On this date in 202 BCE, Liu Bang was enthroned as the emperor Gaozu (漢高祖) of China, beginning four centuries of rule by the Han dynasty (with some breaks). Liu Bang was unusual as a dynastic founder in that he was born a peasant, although court historians eventually fudged his genealogy to make him a descendant of mythical royal ancestors (to give his rule divine legitimacy). I’ll give a brief outline of his life before spending rather longer on a critical historical feast. This is a food blog, don’t you know.
Liu Bang was born to a peasant family in Fenyu Village (枌榆社) in the state of Chu during the late years of the Warring States period. His parents’ names were not recorded; they were simply referred to as “Liu Taigong” (劉太公; lit. “Old Sir Liu”) and “Liu Ao” (劉媪; lit. “Old Madam Liu”). According to legend, before Liu Bang’s birth, his mother was caught in a rainstorm and took shelter under a bridge. At that moment, lightning struck and the sky darkened. Liu Bang’s father went to fetch his wife home and saw a dragon hovering above her. She became pregnant and later gave birth to Liu Bang.
It was subsequently recorded that the young Liu Bang was outspoken, charismatic and of great generosity and forbearance. However, he enjoyed loafing, disliked reading, showed no interest in farming and manual labor and frequently ran into trouble with the law, hence his father often called him a “little rascal” for his lazy lifestyle. Liu Bang persisted in his idling ways and depended on his brother’s family for food and lodging. When he grew older, he became a good friend and live-in companion of a former retainer of Lord Xinling named Zhang Er ( 張耳), who, at the time, was the magistrate of the nearby Waihuang County. Liu Bang initially served as a minor patrol officer for the Qin dynasty in his home town Pei County, within the conquered state of Chu. With the First Emperor’s death and the Qin Empire’s subsequent political chaos, Liu Bang renounced his government position and became an anti-Qin rebel leader. He won the race against fellow rebel leader Xiang Yu to invade the Qin heartland and forced the surrender of the last Qin ruler in 206 BCE.
After the fall of the Qin, Xiang Yu, as the de facto chief of the rebel forces, divided the former Qin Empire into the Eighteen Kingdoms, and Liu Bang was forced to accept the poor and remote Bashu region (parts of present-day Sichuan and Chongqing) with the title “King of Han” ( 漢王). Within the year, Liu Bang broke out with his army and conquered the Three Qins, starting a civil war known as the Chu–Han Contention as various forces battled for supremacy over China.
In 202 BCE, Liu Bang emerged victorious following the Battle of Gaixia, unified most of China under his control, and established the Han dynasty with himself as the founding emperor. During his reign, Liu Bang reduced taxes and corvée, promoted Confucianism, and suppressed revolts by the lords of non-Liu vassal states, among many other actions. He also initiated the policy of heqin to maintain a de jure peace between the Han Empire and the Xiongnu after losing the Battle of Baideng in 200 BCE. He died in 195 BCE and was succeeded by his son, Liu Ying.
Now the feast. In 208 BCE, during the reign of Qin Er Shi, Liu Bang (fortunes on the rise) was granted the title “Marquis of Wu’an” (武安侯) by the king and tasked with leading an army to attack Qin. The king promised that whoever entered Guanzhong (the heartland of Qin) first would receive the title “King of Guanzhong”. In 206 BCE, Liu Bang beat Xiang Yu in the race to Guanzhong and arrived in Xianyang, the Qin capital. Ziying, the last Qin ruler, surrendered to Liu Bang and ended the Qin dynasty. Liu Bang then issued strict orders to his men, forbidding them from killing innocent civilians and pillaging the cities they conquered. Peace and stability were temporarily restored in Xianyang while Liu Bang’s forces were stationed there.
Xiang Yu was furious that Liu Bang had beaten him in the race to Guanzhong. Instigated by his advisor Fan Zeng and Cao Wushang (曹無傷), an informer from Liu Bang’s camp, he decided to set a trap to kill Liu Bang. He pretended to invite Liu Bang to a banquet, while secretly planning to assassinate Liu during the feast. However, Xiang Yu’s uncle, Xiang Bo, was a close friend of Liu Bang’s strategist Zhang Liang, and managed to persuade his nephew to not personally order Liu Bang’s execution on the feast. Frustrated by Xiang Yu’s indecisiveness, Fan Zeng then ordered Xiang Yu’s cousin Xiang Zhuang to pretend performing a sword dance and use the opportunity to kill Liu Bang, but Xiang Bo volunteered to join the dance and blocked his nephew every time he thrust his sword towards Liu Bang.
Seeing Liu Bang was in mortal danger, Zhang Liang sneaked outside and summoned Liu Bang’s brother-in-law and personal bodyguard Fan Kuai, who then burst into the banquet area despite not being invited, dressed in full armor and armed with his sword and shield, interrupting the sword dance and glaring at Xiang Yu. Xiang Yu was impressed with Fan Kuai’s bravado and asked for his name, calling him a “brave warrior” (壯士). He ordered his men to give Fan Kuai a goblet of wine, which Fan gulped down. Xiang Yu then offered Fan Kuai a cut of meat (a pork shoulder). Fan Kuai placed the meat on his shield and used his sword to cut off chunks and eat. Xiang Yu was even more impressed and he asked Fan Kuai if he wanted more wine. Fan Kuai then made a lengthy speech about Liu Bang’s accomplishments, stating how it would be unjust for Xiang Yu to kill Liu, but also implicitly affirming that Liu would not challenge Xiang’s authority. Liu Bang then pretended to go to the latrine and used the chance to escape Xiang Yu’s camp unannounced.
In Chinese culture, the term Hong Men Yan (“Feast at Hong Gate”) is used figuratively to refer to a trap or a situation ostensibly joyous but in fact treacherous. Another idiom that relates to the event is Xiang Zhuang wu jian, yi zai Pei Gong (项庄舞剑，意在沛公) (literally: ‘Xiang Zhuang performing a sword dance, he is actually aiming at the Duke of Pei’), meaning that a person’s actions although looking innocent are intended to be a veiled attack on another person.
Certainly in honor of Fan Kuai’s actions a roast shoulder of pork would be suitable as a celebration. You realize that he cut it with his sword and ate it on his shield to show that he was not going to be fooled into putting his weapons down to eat. If you make roast pork it is not necessary to serve it on a shield, but it would work to enliven conversation. Otherwise, there are quite a few rudimentary recipes extant from the Han dynasty and I have given several already (in modern form). Here’s one more for pheasant. You can substitute chicken of course.
½ lb pheasant breast meat, shredded
½ teaspoon salt
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
3 shallots, peeled and minced
½ cup flour
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 egg white
Put the pheasant meat in a colander. Boil two cups of water, and pour the water over the shredded meat. Drain and mix the meat with the salt, rice wine, and shallots. Form this mixture into eight long fingers and press them tightly together with dampened hands.
Mix the flour, cornstarch and egg white into a thick batter and set aside for ten minutes, then stir well.
Heat oil in a wok or deep pot to 350°F/175°C. Dip one of the meat fingers into the batter so that it is covered all over and then place it gently in the hot fat using a wire spatula. Turn the roll so that it cooks evenly on all sides, and remove with a slotted spoon when golden and drain on a wire rack. This can be done in two batches of four. Serve hot with the dipping sauce of your choice.