When I was a kid, I was often coaxed or even forced to go to see Chinese opera with my mom, especially those Beijing ones, of which she is extremely fond. At that time, I always went with a sense of childish revolt. I mean, I can't talk with my classmates about Chinese opera. I wanted my Nintendo gameboy, I wanted my Transformer cartoons on TV. But looking back now, that was probably one of the best things that ever happened during my childhood and I am very grateful to my mom for this. You see, as short as the plays were, mostly half an hour or even less, opera can nevertheless put seemingly very trivia stories under a magnifying glass and show through to the audience the richness of the fabric of historical events much better than boring history lessons.
Anyway, it's 'Eat My Lingo' time again and what I want to share with you today is a story about the Chinese cleaver: the Fall of Han Xin斬韓信, which is quite a popular number in Chinese opera.
Han Xin is one of the best-known generals and military strategists in Chinese history. Often been regarded as the "Alexander the Great" of the East, Han Xin was never defeated and took over all of China almost single-handedly when he was the chief Marshal for Liu Bang, (who later became the first emperor of the Imperial Han). His military talent was unparalleled and his battle tactics were required studies for generals for generations. To a large extent, the invention of board game Xiangqi and the kite were attributed to him, both being devices to help him in developing war stratagem.
Despite Han Xin's great contribution to the establishment of the dynasty, Liu Bang had always considered him a great threat to the empire which just had to be removed. The opportunity eventually materialized one day when a letter of rebellion from Han Xin to his friend general Chen Xi was intercepted by Empress Liu. Empress Liu instantly demanded prime minister Xiao He, Han Xin's long time best friend ironically, to head off this crisis. Reluntantly, Xiao He hoaxed Han Xin into the imperial palace, captured him and showed him the letter before executing him for treason.
When the letter was shown to Han Xin, he said, "you always have wins and losses in life. I have only Chen Xi and his incompetence to regret. As far as I am concerned, I'm not who I am without my rebellious heart!" Thereupon, he walked around and looked high and low. Xiao He asked him what was he thinking and he said, "I look up upon the sky (heaven), it shan't kill Han Xin; I look down upon the earth (the nether world), it shan't kill Han Xin; I look around people, they shan't kill Han Xin!" 他道、
「我仰观天，天不杀韩信，俯观地，地不杀韩信，中观世人 ，世人不杀韩信。」-- It's worth mentioning that when Han Xin was a student studying the art of war (as well as the five elements of witchcraft, 五行之術), his mentor, in order to boost Han Xin's confidence to achieve greatness, promised Hon Xin that he would put a magic spell to seal all the swords and spears in the world so that none can give damage to Han Xin. The mentor also reminded Han Xin again and again that he should never wear clothes in peach colour*.
Right this moment, however, a young lady cook showed up out of the blue and threw down a cleaver on the ground in front of Han Xin. "Prince of Chu," the cooklady addressed, "you know all the swords and spears of the universe, but do you know what this is?" Hon Xin was shocked - it suddenly occurred to him that while his mentor had sealed all weapons in the world, the cleaver was never in the picture**. He then asked the name of this kitchen lady, to which the woman replied, "my name is Peach***." His mentor's warning was now spinning all over Han Xin's head. Without saying a single word more, he went to pick up he cleaver and cut his own throat with it.
Note*: Han Xin's mentor is not queer. Outfits for the nobles in ancient China, esp. before the Sung dynasty, were surprisingly way more colorful than those of modern days. If you can turn back the time and go to the Tang dynasty, you can see some dresses on the street that make even premeire whore Bai Ling blush.
Note**: Given that Confucius once said, "a gentleman should stay away from the kitchen," it is not uncommon for intellectuals and generals to know nothing about kitchenware.
Note***: As idiosyncratic as it seems, Peach (Tao, 桃 in Chinese) is actually a fairly common family name in China.
One funny thing is, if you go to visit the grave of Han Xin, which still exists somewhere in the Jingzhou province today, you will see a pair of poetic couplets on the tomb that reads: "生死一知己，存亡兩婦人," which means "Life and death in one friend, rise and fall by two women." His best friend Xiao He was the one who gave him new life by tapping his talent and introducing him to Liu Bang; yet it was also Xiao He who plotted his demise. Han Xin lived in poverty when he was young. One time, when he was almost dying of hunger, a old woman took pity on him and fed him for weeks. Contrarily, as shown above, a kitchen lady with a cleaver was partly responsible for the dramatic downfall of this great general.