RED FLAGS

The World of Chinese - - STREET TALK - BY SUN JIAHUI (孙佳慧)

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.

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