Sichuan's Intelligence Demon

Daoist mage, wheelbarrow inventor, innovative chef, Zhuge Liang, the hero of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, could do it all.

         Zhuge Liang's great fame resounds through the ages

         His portrait is majestic and pure.

         Du Fu

Even though he doesn't show up until about a quarter-way through the epic 14th century novel, The Romance of The Three Kingdoms, Zhuge Liang, "the Martial Marquis," is the fulcrum around which the great saga revolves. Both Cao Cao, the novel's spectacular villain, and Liu Bei, the loyal descendant of the Han Dynasty imperial line, get a lot of ink. But Zhuge Liang gets the glory. His brilliant stratagems and unerring foresight make him the pre-eminent master schemer in a chaotic era that placed great value on Machiavellian wiliness. The early twentieth century writer and critic Lu Xun praised Zhuge as "so wise as to practically be a demon." I think it was a compliment.

Zhuge Liang was a real person. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based on events that occurred in the third century A.D, although the plot line doesn't always adhere to what we can ascertain from the historical record. Did Zhuge really invent both the wheelbarrow and the baozi -- the steamed bread with savory filling that is one of the great joys of Chinese cuisine? Probably not. Was he in fact a Daoist mage who could summon the powers of wind to perform at his command during battle? It seems unlikely.

But what we can be pretty sure of is that he is the first person in the historical record to refer to Sichuan as "the land of plenty." And even if he is not personally responsible for game-changing gastronomic or labor-saving innovations, the fact that Chinese society layered these claims onto his life is intriguing enough to warrant a closer look. Zhuge Liang has been a watchword in China for intelligence and compassion for millennia. Crucial narratives about technology, food, and Sichuan all intersect in his story. Is it any wonder that the temple complex in Chengdu that purports to hold both his and Liu Bei's remains is a major tourist attraction to this day, almost 1900 years after their death?

Three Kingdoms tells the story of the fall of the Han Dynasty in the third century A.D. and the consequent jockeying for power between three main contenders, the states of Wei, Wu, and Shu-Han. Shu-Han, where Liu Bei ruled as emperor but Zhuge Liang did all the work as chancellor, was centered on Sichuan, or, as it was called during the Han Dynasty, Yizhou. The prefix Shu was a nod to the region's name during the pre-Imperial Era of the Warring States. The suffix Han referenced Liu Bei's intent to reunite China under the banner of the Han dynasty.

In my Sichuan-focused research over the last couple of years, I had run into occasional references stating that Zhuge Liang had famously called Sichuan "the land of plenty." But it was still something of a shock when I finally encountered the scene in which the words are spoken, early in the second volume of Moss Roberts' translation of Three Kingdoms. The sentence in which the words are uttered turns out to be one of the most important in the entire novel!

Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang are meeting for the first time. At this point in the story, Liu occupies the weakest position of the three main warlords, and he is desperate to enlist Zhuge's support. After some back and forth in which each party repeatedly declares himself unworthy of the other, Zhuge finally decides to throw in with Liu. With the decision made, he immediately sketches out a plan that will drive the action for the remainder of the epic. He advises Liu to waste no time in moving his forces to Sichuan (Yizhou).

"Yizhou in the west, strategically located, is an inaccessible frontier province whose fertile wild lands extend thousands of li -- a kingdom rightly called Heaven's Cornucopia. The first emperor of the Han consummated his imperial enterprise by basing himself there."

Heaven's Cornucopia! AKA "the storehouse of heaven" or "the land of plenty."

With respect to tales based on third century events in Chinese history, the historical sourcing for Zhuge's advice is fairly solid. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is largely based on the historical work Records of the Three Kingdoms, written in the late 3rd century by Chen Shou, a one-time resident of Sichuan. Chen's father served in Zhuge Liang's army and Chen is reputed to have had access to Zhuge's writings. As recorded in Records of the Three Kingdoms, Zhuge told Liu Bei:

益州险塞, 沃野千里, 天府之土, 高祖因之以成帝业

Which, in abbreviated classical form, is pretty much exactly how the story is told 1000 years later in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

The Qin dynasty established imperial China on the basis of logistical support made possible by their conquest of Shu. The first Emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang (Gaozu), likewise exploited Shu's resources in his quest to replace the Qin. 16 centuries later, Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek retreated to the "walled fortress" of Shu to fend off the Japanese invaders. In both history and fiction, Sichuan, that well-watered land where everything grows, has long played an outsized role in the landmark events of Chinese history. Zhuge Liang, the Chancellor of Shu-Han, is an enduring cultural hero who repeatedly pops up in modern-day television historical dramas.

But wheelbarrows and baozi?

Chen Shou's Records of the Three Kingdoms states that Zhuge Liang, while on campaign against the state of Wei, invented the "wooden ox" to help his soldiers carry military supplies. This, wrote Joseph Needham, the great historian of Chinese science and technology, is significant, because "there is general agreement among historians that the wheelbarrow did not appear in Europe until the late 12th or even the 13th century."

Needham, as he was wont to do, explores the question of ancient wheelbarrow technology at indefatigable length. And although he acknowledges that "the wheelbarrow was indissolubly associated in later Chinese song and story with the military exploits of the State of Shu," sadly, Needham finally concludes that Zhuge could not have been the device's first inventor. There is archeological evidence of wheelbarrows in China that predates Zhuge, both in Sichuan and elsewhere.

(A wheelbarrow in a tomb relief dated circa 150 A.D., in Baoning, Sichuan.)

But having dispensed with Zhuge's wheelbarrow credentials (while still holding out the possibility that the Martial Marquis may have improved its design in some fashion), Needham suddenly breaks the frame.

"One may pause here to point a moral. In the wheelbarrow we have an outstanding example of those many facts which undermine, and indeed overthrow, the classical European stereotype of China as a civilization with unlimited man-power incapable of inventing and adopting labor-saving devices. Exactly what the economic situation was in the Han when the wheelbarrow first came widely into use remains for further research to elucidate -- it may well be that in various historical periods particular parts of China suffered severe labor-shortages. In any case long priority is here Chinese, and the surprised and grateful barbarians were European."

Of course, the great investigative question at the heart of Needham's work was his lifelong effort to understand why China did not have an industrial revolution on a par with the West. But equally important to him was the goal of uncovering and exposing to a Western audience the amazingly deep reservoir of China's scientific and technological achievements. When you have proof that one civilization beat another civilization to the invention of the wheelbarrow by at least 1000 years, you are likely to be more careful about who you start stereotyping for an intrinsic lack of innovative creative capacity.

It is not incidental to note here that one of the inspirations for Needham's great project was his visit, in 1943, to the Dujiangyan irrigation system that has been operation in Sichuan since the third century B.C. and that is partially responsible for the land of Shu becoming "the land of plenty." "It was to be his introduction," wrote Needham's biographer Simon Winchester, "to the fact that ancient China could not only do small things very well -- such as grafting plums and inventing the abacus and the magnetic compass -- but also make achievements on a gargantuan scale."

Which brings us, finally, to baozi.

Again, we return to The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In this episode Chancellor Zhuge and his army are returning from a successful campaign against southern barbarians when they encounter a river wracked by fierce waves and dangerous currents. The leader of the defeated "Nanman" barbarians declares that the turbulence is caused by an evil spirit who has cursed the river. To assuage the sprit, he advises Zhuge to behead forty-nine of his soldiers and bequeath their heads to the river. Zhuge is understandably loath to follow this advice. Instead, he orders his soldiers to fill wrappers of steamed dough with meat fillings from freshly killed oxen and sheep. These "dough-heads" or mantou, are then used as proxies for the beheaded soldiers. (Mantou, strictly speaking, refers to steamed wheat bread; baozi refers to steamed wheat bread with a filling.)

(The illustration at the top of this post is an artist's rendition of Zhuge's sailors throwing dough-heads into the river.)

There is even less evidence to support Zhuge Liang's culinary expertise than in the case of his supposed wheelbarrow invention. There are simply no contemporaneous accounts of this incident. According to Isaac Yue, a Chinese studies professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the earliest source for the attribution of mantou or baozi to Zhuge Liang is a 12th century Song Dynasty compendium, The Origin of Things, put together by the scholar Gao Cheng. All we can say for sure, Yue told me, is that during the Song dynasty people believed that Zhuge had invented baozi.

But that doesn't mean we have to ignore this story of vengeful river spirits and savory goodness. Yue is the co-editor of a terrific collection of essays called Scribes of Gastronomy: Representations of Food and Drink in Imperial Chinese Literature. In the initial essay, "Food and the Literati," Yue and his co-author Tang Siufu argue that the dough-head saga contains deep cultural meaning.

"The portrayal of his replacement of a human sacrifice with the sacrifice of the dough-heads demonstrates the significance of food as a literary motif -- one which is consciously evoked by the story to enhance the characterization of Zhuge as a humanitarian captain of war. In addition, it highlights several important cultural facts, the most important being its reflection of society's cultural value in the emphasis of the moral superiority (and legitimacy) of the Han state, which is demarcated from the southern barbarians through the concepts of compassion and benevolence.... The political importance of gastronomy to Chinese society is effectively demonstrated not only on the literary level as powerful entity that contributes to the progress of the plot, but culturally as an important tool to distinguish the symbolic superiority of the Han culture."

I visited the Wuhou Ci (literally, "the Temple of the Martial Marquis") last April, on the day of the Qingming ("tomb-sweeping") festival. It was my fourth day in Chengdu and I thought it appropriate to honor a holiday that is held specifically to respect one's ancestors by visiting the tombs of some of Sichuan's most famous historical figures.

(Statue of Zhuge Liang at Wuhou Ci)

I probably should have anticipated that what seemed like a million other people would have the same idea. When the poet Du Fu was exiled to Chengdu in the 8th century he wrote a poem about Zhuge Liang that lamented how the Wuhou Ci had been abandoned to the elements. This was not the case in 2019. The full force of modern Chinese domestic tourism economy was in effect -- a sight both awe-inspiring and terrifying. I cannot say how many of them came because they wanted to honor Zhuge Liang's legacy of compassion and intelligence, or if they were just there for the time-honored Chinese practice of choosing to hang out where everybody else is hanging out. I noticed about as much interest being devoted to the stall selling "West Coast style" craft IPAs as the hall filled with life-sized representations of heroes from the Three Kingdoms era.

But I myself didn't really know what I was looking at when I wandered those temple grounds. Only now do I feel that I am even beginning to come to grips with the deeper meanings of Zhuge Liang's tenure in Sichuan. I thought it was neat that there was a famous figure who invested "the land of plenty" with Sichuan gravitas. But now, in the case of the wheelbarrow, I am stumbling towards a story that complicates narratives of cross-cultural technological superiority. And in the case of the baozi, I see the beginnings of a tale of cuisine as soft power -- how does one connect considerations of cultural gastronomic superiority with the globalization of Chinese food and the existence of Panda Express?

Even more distractions loom on the horizon. Was Zhuge's ability to command the wind a sign, as some observers have suggested, of his attunement with the Way, his Daoist harmony with nature? And did his failure to repeat his weather mastery just before the end of his life mean he somehow lost the Way?  Why? What went wrong?

I have more questions than answers. So I'll leave readers here with a clip of Wang Luoyong, an actor who recently portrayed Zhuge Liang in a Chinese television series, reading, in English, a famous monologue that Zhuge delivers shortly before his last, unsuccessful campaign.