Be careful what you wish for

Confucius said: “Duke Wen of Jin was crafty but not straight; Duke Huan of Qi was straight but not crafty.”

This passage introduces us to two of the most powerful leaders of the Spring and Autumn Period – not to mention some rather blood-curdling tales.

Born in 697 BC in the state of Jin (晉), Duke Wen spent many years in exile before returning home in 636 BC and subsequently expanding the size of its territories through a series of wars and conflicts with neighboring countries.

However, perhaps the most interesting story about him happened during his wanderings when on a hot summer afternoon he became so tired and hungry that his advisor Jie Zhitui (介之推) made some meat soup for him using flesh cut from his own thigh.

Moved by Zhitui’s loyalty, Wen promised to reward his friend one day, but when Wen became the Duke of Ji, Zhitui hid himself away in the hills and declined all offers to serve as his minister. Frustrated by Zhitui’s repeated refusals, Duke Wen decided to smoke him out by setting the hills where he lived on fire but Zhitui and his mother declined to come out and were burned to death in the conflagration.

Wen was filled with remorse and established the Hanshi (Cold Food) Festival (寒食節/hánshíjié) to commemorate him. The festival lasted for the three days and during it fire (and hence cooking) was prohibited. Over time it became merged with the Qingming or Tomb Sweeping Festival (清明節/Qīngmíngjié), which occurs in April each year.

I suppose there is a moral to this grisly tale, though for the life of me I can’t for the life of me think what it is.

Duke Huan ruled the state of Qi (齊)from 685 BC until his death in 643 BC, making it the most powerful country in the region with the help of his legendary prime minister Guan Zhong (管仲).

According to a famous story in the historical text Guanzi (管子) [The writings of Master Guan], the Duke told his cook Yi Ya (易牙) that the only food he hadn’t eaten was steamed infant, upon which the faithful Yi Ya steamed his first-born son and offered it to him.

There is no record of whether Duke Huan actually ate the young child’s flesh. I suppose the moral of these two gruesome tales is to be careful what you wish for.

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