We’ve all seen the war movies; Before heading off to battle, the rookie recruit kisses his girlfriend goodbye, promising, “As soon as I come back, I will marry you.” Or maybe he keeps a photo of that childhood sweetheart in his wallet to show others what’s waiting at home. It’s as bad as someone on Game of Thrones saying, “We’ll talk when I get back.” They’re dead meat, we all know it. Chinese moviegoers have a term for this sort of signaling: “Don’t raise a flag!” (不要立flag! B%y3o l# flag!) Originally a gaming term, “raise a flag” refers to particular lines or cues that serve as a sure sign of impending death or disaster. It usually exists as a half-chinese, half-english term—立flag, with 立 ( l# ) meaning “raise” (mixed use of Chinese and English has become increasingly popular both online and in conversation among younger Chinese, even as some scholars and media have criticized the phenomenon, citing “language purity”).
This term is often used on social media or in “bullet subtitles” (弹幕d3nm&), viewers’ comments that shoot across the screen as chyrons when a video is played. Thanks to their overreliance on cliché, screenwriters make it easy for anyone to recognize a flag. When a hitman hero swears “This will be the last time I kill,” he is raising a flag—he’s guaranteed to not only kill many times more but probably die himself before washing his hands of this business; when a mother calls her child before surgery to reassure that “Mommy will be back soon,” that’s a flag that the she’s sure to die on the operating table; even a schoolgirl telling her best friend a secret after school raises a distinct flag that the consequences could be fatal. All the viewer can do is plead, “不要立flag!” or lament, “Flag 已立 (Flag y@l#. The flag has been raised).”
You may have heard another expression—乌鸦嘴 ( w$y`zu@, literally “crow mouth”) referring to someone who says something ominous. If one remarks of a person, “He has been out of contact for 24 hours. I’m afraid something has happened to him,” it’s crow mouth, and will be called out. But it’s more like a bizarro flag-raise, in which the meaning is totally inverted. When you hear some grim crow-mouth talk, it’s not regarded as ominous or unlucky. Instead, people call it “反 ( f2n) flag,” or “counterflag,” meaning these phrases indicate that everything will, in all likelihood, turn out alright.
The logic goes that if one’s worst fears have already been aired, they are far less likely to transpire. It’s akin to jinxing: Just as pride comes before a fall, a declaration of confidence is like a red rag as far as fate is concerned. So better instead to predict one’s own impending doom as a way to ensure your own survival—a false-flag operation, if you will.
Not that flags are always life-ordeath matters. In daily life, the criteria for what’s a flag and what flags mean are fairly loose. Indeed, having faith in just about anything could be interpreted as a flag. For example, your friend may casually predict sunny weather: “明天一定是个好天气。”( M!ngti`n y!d#ng sh# ge h2o ti`nq#. It must be a good day tomorrow!) And you probably will say: “你最好别立flag，又雾霾了怎么办？ ”( N@ zu#h2o bi9 l# flag. Y7u w&m1i le z0nmeb3n? You’d better not raise a flag! What if there’s smog again?)
It doesn’t matter how good the going is—even if you pass the day with flying colors, many Chinese think it’s safer to wave a white flag than raise a red one.
A DECLARATION OF CONFIDENCE IS LIKE A RED FLAG AS FAR AS FATE IS CONCERNED
According to a well-known saying in Zhongxiang city, Hubei province, “It can be never called a banquet without a dragon.” But those seeking a mythical beast on the menu need not worry about procuring some hard-to-source dragon’s eggs. The phrase refers to a famous imperial platter—the “coiled dragon” dish (蟠龙菜)—that alludes, in more ways than one, to one of China’s most famous emblems.
The legendary snake-like creature with four legs has been regarded since the 1970s as a national totem—you’ll find it today in everything from book titles to news headlines to “Descendants of the Dragon,” a famous anthem written by Hou Dejian from Taiwan, which eulogizes Han people as the natural progeny of this powerfully fearsome beast. Prior to this, though, the dragon had been the exclusive symbolic preserve of China’s rulers. All of which means, if a dish is named after a dragon, it had better not be ordinary.
Zhongxiang lays claims to the origin of a dish whose most striking feature is what the locals call “eating meat without seeing it.” This Daoist-sounding axiom makes the recipe sound suitably mysterious, but the secret is actually
very simple: To prepare, pork and fish need to be finely chopped and mixed together into a paste, then wrapped in an egg omelet. Thus, when it is served, you can only see the omelet, with the meaty goodness hidden inside.
The name partly comes from its appearance—most modern iterations present the meal in the shape of a flying dragon—but the more important reason is that its origin is related to the fate of an emperor.
The dish has a history of around 500 years, dating back to the Ming dynasty. According to the Veritable Records of the Ming, the largest historical source of the period, in 1519, the Wuzong Emperor (明武宗) put a ban on the consumption of pork. Because his surnamed was Zhu, a homophone of “pig,” and his zodiac sign was also the pig, eating pork could obviously be construed as a subversive act. But this was hardly enough to deter pork lovers. In order to preserve the tasty custom, folks in Zhongxiang found INGREDIENTSthis loophole.
A local folk tale provides a more outlandish version of the meal’s making. This story says that Wuzong died without a male heir, forcing the imperial family to select one from among his brothers and cousins. Finally, three candidates made the shortlist, including Prince Zhu Houcong, who lived in Zhongxiang (then called Anlu prefecture). The empress dowager announced that whichever candidate arrived at the capital first would ascend to the throne. This was bad news for the prince—since Zhongxiang was so far away from Beijing, he was unlikely to make it in time.
A subordinate, Yan Song, had an idea. Instead of traveling through China with his official train, having to deal with obsequious local officials hindering his progress, Yan suggested the prince disguise himself as a prisoner and be whisked to the capital in a paddy wagon. A fine plan, with only one problem—as a royal, the prince couldn’t accept a prison diet, so he summoned all the cooks in the city and demanded they invent a way to “eat meat without seeing it.” To sweeten the deal, he added that all of them would be killed if they couldn’t. One of the cooks, Zhan, was newly married. As her husband was sweating over a solution, Zhan’s wife arrived with some boiled yams to keep him going. Inspired by the thin skin on these sweet potatoes, Zhan them, chopped some fresh fish and pork, used the skins to wrap the mixture, and steamed it. The prince headed to the capital in a prison wagon with a supply of “meat potatoes” on hand, and finally won the throne.
Years later, so the story goes, Chef Zhan was summoned to the palace to cook his dish again. This time, he improved the recipe by replacing the potato skin with a thin omelet. After steaming the preparation, Zhan cut it into thin slices and arranged it like a “flying golden dragon.” The nowEmperor Zhu was impressed, so gave the meal an official name—the dragon dish, due to its relationship with the emperor himself.
Five centuries later, even the most humble office worker has access to food worthy of an emperor, and the dragon dish is especially popular in Hubei. The method of preparation has been included in the province’s intangible cultural heritage list. But it’s not too difficult to prepare a version for yourself at home—and don’t worry, no one will kill you this time if you get it wrong.