Who Ever Heard Of A Square Moon?

Lessons from Louis Cha on culinary kung fu

All my paths keep converging. Two weeks ago, with zero freelance assignments to occupy me and feeling that my whole Sichuan project was irrelevant to a pandemic-engulfed world, I decided to write a Covid-19 "love letter" to Taiwan. The piece was widely shared and caught the attention of the editor at Wired who commissioned my February story on Vikram Chandra's novel-writing software startup. The result: three new Wired assignments: a reported article on Covid-19, Taiwan, and "Confucian Values," an analytical piece speculating on the future direction of the pandemic, and an in-progress story on Silicon Valley's response to the crisis. The Cleaver and the Butterfly has already paid for itself without my ever having to turn on the pay wall.

But reporting non-stop on Covid-19 takes an emotional toll. Over the weekend, seeking to distract myself but not feeling intellectually up to my normal diet of ancient Sichuanese history or Chinese translation, I read, in quick succession, A Hero Born and A Bond Undone, the first two, newly-translated-into-English volumes of Louis Cha's epic wuxia series, The Legend of the Condor Heroes.

If you are not familiar with Louis Cha, he is only one of the world's most widely read Chinese-language novelists, ever. His influence over the genre of Chinese-flavored martial arts/fantasy cannot be exaggerated. His books are grounded in Chinese history and culture, but also full of magic and humor. They are, according to one correspondent on Twitter, "the world's posh-est superhero stories. It's like DC and Marvel if everyone would quote classical poetry at the drop of a hat."

I had been saving the Condor Heroes series for some date in the future when my ability to read Chinese would be proficient enough to enjoy them casually (i.e. without a dictionary in hand) in their original language. But desperate times sometimes require lazy measures. Distraction was sought, and achieved.

And of course, everything connects. In A Bond Undone, translated wonderfully by Gigi Chang, there is an extended sequence in which the formidable Lotus Huang, an accomplished kung fu master in her own right, convinces an even greater martial arts practitioner, Count Seven Hong, King of the Beggars, to give the novel's main protagonist, Guo Jiang, a series of lessons in the extremely advanced kung fu technique referred to as Dragon-Subduing Palm. She accomplishes this by plying Hong, a notorious glutton, with a series of delicious meals. As it happens, there is a unity that links the culinary and martial arts.

Any connoisseur knows that it is only through the simplest dish that a chef's true skill is revealed. The same goes for the martial arts -- a true master can perform magic in the most ordinary move.

... That evening, Lotus made stir-fried pak choi and steamed tofu. She hand-picked the most tender shoots of pak choi from the core and sizzled them in a hot wok with chicken fat and finely diced, deboned duck feet. She then sliced a whole leg of dry-cured ham in half and carved twenty-four holes into the flesh and filled them with perfectly sculpted balls of bean curd, before placing the tied ham into a steamer. Once it was cooked, the meat was discarded, since its flavors were infused into the tofu. Count Seven was dazzled by the depth of flavor in this simple dish, the name of which, Twenty-Four Bridges on a Full Moon Night, referenced a Tang-dynasty poem.

The Orchid Touch kung fu invented by [Lotus' father] Apothecary Huang had made Lotus's hands nimble and strong. Without such dexterity, it would be impossible to craft such tender tofu, which was liable to disintegrate upon touch, into perfect balls. Such a skill was comparable to the traditional craft of engraving an essay onto a grain of rice, or carving an olive pit into the shape of a boat. Of course, it would have been easy to simply cube the bean curd, but who ever heard of a square moon? The meal was a demonstration of martial skill as well as gastronomic flair.

I'm not sure whether Cha is joking when he describes this dish as "simple" or if he is just making a comment on the multitudinous complexity of Chinese cuisine in general. Regardless, what the entire passage said to me was that even when I do my best try to distract myself from the world, I end up returning to exactly the path I just wandered away from.

Lavish descriptions of Chinese food are naturally a staple of Chinese fiction. As K. C. Chang writes in the introduction to Food in Chinese Culture, "... the Chinese are probably among the peoples of the world most preoccupied with eating... That Chinese cuisine is the greatest in the world is highly debatable and is essentially irrelevant. But few can take exception to the statement that few other cultures are as food oriented as the Chinese."

So for example, in the 17th century classic novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, it can be hard to tell which part of the narrative is meant to be the more meaningful critique of society's endemic corruption: the way the  characters endlessly engage in outrageously pornographic sex or the way they gorge themselves on impossibly excessive feasts whenever they are not experimenting with the latest aphrodisiac pill or sexual device. I was also struck, just a few days ago, by an amusing scene in Li Jieren's Great Wave, the novel about the end of the Qing Dynasty in Sichuan which I am currently (and slowly) reading. At the height of a large household banquet, the cook and the matriarch in charge of the feast become deeply annoyed when they discover that  guests are so avidly discussing the political controversy of the moment (the unwanted nationalization of a Sichuan railway construction project) that they ignore the food! Li seems to be saying: see, this is how incredibly upset we were: the Chengdu bourgeoisie stopped paying attention to what they were eating!

So I can't say I was surprised to see Louis Cha diverting my attention from feats of martial wonder and political intrigue to "steamed tofu, egg stew, slow-cooked white radishes, [and] sliced belly of pork..." But I salivated even more at his equation of the culinary arts with the practice of kung fu. The juxtaposition of true mastery and simplicity reeks of Daoist philosophy; the greatest of Cha's wuxia masters are the ones who have most internalized the lessons of Laozi and Zhuangzi; so too, the implication must be, are the greatest cooks.

The stress of reporting on the pandemic pushed me to seek refuge in escapism. Escaping into Cha's imagination steered me right back to my wok. Who I am to resist nature's way?

One final grace note. On Monday night, I chanced upon a Twitter thread seeking recommendations for cultural gems as a way of averting Covid-19 super-saturation. I plugged A Hero Born and A Bond Undone (the American edition of A Bond Undone became available for purchase yesterday). Within 15 minutes, I was followed on Twitter by A Bond Undone's translator Gigi Chang. A half hour later Chang had signed up for this newsletter and we were direct-messaging each other (between Shenzhen and Berkeley) about the difficulties of translating specialized food vocabulary from Chinese into English.

I did not see that coming. But I like it.