The Seven Captures of Meng Huo

Today’s history post is a blend of fact and legend. When we last left our narrative, much of the northern and western portions of what is now Yunnan province, including what would become modern-day Kunming, had come under the control of the Han Dynasty shortly before 100 AD.  But some 300 years later, the Han Dynasty was in disarray, and three separate states: Cao Wei, Shu Han, and East Wu, all claimed their leaders to be the legitimate Han emperor.  And one of the local leaders in Yunnan saw this as an opportunity to assert independence.

This period of time, referred to as the Three Kingdoms Period, gets its name from these three states. It  was one of the bloodiest times in Chinese history, but it has been glorified and romanticized in Chinese art and literature, most notably by a famous romance of the same name, written in the 14th century by the revered Ming Dynasty author Luo Guanzhong.  Luo’s work is still the most widely read historical novel in China; it occupies a similar place in Chinese culture as the Thousand and One Nights does in Arabian, Don Quixote in Spanish, or Shakespeare in English.

Today’s story comes directly from this literary masterpiece, and concerns two main characters:

  • Meng Huo, a rebellious local leader of the Nanzhong region which includes much of modern-day Yunnan province and part of southern Sichuan as well.
  • Zhuge Liang, the prime minister of Shu Han, sent by the Shu Han king to bring him to heel.

A Qing-era drawing of Zhuge Liang

Zhuge Liang was an orphan who rose to prominence through academic brilliance; there is an account of how the Shu Han king shows his humility by visiting Zhuge Liang in his hut three times to beg that he take leadership in the Shu Han government.  So between Zhuge Liang’s natural ability and the superiority of the forces he was able to bring to the conflict, the eventual outcome is never in doubt.  What makes it an interesting story is not what he accomplishes, but how…

In the very first meeting of their forces, Zhuge Liang is able to capture Meng Huo and five hundred of his retainers through an artful bit of subterfuge that played upon the enthusiasm of his own subordinates.  Meng is brought before prime minister Zhuge, who asks if he will submit.  Men replies “No, I fell afoul of your tricks on a narrow mountain trail. Why should I submit?”.  But instead of killing him as was within his rights, Zhuge asks Meng what he would do if set free.  Meng replies “I shall reorder my forces for another trial at arms, but if you capture me again, I shall submit”.

A Ming-era drawing of Meng Huo

So Zhuge sents Meng free. This makes his subordinates very unhappy, enough so that they questioned their leader’s decision (understand that this is no small thing in traditional Chinese culture). Prime minister Zhuge replies “I can capture him again at ease whenever I choose to. But pacification of his kingdom requires that we win the hearts of the people.”  As by now you have deduced, Zhuge succeeds in capturing Meng again and again, usually through some cleverly thought out subterfuge.

After the second capture, Zhuge gives Meng a tour of inspection, letting him see not only the size of his army but the extent of his provisions.

After the third capture, Zhuge gives Meng tactical advice so that he can do a better job leading his army against the prime minister.

 

And so the story goes, until the seventh and final capture.  Having so thoroughly embarrassed Meng Huo by beating him time and again, Zhuge Liang does not have him brought forth again, but allows Meng to save face by sending a messenger instead to set him free and order his troops for yet another battle.  Thus defeated not only by arms but by courtesy, Meng Huo finally submits and swears fealty.  And in response, Zhuge Liang not only allows him to keep his role in vassal to Shu Han, but actually seeks his advice on further adventures.

This is as thoroughly a Chinese tale as any I have ever come across, and speaks worlds about how the Chinese see themselves, and the ideal of behavior that they aspire to.  It continues to serve as a model of behavior into this day and age. During WWII, when Chairman Mao was leading armies against the Japanese, he explicitly evoked the seven captures of Meng Huo as the reasoning behind his order that Chinese troops captured fighting for the Japanese be set free instead of killed. In explaining his reasoning to Communist leaders, Mao says:

In principal, whether they are officers or soldiers and no matter what social background they come from, no puppet troop captives are to be killed. Even those elements who have a deep hatred for us and come back to fight us again after being released may be spared execution. That is, the method of repeated capturing and releasing is better than killing, and its impact is greater. In releasing captives, there should be absolutely no posting of bail, and they should not be made to vow that they will never be puppet soldiers in the future. But they can be required to swear that they will not really help the Japanese oppose the New Fourth Army in the future. And if they do actually violate their oath and help Japan fight us, then we should still patiently carry out the policy of “seven times capturing Meng Huo.”

 

 

A modern, anime-style rendition of Zhuge Liang

I have found this kind of long-term thinking an essential part of the Chinese mindset; it puts the Chinese focus on relationships on full display, and contrasts sharply with the more western focus on direct, short-term, and measurable results. Personally, I discern no clear superiority in either way of thinking.  But whether it is working day-to-day with your Chinese colleagues or trying to understand the seemingly inexplicable actions of the Chinese government, the impact of this mindset needs to be understood.

Sources

As usual, I used Wikipedia for times, dates, and other background, as well as for the drawing of Meng Huo. An excerpt from a dissertation by Konrad Lawson provided the links to Mao’s policies. The Qing era drawing of Zhuge Liang comes from history.cultural-china.com, while the modern one comes from sanguoguide.com, which is a fabulous guide to the classic novel and its subsequent adaptations.

The story itself comes directly from the English-language version of The Three Kingdoms that I picked up the last time I was in China.

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Reputation Economy article now available online @rachelbotsman

The article by Rachel Botsman that I cited in my recent post: The Reputation Economy and the Value of Human Life, which before was only available in the UK print edition of Wired, is now available online.  You can find it here.

Go check it out: very highly recommended.

Food of Yunnan 4: Erkuai

Tonight’s post is from an article written in the China Daily by Yang Wanli, and discusses a traditional and very special way of making rice, unique to Yunnan, called 饵块– Erkuai, or soft pounded rice.

Yunnan province is famous for the wide variety of dishes and delicacies it offers. Perhaps the fact that it is home to more than two dozen ethnic groups has something to do with it. The variety and taste of and the ingredients used in dishes can differ from town to town and even village to village, except erkuai, a culinary specialty made of rice, which is omnipresent in the entire province. And while traditional methods of preparing food may be vanishing, a workshop in Kunming has kept alive the old art of making erkuai.  As a type of rice cake particular to Yunnan, erkuai literally translates into “ear piece”, a reference to one of its common shapes.

Erkuai has a history of 400 years. Although common in the entire province, it is said that the best erkuai is available in Guandu district of Yunnan’s capital of Kunming, where it is said to have originated. As the ancient center of Yunnan’s capital, Guandu is famous for its traditional way of making erkuai.  “Making erkuai was like a ceremony before Spring Festival when I was a kid,” says Pan Yunquan, a 67-year-old resident of Luofeng village in Guandu. “It used to be made only once a year.” Since Luofeng has the credit of making the most delicious erkuai in Guandu, the delicacy available there is the best of the best.

In days past, people would not make erkuai at home but at a public mill shared by residents from two or more villages, and hence the annual “ceremony”. The mill in Luofeng village had a great reputation in Kunming and even other border cities. “The mill used to be open from late December to the eve of Spring Festival. Workers were divided into two groups and had to work constantly because a lot of people waited for their turn to make erkuai,” Pan says. At times, the queue used to be hundreds of meters long. Eating erkuai during Spring Festival is a tradition in Yunnan, and in the old days even the poorest families followed it. People carried newly harvested rice in cloth bags and waited outside the mill sometimes for two days. Generally, a family made erkuai from 20 to 50 kg of rice every year.

Rice is the only ingredient used in erkuai. Rice of the best quality is washed twice and then soaked in cold spring water for about an hour. After that, it is steamed twice. “Washing and steaming the rice twice makes erkuai whiter and softer,” Pan says. There are no strict rules for making erkuai, he says. It depends on experience. “Take steaming for example. Once water starts dripping from the hay-made pot cover, it is time to take the steamed rice out.”  Steamed rice is quickly put into a stone mortar and later pounded with a wooden pestle. But this is a special mortar and pestle, called mudui in Chinese in which the mortar is fixed into a hole dug in the ground so that its mouth is even with the floor level. The pestle is fixed to a huge horizontal wooden lever and needs four to six people to operate.

After the pounding, the rice becomes soft and gummy like plasticine, and is shaped on a wooden board. Erkuai is generally shaped like a mini pillow after the soft rice is kneaded to push the air bubbles out, and gives off a fragrant, appetizing aroma. Erkuai is loved by people in Yunnan not only for its simplicity, but also because it can be cooked in several ways. It can be cut into slices and served stir-fried with vegetables and málà (麻辣), a fiery mixture of dried red chilies, Sichuan pepper and salt.

It is popular as street food, too, grilled, barbecued and rolled around fried breadsticks with sweet or savory condiments added, resembling a Mexican burrito. The sweet types contain a sweet brown sauce and peanuts, while the savory types are mixed with preserved bean curd, bean sprouts and various other toppings. This method is particularly popular among Yunnan people and savored as a quick and delicious snack. Besides, erkuai can be also made into dessert with sweet fermented-rice and eggs. Many families use finely shredded erkuai and cook it like noodles.

The traditional method of making erkuai in Guandu was listed as an intangible cultural relic of Kunming in June 2005. In March 2010, authorities built a workshop in Guandu to demonstrate the tradition way of making erkuai, which disappeared about 30 years ago. An erkuai cake weighing 1 kg made in the workshop sells for double the average price of machine-made variety. A worker, surnamed Ding, says theirs is the only shop selling handmade erkuai in Kunming, and attracts many customers from across China and even aboard, especially during holidays. On May Day this year, the shop sold 480 cakes made out of 300 kg of rice. Pan says the workshop brings back memories for most senior residents. “Listening to the pounding of the pestle is like listening to music. The smell of rice is so sweet that it brings back memories of our childhood.”

Erkuai keeps fresh soaked in clean water for up two months, and it is said that fishermen used it to repair small cracks in their boats.

Sources

The description and background come from an article in the China Daily, as do all but one of the photos – the other comes from about.com.

Meg Mude on social media

My friend Meg wrote a piece in her blog in which she undertakes the arduous task of looking beyond the cycle of hype in the social media market place to try and glean what has changed and what has stayed the same.

One notable quote sticks out in my brain

Businesses, which are made of humans, need to speak and to be heard, unless and until sated – they will speak

Just as contraception was a catalyst and enabling technology for women’s long-held dreams of true independence and empowerment, so social media serves as the catalyst and enabling technology for people’s long-held desire to speak and be heard.

Check out her post in detail here: Social media – substance or froth?  And tell her I say hello :-)

 

iece in her blog

Historical Kunming Part 5: Zhang Qian and the Opening of the Silk Road

We left our narrative of the history of Kunming and Yunnan province in 109 BC, when the Dian Kingdom was conquered by the armies of the Han Dynasty, and brought within the fold of Imperial China.  As one of the first orders of business after this conquest, the Han emperor ordered one of his most important generals, Tang Meng, to Yunnan.  His instructions were to extend the “Five Foot Way” – a famous trade road of the time, from Sichuan into Yunnan.

Han Dynasty, just after to the conquest of the Kingdom of Dian

There were many reasons for this instruction. Roads in China were first and foremost a means of efficient troop movement, even the Great Wall was far more useful as a way of transporting troops quickly over very rough terrain than it ever was as an actual physical barrier.  The Kingdom of Dian was newly conquered and could rebel at any time, so the ability to get troops there quickly was of paramount importance.  But another key reason was trade.  Not with the Dian Kingdom itself; the Han people considered the local residents to be crude barbarians. Hang Teng even named the Yunnan extension of the Five Foot Way the “Southwest Barbarian Way”.  The real value of Yunnan to the Han empire lay in its location; it was seen as a potential gateway to what was called at the time the “Sendhuk” valley.  Now it is called the Indus valley; the Han dynasty wanted to open a trade route with India.  But how did the Han rulers know about India, and why did they think it was important to establish trade routes there?

The answer lies not in the south of China but in the north.  The Han dynasty was plagued by a loose confederation of nomadic tribesmen whom they knew as the Xiongnu; several centuries later, Europe would encounter them and call them the Huns.  About 20 years earlier than the conquest of the Dian Kingdom, spies of the Han emperor Wudi (the same emperor whose death precipitated the Discourses on Salt and Iron referred to in history post 2) reported to Emperor Wu that King Chanyu of the Huns had recently killed the king of a tribe known as the Da Yuezhi, and had his skull made into a drinking goblet.  The Da Yuezhi tribe was previously unknown to the Han dynasty, but sensing an opportunity, the sent a detachment of about 100 troops to find this tribe and seek an alliance with them.  The officer appointed to lead this detachment was a mid-level noble named Zhang Qian.

Zhang Qian sets out on his embassy

The expedition did not meet with great success.  Zhang, his guide Ganfu (a captured Xiongnu prisoner of war), and their detachment of troops were captured by the Xiongnu and held as hostages against further Han incursions.  Zhang and his guide were held captive by the Zhiongnu for almost over ten years, during which he took a Xiongnu wife, who in turn bore him a son. But eventually, having gained the trust of the Xiongnu leader, Zhang was able to escape, and fled west across the Gobi desert with his guide wife, and son.  And ten years after his departure from China, he finally managed to make contact with the Da Yuezhi.  But though the Yuezhi welcomed Zhang and treated him with honor, they had no desire to enter into an alliance against the Xiongnu.  The Yuezhi felt that the distance between their home (which lies in what is now Tajikistan) and the Chinese Empire (whose military might was centered in their capital of Chang’an, which is now modern-day Xi’an) was too great for an alliance to be effective.  And the murder of their king notwithstanding, the Yuezhi were content to raise their flocks and make due against the occasional Xiongnu raid.

His mission unsuccessful, Zhang spent a further year in central Asia, documenting and establishing relations with different tribes and kingdoms in the area, and then set off for the return journey to China.  Anxious to avoid recapture, Zhang  and his party took a different route on their return, skirting the southern edge of the Tarim basin, where they had gone around the northern edge on their way out.  But this caution was to no avail, for Zhang and his party were once again captured by the Xiongnu.  This time however, Zhang was lucky in that he became a pawn in a civil war within the Xiongnu tribe, and was able to secure his freedom in less than a year, in exchange for bearing messages from one of the rival factions to the Han emperor.

Zhian Qian

Despite having failed to secure an alliance, Zhang was wildly popular in court upon his return, and prepared detailed reports on over 36 different tribes and nations he had intercourse with over the years of his journey.  And through all the places he had traveled there was a common thread: rich and exotic goods from a great civilization rumored to lie to the southeast, a kingdom known as the Sendhuk.  And having proven his capability, Zhang was sent out two more times to try and find this fabled kingdom, and the first of these original journeys went through Sichuan and the Dian Kingdom that is now Yunnan Province.

Zhang never did find India, but he studiously wrote about every place he did make it to, and though not all of the political alliances he was dispatched to establish came to fruition, he is regarded in China in much the same light we in the west regard Marco Polo, as one of the first great travelers and travel writers.  And over the century following his death, China did succeed in establishing relations with these tribes and kingdoms of central Asia.  These trade agreements started the caravans flowing, and the routes they established formed the very Silk Road that Marco Polo would follow, all the way to Kunming, some 1300 years later.

The Reputation Economy and the Value of Human Life

This is an off topic post.  It has nothing to do with the ancient or modern history of China, or with the food of Yunnan province, and is only loosely connected to the topics of philanthropy and globalization that I usually discuss in this blog.  But it is what I’ve been thinking about for the past day, so I’ve decided to share my thoughts with you.  If you want to skip it and wait for my next post, which will tell the story of how Yunnan started to become more integrated into Imperial China after the conquest of the Kingdom of Dian, I promise not to be offended :-)

I read an article yesterday in the September edition of Wired magazine’s UK edition, entitled “Welcome to the New Reputation Economy”. In the article, author Rachel Botsman highlights the immense yet currently unmonetized value  of reputation and trustworthiness data — the sort being collected by large e-commerce firms.  Not only the juggernauts like eBay and Amazon, but also the successful niche players like Airbnb and Etsy.

Botsman then goes on to speculate on what would be possible if reputation and trustworthiness data were offered up and subscribed to in some manner of clearing house or information market — not dissimilar to FICO scores for credit ratings — and even gives a brief survey of some companies who are trying to do just that.

Finally, Botsman paints a picture of what it might be like when financial credibility and reputational credibility are mashed and used together to drive all kinds of decision making, from e-commerce to loan origination to employment.  And let it be said that Botsman does not engage in idle speculation here; she supports her views with credible examples from outfits like Stack Overflow and Movenbank.

I have been reflecting on that article for a full day now, and find myself having all kinds of reactions to it…

The professional in me is energized.  Social networking data, e-commerce data, and traditional credit scores are all available and actively used for statistical inference now.  But the inferences that can be drawn by sophisticated analysis of that correlated data will go well beyond what is currently possible, and that analysis will be worth billions of dollars.  I have always been strongly drawn by the challenge of figuring out the pragmatic details of how to take a grand vision and make it a practical reality, and it would be hard to think of a bigger vision or more challenging implementation than this.

On the other hand, the libertarian in me is horrified.  The rules governing the usage of credit reporting data are more or less fully mature, and those governing e-commerce and social network data are starting to become more clearly defined.  But by combining these data stores, everyone from marketers to intelligence agencies will be able to obtain a far more insightful look into my life, even by staying well within the well-established or currently-establishing rules for working with those data sets.

But looking beyond the immediate effects I see coming in the commercial or political spheres of the world, the philosopher in me is deeply intrigued.  Money was invented four or five millenia ago to provide a common medium of exchange in order to make trade more practical and efficient.  And since that invention, people have used money to try and put a value on human life: from the medieval Saxon weregild, to 19th century actuarial tables, to the predictive customer value analytics that shape the deal you get offered when you try to change your mobile phone to a different provider.  But though we may realize the necessity, valuing lives in dollars is something we have never been comfortable with.

In 2007 and again in 2009, I spent a good deal of my spare time interacting with people in a virtual world called SecondLife.  One of the things I learned from that experience was how desperately people are literally crying out to be more than the material confines of their lives allowed them to be.  People were — and continue to be — willing to spend frighteningly large proportions of their disposable income for the opportunity to create and interact beyond those confines, even if those creations or relationships would never be more than virtual.  This confounds rationalists, but the empirical evidence is overwhelming: people want to be measured by more than their wealth, and they are willing to sacrifice a good portion of their wealth to gain that recognition.

So let’s bring this back to Botsman’s vision of how the reputation economy will grow and evolve.  What if, within a generation or two, there is an established medium of exchange for measuring people’s contributions and/or trustworthiness across e-commerce markets, global communities, educational fora, or worthy causes?  A medium not measured in money, but in the coalesced opinion of people with similar interests?

Will it liberate people, allowing them to grow and flourish far beyond what their educational and socioeconomic realities might otherwise allow?  If so, how do we ensure that participation in this global market for reputation is as widely accessible as possible?  Or will it instead enslave people, binding them to the soul-crushing vagaries of a brand new rat race, as if the economic one weren’t bad enough?

And last of all, what other effects will it have on society?  Consider how the availability of contraception has completely altered the role of women in societies where it is accessible.  How will the commoditization of reputation and trustworthiness change our friendships, our business interactions, and our courtship rituals?

I would love to hear your thoughts…

Food of Yunnan 3: 乳饼 – Rubing Cheese

You don’t find a lot of dairy food in China. This is usually ascribed to the fact that many Chinese people are lactose intolerant, though there is some debate over whether this causes the lack of dairy in the diet or is caused by it.  There are also remarks upon the fact that dairy farming is a far less efficient use of land than growing rice or raising pork for meat.  But regardless of the cause, one thing you will almost never find anywhere in China is cheese.  The featured food in tonight’s post is the exception to that rule.

Rubing (乳饼 – rǔbǐng) is a cheese made by the local Bai and Sani minorities of Yunnan province, and is quite popular there.  It is a farmer cheese, which means that it is served fresh rather than aged, and is made from goats milk that has been soured with the extract of a local vine called 奶藤 (năiténg), or literally “milk cane”.

Rubing is similar to the Cypriot cheese called Halloumi in that it does not melt when heated.  And like Halloumi, Rubing is most commonly served fried.

Often is it served mixed with tomatoes and broccoli or other vegetables.

Sometimes it is just deep-fried and served with salty or sweet dipping sauces.

These are the most traditional ways of serving Rubing, but modern restaurants in the region have been experimenting with departures from the tradition.  Some serve it with a local cured ham called Xuanhua, while others are experimenting with chocolate or rose flavorings.

It is yet another local delight I will be keeping my eyes out in our coming visit.

Sources:

The photos and serving information come from gochengdoo.com

Information on the making of rubing comes from wisegeek.com