Dec 302017

Today is the birthday (159 CE) of Lady Bian, also known as Empress Dowager Bian, and formally known as Empress Wuxuan, empress dowager of the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of China. She was the wife of Cao Cao, a warlord who rose to power in the late Eastern Han dynasty and laid the foundation of Wei. She gave birth to Cao Pi, who ended the Han Dynasty and founded Wei in 220 after his father’s death. Lady Bian is especially noted for her wisdom in action, as well as her kindness and humility at a time when rulers were cruel and ruthless.

Lady Bian was born in 159 in Bai Village (白亭), Qi Commandery (齊郡; in present-day Shandong) although her family was registered in Langya Commandery (琅琊郡; in present-day southeastern Shandong). Because her family was poor, she became a courtesan in a brothel when she was young. When she was 20, Cao Cao took her as a concubine.

In 189, when Cao Cao fled from Dong Zhuo at Luoyang, Yuan Shu spread rumours that Cao Cao had died. Lady Bian refused to believe them and persuaded Cao Cao’s followers not to desert him. When Cao Cao returned, he was impressed by her conduct. She had four sons by Cao Cao – Cao Pi, Cao Zhang, Cao Zhi and Cao Xiong. After the death of Cao Cao’s eldest son Cao Ang, Cao Cao’s wife Lady Ding  left him, never coming back even after he asked for forgiveness many times. Lady Ding was not actually Cao Ang’s biological mother; she had adopted him as her own. Cao Cao then made Lady Bian his principal wife. Lady Bian still treated Lady Ding kindly afterward, however. In 219 (after Cao Cao had been made the king of Wei in 216), Emperor Xian of Han made her the Queen of Wei. She was known for her wisdom and humility. She was particularly praised for refusing to celebrate lavishly (as her attendants had suggested) when her son Cao Pi was made heir in 217.

Cao Cao

After Cao Cao died in 220, Cao Pi inherited his title as the king of Wei, and later that year forced Emperor Xian to abdicate in his favor, ending the Han dynasty and establishing the state of Cao Wei. Queen Dowager Bian became empress dowager. She was not much involved in her son’s administration or in his campaigns against Cao Wei’s rival states, Eastern Wu and Shu Han. She, in particular, refused to grant her family excessive wealth or titles, setting an example for the rest of Cao Wei’s history. One incident that in which she engaged herself happened in 226, when Cao Pi wanted to execute Cao Cao’s cousin Cao Hong due to previous grudges between them. She, remembering the contributions that Cao Hong made – including one occasion when he personally saved Cao Cao’s life – rebuked Cao Pi sufficiently that he spared Cao Hong’s life, although Cao Hong’s offices and titles were still stripped from him.

Cao Pi

After Cao Pi died in 226, his son Cao Rui became emperor, and he honored his grandmother as grand empress dowager. In 227, she was inadvertently insulted by her granddaughter-in-law Princess Yu – Princess Yu had been Cao Rui’s wife when he was Prince of Pingyuan, but after he became emperor, he did not make her empress, but made his concubine Lady Mao as empress instead. She was upset, and Empress Dowager Bian tried to console her, and her response was, “the Caos have a tradition for favoring dishonorable women,” forgetting that Empress Dowager Bian was formerly a courtesan. Empress Dowager Bian was greatly offended, but did not punish her further than having her sent back to Cao Ruis’ princely manor house.

Empress Dowager Bian died in 230, and she was buried with honors due an empress dowager, with her husband Cao Cao. Lady Bian now appears from time to time in modern card games as well as in online RPGs.

The Qimin Yaoshu (齐民要术) is the most completely preserved of the ancient Chinese agricultural texts, and was written by the Northern Wei Dynasty official Jia Sixie. The book is believed to have been completed in the 2nd year of Wu Ding of Eastern Wei, 544 CE, while another account gives the completion between 533 and 544 CE. The text of the book is divided into ten volumes and 92 chapters, and records 1500-year-old Chinese agronomy, horticulture, afforestation, sericulture, animal husbandry, veterinary medicine, breeding, brewing, cooking, storage, as well as remedies for barren land. The book is not really in our time period but it quotes nearly 200 ancient sources including the Yiwu Zhi (written by Yang Fu (fl. 210s–230s), courtesy name Yishan, who was an official of the state of Cao Wei).  It also quotes agricultural books such as Fàn shèng zhī shū (氾勝之書) and Sì mín yuè lìng (四民月令) from the Hàn and Jìn Dynasties which are also now lost, providing some insight into farming and cooking in Lady Bian’s era. There are 280 recipes in the text.

This site, gives both text and translation of some of the recipes which I will quote verbatim. The ancient Chinese is not easy to translate. Furthermore, the quantities given are obscure, although it should be noted that quantities are given, which was not true of recipes in the West of the period, or even later.

There are quantities here that I should explain before we dive in.


1 jin = 16 liang

 A reasonable guess of the weight in this period and locality in modern units is that 1 jin is 440 grams.
1 dan = 10 dou

1 dou = 10 sheng

1 sheng = 10 ge

A reasonable estimate of the volume in this period in modern units is that 1 dou is 3 liters.

臛法第七十六 Chapter 76: Methods for Stew and Broth.

《食經》作芋子酸臛法:To Make Taro Seed Sour Broth:

「豬羊肉各一斤,水一斗,煮令熟。 “One jin each of pork and sheep meat, one dou of water, boil until cooked.
成治芋子一升——別蒸之——蔥白一升,著肉中合煮,使熟。 One sheng of ripe taro seeds — separately steamed — one sheng of the whites of scallions, add it to the meat and boil together, until cooked.
粳米三合,鹽一合,豉汁一升,苦酒五合,口調其味,生薑十兩。得臛一斗。 Add three ge of polished non-glutinous rice, one ge of salt, one sheng of the juice from fermented beans, five ge of bitter wine, to taste.  Add ten liang fresh ginger [this is a ton of ginger, 30% ginger by weight in the recipe.  Maybe just one liang].  Yields one dou.”

There you go! Have at it.







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