The Cold Food Festival

In 672 BC, a duke of the northern state of Jin, scored a crushing victory against one of the Rong tribes, and took two of the chieftain’s daughters as part of his prize. History books gloss over the fact that the duke was himself part-nomad, and that when we tell his story, we are putting a coat of Chinese paint over a power struggle between several partly-assimilated steppe clans. One of the Rong princesses, Li Ji, managed to charm the duke so much that she persuaded him to cast aside his elder sons in favour of their own child – if this story is already sounding familiar, I am afraid it is all too common in Chinese history, in which women repeatedly take the blame for the political ambitions of their male relatives. Any concubine who has the ear of the ruler can put in a good word for her family members, particularly if her own offspring becomes the heir. With multiple concubines in play, the entire order and infrastructure could be upset by the next beauty to catch a noble’s eye, and often was.

In 656 BC, Li Ji framed the crown prince, presenting the duke with gifts of poisoned sacrificial meat, the nature of which was revealed when he fed some to his dog, which promptly died. The prince was badgered into taking his own life, and his siblings went on the run. One of them, Chong’er, spent twenty years in exile, travelling with his entourage among the nomads and the borderlands, until he was put back in power with military assistance from the up-and-coming state of Qin. Somehow, in the middle of all the medals and commendations doled out to Chong’er’s followers, he neglected to promote Jie Zhitui, his most loyal counsellor, a man who had legendarily carved his own flesh from his thigh to make soup for Chong’er at the times of their worst poverty. Jie went into exile, and Chong’er, increasingly embarrassed at his oversight, embarked upon several schemes to lure him back. Eventually, the frustrated Chong’er set fire to an entire forest in the hope of flushing Jie out, only to find his charred corpse three days later, clutching the smouldering stump of a willow tree.

The dishonour of Jie’s death and his lord’s ingratitude would develop into a series of superstitions in the local area. Afraid of incurring the wrath of Jie’s spirit, people would refuse to light any fires in the week that he had died, which was unfortunately in the middle of winter. This was believed to be the origin of the ancient Cold Food Festival (hanshi jie), a custom that spread to neighbouring provinces, and would be the subject of several stern rebukes by future rulers, who could not believe that their subjects were prepared to shut down their sole source of warmth and cooking in the coldest month of the year. Fearful that Jie’s spirit would cause storms, believers would keep to uncooked food, and particularly lilao, a barley porridge made with apricot pits and malt sugar.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.

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