Analects Book 14: gruesome tales about Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Wen of Jin

Amid the fantastic stories that spread about Duke Huan of Qi and Duke Wen of Jin, a couple of gruesome tales involving the consumption of human flesh stand out.

According to one famous story in the historical text Guanzi (The writings of Master Guan), Duke Huan once told his cook Yi Ya that the only food he had never eaten was steamed infant. Upon this, the faithful Yi Ya steamed his own first-born son and offered the dish to his master. There is no record of whether Duke Huan actually ate the young child’s flesh. I suppose the moral of this rather gruesome tale is to think before you speak.

I am not sure what the moral is of this equally gruesome tale about Duke Wen and his faithful advisor Jie Zhitui. On a hot summer afternoon during his exile, the duke became so tired and weary that Jie Zhitui made some meat soup for him using flesh cut from his own thigh.

Moved by Jie’s great loyalty, Duke Wen promised to reward him one day. But when he overlooked Jie Zhitui’s contribution after becoming the ruler of Jin, Jie departed his court in disappointment carrying his mother on his back to become a recluse in the hills. Unable to find Jie despite extensive searching, Duke Wen followed the advice of some of his officials, who suggested setting the hills on fire to smoke him out based on the logic that Jie would have to emerge to save his mother. Jie and his mother, however, refused to come out and were burned to death in the conflagration. So much for that brilliant idea!

Duke Wen is said to have been so filled with sadness and remorse that he established the Hanshi (Cold Food) Festival to commemorate Jie Zhitui and his mother. The festival lasted for three days and during it fire (and hence cooking) was prohibited. Over time it became merged with the Qingming or Tomb Sweeping Festival which occurs in April each year.

Jie Zhitui was canonized as a Daoist immortal for his refusal to give up his life as a hermit. Other observers are less kind in their assessment of his behavior, accusing him of petulance and intransigence.

I took this image at the cemetery of Mencius near Qufu, China.

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.