It’s funny how the UK’s weird and inconclusive general election result has brought out the food metaphors! The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, spoke of a future coalition government as a sausage, in which the meat should be Conservative. And the BBC’s political reporter said on the radio at lunchtime that any government proposed by our current prime minister, Gordon Brown, would be a difficult cake to mix, because it would have to involve too many ingredients!
It reminded me of that age-old Chinese metaphor for the juggling of rival political interests: the seasoning of a stew (or, to be precise, a geng 羹, which is a kind of soup that is thick with cut ingredients – as opposed to a tang 汤, which is a lighter, more soupy type of soup). As David Knechtges says in a fascinating essay on this*: ‘In the Chinese classics, the proper seasoning of food is a common analogy for good government… The comparison of the perfectly blended stew with the art of good government is a commonplace both in ancient and later literature.’
The best known of Chinese culinary-political allegories is the lecture given by the legendary cook Yi Yin 伊尹 to his king in the sixteenth century BC (as recorded in ‘The Root of Tastes’ 本味篇, an essay by the merchant Lu Buwei that dates back to the third century BC). This is an extract from it, as published in my ‘Shark’s Fin’ book:
‘Harmonious blending depends on the sweet, the sour, the bitter, the pungent and the salty. But as to when each is added and in what quantity, this is a matter of extremely subtle balancing, for each has its own effect. The transformations that occur in the ding [cooking pot or cauldron] are so supremely wonderful and delicate that the mouth cannot express them in words, nor the mind comprehend them. They are like the fine-tuned skills of the archer and the charioteer, the fluctuations of yin and yang, the passing of the seasons.’
I wonder kind of stew we’ll end up with in Britain? Which of the main party leaders (if any) is the sweet ingredients? Which the sour, the bitter, the pungent or the salty? And which of them is the better cook, in political terms? Might we end up with a final sprinkling of green spring onion in the form of a Green Party MP? Let’s hope it’s a harmonious stew, anyway, given that it has to fortify us for a very bumpy road ahead…
*’A Literary Feast: Food in Early Chinese Literature’, by David R. Knechtges, published in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 106 No. 1, pp46-63, Jan-Mar 1986