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Light, tasty and simple to make, egg fried rice has long been a beloved dish in China and one of most recognizable icons of Chinese cuisine around the world.
But in recent years, the popular stir-fry has become a highly sensitive subject for China’s online nationalists, especially around the months of October and November.
Emotions are running so high this week that one of the country’s most famous chefs has been forced to apologize – for making a video on how to cook the dish.
“As a chef, I will never make egg fried rice again,” Wang Gang, a celebrity chef with more than 10 million online fans, pledged in a video message on Monday.
Wang’s “solemn apology” attempted to tame a frothing torrent of criticism about the video, which was posted on Chinese social media site Weibo on November 27.
Angry nationalists accused Wang of using the video to mock the death of Mao Zedong’s eldest son, Mao Anying, who was killed in an American air strike during the Korean War on November 25, 1950.
Wang’s video was solely about making egg fried rice, but for some Chinese nationalists, any mention of the dish around the anniversary of Mao Anying’s death or birthday on October 24 amounts to a deliberate act of insult and mockery.
However, by attacking mentions of egg fried rice by famous chefs and other online influencers, the nationalist users have inadvertently promoted the very rumor their government is trying to quash.
The controversial account has it that Mao Anying, an officer in the People’s Liberation Army, disobeyed orders to take shelter during the air raid. Instead, the hungry young man fired up a stove to make egg fried rice, which sent smoke into the air and gave away his position to enemy jets.
That version of events was mentioned in the memoir of Yang Di, a military officer who worked alongside the younger Mao at the commander’s headquarters. But Chinese authorities have repeatedly refuted it as rumor.
Under leader Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has cracked down on voices that criticize national heroes or question the official narrative about them. In 2018, the country passed a law to ban the slander of national “heroes and martyrs,” a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.
Last May, former investigative journalist Luo Changping was sentenced to seven months in prison for “insulting martyrs” who froze to death during a Korean War battle. He had used a pun on social media to suggest that Chinese soldiers portrayed in a blockbuster movie about the war were stupid.
On the 70th anniversary of Mao Anying’s death in 2020, the Chinese Academy of History – an official think tank launched by Xi to counter “incorrect” views of Communist Party history – called the egg fried rice story “the most vicious rumor.”
“These rumormongers have tied up Mao Anying with egg fried rice, dwarfing the heroic image of Mao Anying’s brave sacrifice to the greatest extent,” the academy said in a post on social media site Weibo. “To put it in one sentence – their hearts are evil.”
It discredited Yang’s memoir as “full of flaws and cannot withstand verification at all.” Citing other eyewitness accounts and declassified telegrams, the post concluded that Mao Anying was killed because enemy forces detected radio waves from the busy telegraphs coming in and out of the headquarters in the days leading up to the air raid.
Despite official denials, the disputed egg fried rice story has persisted. In some corners of the Chinese internet, November 25 is celebrated as the “Egg Fried Rice Festival” or “Chinese Thanksgiving” – a nod to the belief that if the younger Mao had survived the war, he might have inherited power from his father and turned China into a hereditary dictatorship like North Korea.
In 2021, a Weibo user in the southern city of Nanchang was detained by police for 10 days for commenting in a post that “the greatest achievement of the Korean War is egg fried rice.”
“Thank you egg fried rice. Without it, we would be the same as (North Korea) now,” the post said.