Two and a half thousand years ago, Prince Zhong’er was hungry.
He was in exile. His state was in turmoil. He’d lost his castle, his kitchen and surely his chef as well. So what else was there to do but start eating his followers?
That’s what I discovered on Mianshan Mountain in Shanxi Province, in the opening to one of the more bizarre history-of-China stories.
One of Zhong’er’s soldiers, named Jie Zitui, “saved the prince by slicing some flesh off his own leg and cooking a dish for him.” The dish was a bowl of soup, it’s said, flavored with wild fruit.
Now that’s dedication.
But the story doesn’t end there.
19 years later, Prince Zhong’er (重耳, sometimes Chong’er, and at this point “Duke Wen of Jin”) found himself haunted by this dark memory. He’d reclaimed his throne, become a Duke, rebuilt his kitchen and hired a top chef… but he’d never thanked the man who carved up his own leg to feed the prince, Jie Zitui. This soldier was in hiding with his beloved mother on Mianshan Mountain. Creepy.
Duke Zhong’er wouldn’t climb the mountain, insisting it was too steep. And Jie Zitui refused to come down. (What if Zhong’er wanted more???)
So, after much thought, Duke Zhong’er ordered his men to set the mountain on fire. “This’ll force him out,” he laughed, as the entire mountain went up in flames.
It didn’t. And the crippled Jie Zitui and his mother both went up in flames, too. They’d decided it was better to meet fiery death, than meet the emperor.
(All of which makes me wonder… just how much of a volunteer was poor legless Jie Zitui?)
Now really racked with guilt, Duke Zhong’er put up a temple in Jie Zitui’s honor. (Lord Jie temple, 介公寺). The anniversary of his death became a festival — Hanshi (“Cold Food”) Day.
And you’re probably already familiar with the expression that was also born out of this, “割股奉君.” “Cutting flesh from the thigh to feed the emperor,” such a painful but great thing.