. Westerners were able to impose their will on the Chinese partly because they had more military technology and power. This legend shows an instance in which a Chinese leader uses cunning rather than force to conquer enemies, which the Chinese might see as more noble or fair.

Chinese historical legend: End of the Shang Dynasty

“Zhou Xin, the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty, he loved women and drinking and his favorite concubine was a woman called Da Ji.  We say she is hu li jing, a fox spirit that tricks men. Right, so Da Ji never smiled and the emperor wanted to see her smile, so he—oh wait, I have to tell you, in ancient China they had an alarm system set up, so if the emperor was in trouble, he’d have someone light a bonfire, and people further out would see the fire and light fires too and send armies to help, and then people even further out would see those fires and light their own and send armies, and so on. So Zhou Xin lit the alarm fire to try to make Da Ji smile, and a few days later, soldiers from all over China arrived at the palace, but there was nothing for them to do because it was just a joke, and Da Ji finally smiled. And because only this could make her smile, the emperor did it again and again, and finally the other towns got tired of having to send soldiers to the palace all the time, and they probably got tired of having to get new wood all the time too, so they just stopped sending soldiers when they saw the fire. And then when the palace was actually under attack, no one came, and that’s how the Shang Dynasty ended.”

My informant believes that he learned this story from his father, who has an interest in ancient Chinese history. Interestingly, my informant had never heard of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” which was the tale I immediately thought of after he told me this legend. Both the Boy and Zhou Xin waste others’ time and resources for their own amusement, and by the end, people no longer believe their cries for help. As a result, the Boy loses the sheep he was supposed to protect, and Zhou Xin loses the kingdom he was supposed to defend.

This legend takes place on a much larger scale and is set during a real historical period with real historical figures.  Zhou Xin was the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty and is remembered in history as 商紂王, Shang Zhou Wang, a derogatory title applied posthumously to reflect his unsuitability to be emperor. This legend explains why the Shang Dynasty ended (Zhou Xin’s allies thought the alarm fires were another joke) and gives and example of something Zhou Xin did to earn his pejorative nickname.

Chinese historical legend: Xiang Yu wang

“At the end of the Qin Dynasty, there were a lot of uprisings because people got tired of having to leave home to work on the emperor’s construction projects, and Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were two rebel leaders. So after the Qin Dynasty got overthrown, they have to fight each other to see who would rule China. And there were a lot of battles, but finally Xiang Yu got defeated. Liu Bang knew Xiang Yu would pass by this boulder by this river, so he wrote Xiang Yu wang, death to Xiang Yu, on the boulder in honey. And because there was honey, ants swarmed over the words, so it looked like the ants were forming the words. And when Xiang Yu saw it, he thought it was a message from the gods that he should die, so he committed suicide and Liu Bang became emperor and founded the Han Dynasty.“

My informant thinks he learned this story from his father, who is interested in ancient Chinese history.

This legend is built around real historical events. Xiang Yu did commit suicide after his defeat, although the truth value of the part with the ants and the honey is uncertain. The legend shows that Xiang Yu was honorable and faithful to the gods’ will, which is partly why Xiang Yu is now commonly viewed as a tragic historical figure. The legend also portrays Liu Bang as being an adept manipulator—he won by using his understanding of his opponent’s motivations—and the Chinese value cleverness over physical force.