The world is full of unexpected connections, little links that pop up when you least expect them. Recently, as I was looking up Chinese translations for a list of ingredients often used in Chinese cooking for our forthcoming project on Chinese cuisines, I came across the expression babaofan 八宝饭. Babaofan, or eight treasure rice, is a sweet rice pudding with 8 different ingredients, including dates, plums, and red beans. Because of some distinct features of the Chinese language, however, the word is also used to refer to supporters of President Wen Jiabao 温家宝. The syllable bao (treasure) occurs in Wen’s name as well as the dish, and fan (meaning dish or rice) is used as a homonym for the English word fan (supporter). Hence, babaofan refers to both a dessert, and a political supporter. This does not only show how imbedded food is in Chinese culture, and how versatile the Chinese language can be, but it also links directly to another project we are working on; the fourth volume of the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, which covers the lives and times of about 100 influential Chinese figures from 1979 to the present, including many key politicians, businesspeople, artists, and activists.
But the connection doesn’t stop there. The story behind babaofan links back even further into Chinese history: it is told that the King Wen of the Western Zhou dynasty recruited 8 scholars to help him fight the ruler of the crumbling Shang Dynasty, King Zhou. After the Zhou dynasty defeated the Shang ruler, the chefs at the royal court created the pudding using 8 precious ingredients to celebrate this victory.
Looking at China — with its long history, large population, and complex culture — through the lives of individuals and such “personal” stories, makes it manageable, personal, and even entertaining. Reading biographies of influential Chinese people will not only help readers understand a country and a people that will play an increasingly significant role on the world stage, it can also show students how an individual can make a real difference in its direct surroundings and, in some cases, history at large.
In a similar way, at Berkshire we believe that talking about Chinese food can help our readers grasp different aspects of China, be it history, culture, or society, and discover unexpected connections along the way. To learn more about our Cuisines project, please visit our website or Facebook page.
For a recipe and assembly instructions for an authentic babaofan, visit this website.