When Princes Awake in Kitchens: Zhuangzi’s Rewriting of a Culinary Myth

  • Romain Graziani


The brief encounter between the butcher and the prince recounted in the Zhuangzi has been blessed by a long exegetical tradition in China and the West and has thus been firmly implanted in the Chinese imaginative world.1 Oddly enough, however, and indeed in contrast to the lesson of the ox that it portrays, the story has yet to be dissected according to its inherent structure. This structure might be said to center around four essential themes: the supposed location, either Prince Wenhui’s 文惠 kitchens or, according to another interpretation, a sacrificial site; the culinary act, namely the slaughtering of an ox, an animal highly coveted in sacrifice; the symbolic and ritual value of nourishment, and the overcoming of these values according to the practice of yang sheng 養生 “nourishing life”; and, finally, the written encounter, or more specifically, the subversive rewriting of a common Warring States tale of a minister-cook meeting his sovereign. Might the lack of attention paid to the question of nourishment be attributed to those who have attempted to harness the story, s meaning by neglecting its key ingredients, and who have thus uncovered no more than a philosophical reduction? Or might it be that they have only tasted a small morsel in order to nourish arguments that, ultimately, have little to do with the story? Either way it would seem propitious to look at the story in its entirety, and savor it with a new and, hopefully, more palatable approach.


Sacrificial Site Vital Energy Warring States Period Ancestral Spirit Spiritual Energy 
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© Roel Sterckx 2005

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  • Romain Graziani

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