Writing about Lao Tzu’s fish recipe reminded me of another story about food and politics from Chinese history, and since that post was inexplicably popular, here it is.
There is a passage in the Spring and Autumn Annals that reads:
Or, in English:
Originally, King Cheng of Chu wanted to make Shang Chen (his elder son) the crown prince. He went to the Prime Minister and asked for his advice. The Prime Minister said: “His Lordship is still young, and too fond of women. If you put him in a position of leadership, it is likely to cause disorder. Often younger sons are chosen as heirs. This man has the eyes of a bee and the voice of a howling wolf. He is a cruel man and you should not appoint him to this position.” The king did not pay attention, and appointed Shang Chen, but soon enough he changed his mind and wanted to replace him with Prince Zhi. Shang Chen heard rumours of this, but was not sure they were true. He asked his tutor, Pan Chong, what he should do to find out. Pan Chong said: “Go and eat with Jiang Mi (the king’s younger sister) and behave disrespectfully.” Jiang Mi got angry and shouted: “Villain! No wonder the King wants to kill you and replace you with Prince Zhi!” Shang Chen returned and told Pan Chong that the rumours were true. Pan Chong asked whether Shang Chen could serve under Prince Zhi. “I cannot,” he replied. Pan Chong asked whether Shang Chen could flee the country. “I cannot,” he replied. Pan Chong asked whether Shang Chen chould start a rebellion. “I can,” he replied. That winter, in the tenth month, Shang Chen’s soldiers surrounded the King’s palace. The King asked for permission to eat a bear’s paw and then die. The request was refused. That afternoon, the King hanged himself…
(Apologies for any mistakes that have slipped in. Reading classical Chinese is hard.)
And you’ve got to admit that if you’re not one of life’s ursine gourmets, the punchline of that story lacks a certain something. “Eat a bear’s paw and die, eh? Well, thats very…um… interesting. On to the next chapter?”
In such a context it’s even more surprising that the tale is cited by other authors as an example of clever strategising.
In fact, like Lao Tzu’s fish recipe, the story only makes sense if you know a bit about the flavour and correct cookery of the dish in question.
If you can get past the grim business of butchering an animal that is frequently dripping with buckets of gooey fat and looks distressingly human once skinned, bear meat is pretty good. Paws, in particular, were prized in traditional Chinese cooking (and, as the photo above demonstrates, they remain something of a delicacy), with no less a personnage than Mencius giving them his personal seal of approval. I assume that this is because paws are sinewy and Chinese diners love them some gristle.
Moreover, while bear paws were easier to get hold of in ye olden days than now, they still weren’t that easy to lay your hands on. If you had one sitting around the place, you wouldn’t want to let it go to waste just because you were in the middle of a bloody revolt led by your own son. In other words, it’s not totally unreasonable of King Cheng to have requested one as his last meal.
But that’s not all.
Bear paws demand special cooking. For more information on this we turn once again to the Spring and Autumn Annals:
The Duke of Jin was not an honourable man. He taxed his subjects heavily to pay for a life of luxury. He stood on a high platform and shot at passers by, watching them try to avoid the bullets. When his butcher under-cooked some bears’ paws, he killed him…
There are two take-aways from this:
- Do not fuck with the bear paws.
- Bear paws need a lot of cooking.
In other words, if you’re in a bind and hoping that military reinforcements are about to show up and rescue you, then bear paws is probably a good choice of last meal. The cooking time alone will give you an extra day or so.
This site has a few different authentic recipes for bear paws, all of which involve a great deal of time. (Also, a different and more detailed version of the Shang Chen story, which spells out the precise implications in a way that the Spring and Autumn Annalects don’t.)
If you have a JSTOR subscription and would like to read some more stories about food in classical Chinese literature, try this paper.