A herd boy story for an Ox Year

The Lunar New Year for 2021 starts Friday, Feb. 12. Up next in the cycle of the Chinese zodiac animals is the ox.

Since I have been writing fiction about the life story of Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty, an ox year brought to mind stories of how the founder started out as a cattle herder.

Collections of stories about Zhu Yuanzhang’s childhood often include a subversive one from his herd boy days. It comes in a few different forms, but always has the future emperor leading his fellow herd boys in eating one of the animals they are supposed to be protecting.

They roast the poor creature over a fire and consume it. Zhu then takes the discarded tail of the devoured animal and shoves it into a rock crevice.

“Don’t worry,” he tells his fellow herders. “We’ll say the animal got trapped under the rocks and we couldn’t save it.”

When I first encountered this bizarre story, it struck me as unlikely and shocking. However, when every collection of folk tales and comic books I encountered about the Ming founder’s childhood included this incident, I decided the herd boy butcher tale must be important.

What does it say that made it worth preserving over the centuries?

Like most stories about his youth, it portrays Zhu Yuanzhang as an unusual leader among his peers, and it underlines his humble origins. It doesn’t show him being particularly smart, because the adult owner of the herd animal usually does not accept the dubious rocky crevice explanation. Zhu invariably ends up getting a beating or being thrown out. So the point here is not about his intelligence or craftiness or good luck.

What stands out in this particular story is the act of eating. Subversive eating.

Zhu Yuanzhang places a priority on feeding the hungry, himself included, and he is willing to pay the price for his full and satisfied stomach. To a rural peasantry constantly battling drought, disease, starvation, and oppression, the story of the boy herder who dared to feast on an ox must have been one to relish.

Therefore, to mark the start of a new Year of the Ox, here is an excerpt of my own version of the herd boy’s oxtail tale from the Lacquered Talisman, the first novel in my historical fiction series on the Ming founder.

Happy Lunar New Year! May the stomachs of you and yours always feel satisfyingly full.

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