Is Underfoot a nice thing to call your friend? Sounds a bit downtrodden, perhaps? Well, this expression—zúxià (足下) in Mandarin—happens to be an ancient Chinese form of address for the dearest of friends. If you find the expression itself a bit bizarre, just wait till you hear the story behind it. It gets even weirder.
The story is also intertwined with the Cold-Food Festival (Hánshí Jié 寒食節), part of the Tomb-Sweeping Festival (Qīngmíng Jié 清明節), when families visit loved-ones’ final resting places. It is one of the most important holidays in Taiwan and across the Chinese-speaking world.
Jie Zhitui’s Story
The first half of the 800-year-reign of the Zhou kingdom, one of China’s oldest dynasties (1046 BC–256 BC), was a golden age. But all golden ages end and Zhou’s end was bloody and drawn-out. When the First Emperor restored order finally in 221 BC, it was after a long period of wars and suffering.
Jie Zhitui’s lived during the middle of the Zhou dynasty, as the kingdom’s power was beginning to go into decline. He was an attendant in the state of Jin, one of the duchies that constituted the realm of the Zhou kings. Jie Zhitui served the princeling Chong’er, one of the sons of the Duke of Jin. Around the 650s BC, chaos hit the duchy, forcing the princeling into years of wandering across northern China in exile. Among his entourage was Jie Zhitui.
One day while still in exile, the princeling Chong’er collapsed due to exhaustion. The party had depleted their rations and the prince was starving. After resting for a while, the prince awoke to the smell of food as the attendant Jie Zhitui approached his master with a bowl of meat and broth, which the prince duly gobbled up.
Feeling energized after his meal, the prince thanked his attendant.
“You’ve saved me,” Chong’er said to his loyal servant. “I thought we had depleted our supplies. Where did you find the meat?”
But before Jie Zhitui could answer, the prince noticed the grimace on the attendant’s face and the blood-soaked trousers.
“We have no food left, milord.” Jie Zhitui said calmly. “You were gravely weakened due to starvation. If I didn’t do something quickly, we would have lost you. So I took a dagger and cut off a part of my thigh. I had no choice.”
Deeply moved by his attendant’s sacrifice and show of loyalty, the prince promised that once they returned to their dukedom, he would be generously compensated.
Return to Power
Chong’er indeed returned to Jin after many years of struggling. There, he succeeded his father and became Duke Wen. Upon his ascension, he generously rewarded all who remained loyal to him during his exile. All except Jie Zhitui, whose self-sacrifice was long forgotten by the new duke. Disappointed, Jie Zhitui retired from the duke’s court to live with his elderly mother on Mount Mian.
Displeased with the duke’s treatment of Jie Zhitui, one of the advisors at court reprimanded the duke. It was then that Duke Wen remembered what his loyal servant had done for him. Deeply ashamed of himself, the duke decided to summon Jie Zhitui in order to belatedly reward him.
But the summons went unanswered. Jie Zhitui had decided to retire to a quiet life on Mount Mian. Even when the duke sent soldiers to search the mountain, Jie Zhitui managed to evade detection.
Duke Wen became desperate. He asked his advisors’ counsel. One of them noted that Jie Zhitui is surely looking after his elderly mother and that, when faced with danger, he is sure to descend the mountain to keep his mother safe. The advisor suggested setting a small section of the mountain on fire to smoke out the pair. The duke agreed to the plan and the order was given. What can go wrong?
Sadly, the duke’s men lost control of the fire and the entire mountain was set ablaze. Instead of evacuating down the mountain, Jie Zhitui and his mother climbed higher. Before long, the entirety of Mount Mian was a sight of charred devastation. The duke’s men found the remains of Jie Zhitui and his mother huddled at the base of a partially burnt tree stump. He was devasted. It was an idiotic order and he knew he had killed the man who saved him.
To commemorate Jie Zhitui, the duke made the tree stump into a pair of clogs, which he cherished and wore daily. The duke was often seen looking down sadly at his clogs muttering “zúxià, zúxià“—literally “underfoot, underfoot”—as he repented his error and reminisced about his loyal attendant. In time, people began to use the expression to refer to a loyal and trusted friend—just as Jie Zhitui had been to the duke.
In honour of Jie Zhitui’s actions during the exile, which involved him cooking his own flesh, the duke ordered his subjects to refrain from lighting the hearth around the time of the Qingming Festival. And this is why the Qingming Festival also came to be known as the Hanshi or “Cold-Food” festival.