Meat Vegetables by Ji Yun (1724-1805), The Emperor’s Librarian

When I was a boy, I went on a journey with our family servant Shi Xiang. While we were passing a village outside of Jing Cheng, Shi Xiang pointed at some mounds in a field to the west. "Those are graves," he said. "Zhou graves. Long ago, one of their ancestors did a good deed that allowed their family line to persist three generations longer than it would have otherwise."

I asked Shi Xiang what kind of deed. He said that the ancestor did not eat a certain piece of meat. He then told me this story, which I now tell you:

As the Ming dynasty limped toward its conclusion and gave over to the Qing when the rule of the Manchus took effect, the Hunan and Shandong provinces were decimated by a drought. This drought withered everything to dust. As if the drought wasn't bad enough, a vast swarm of locusts next descended on the provinces.

Many villages died out due to starvation during this time. But a few cursed villages refused to accept extinction. They ate every animal or insect they could catch and scoured every twig or stem of anything edible that the drought and the locusts had not killed off. They even ate the bark and roots of the trees and bushes. When these things ran out, they moved onto each other.

Officials, who had previously spent hours debating the inherent goodness of human nature as put forth by Mencius, or who had enthused about the elegance of Confucian insights into the cultivation of human emotion, did not try to stop this. Instead, they joined in, unable to see the sense of rules of propriety that would see them dead. In this new social order, women and children from the poorest families were sold by relatives or taken by force. They were then bound and gagged and sold at street markets as cairen—"meat vegetables"—an ancient term that occurred in the historical records every couple of centuries in times of extreme hardship.

This was the state of affairs that met a travelling Zhou ancestor when he stopped to rest in the restaurant of a small Shandong village and there ordered a pork dish. At first, the Zhou did not understand what was going on. Then he gave his order to the cook, and the man told him that the kitchen was out of meat.

"Give a minute though," said the cook, "and I'll cut you up some fresh meat myself." He yelled back to the kitchen, "You're taking too long back there. We have hungry customers. Drag me some pigs out so I can chop off a hoof, and then you can finish the job at your pace."

That was when the Zhao's world turned upside down. Because, after the cook spoke, his assistant dragged out two young women from a back room. They were bound in ropes and gagged.

Before Zhao knew what was going on, the cook grabbed one of the women, dragged her to a butchering area on the kitchen floor, and hacked off her arm with a cleaver. Gushing blood from the fresh stump, the woman flopped and writhed and screamed against her gag. The other customers acted like nothing unusual was going on, but Zhao rushed forward.

Both women saw him. The one with the severed arm cried for him to kill her. The other woman, trembling pitifully with a face drained of all human color, started screaming against her gag too—but her plea was to be saved. Waving money around to buy their freedom, Zhou yelled at the cook to stop cutting and sell him the women's freedom. After he saw how much money the Zhou was offering, the cook agreed.

The first woman had lost too much blood to have a chance at any kind of freedom but the kind she was begging for. So, Zhao plunged a knife into her heart. As for the second woman, she remained by his side as they travelled away from the village. Later, she became his concubine and bore a son. It was this son that allowed the Zhou's line to continue three generations longer than it would have otherwise.

When the midwife wiped the afterbirth from their son, the Zhou and the woman saw that the boy was marked by a bright red line—a birthmark that looked like a cut. It ran from the edge of the baby's armpit and around his shoulder blade—so that it looked exactly like the wound the other woman had sustained. This shows how deeply we are marked not only by the previous lives we've lived, but also by those we've encountered during those previous lives. This is a deeply mysterious thing. It demonstrates that the lines that we draw between ourselves and others are far hazier than we suppose.

Note: This story was previously published in Wigleaf: