When Cooking Pots Ruled China
Big dings, mortuary selfishness, and the mandate of heaven: Part II of The Annals of Bronze Age Fusion
As I contemplated my busted dishwasher, dismayed by the combination of unresponsive digital controls and the smell of burnt rubber, I suddenly understood why, despite decades as an enthusiastic early adopter and evangelist of new technology, I was now a curmudgeon who could not abide the thought of owning an Instapot. Anything that includes a circuit board is fragile, hard to fix and not built to last. I should have learned this lesson the first time I spilled coffee on my computer keyboard, but only now has my hard-won experience started to inform my acquisition of culinary utensils.
Give me a mortar and pestle, a whetstone, and a cast iron frying pan and I will be content. Today, my standard for excellence is best epitomized by a Le Creuset cooking pot. I once possessed one, on loan from my youngest child, that survived a house fire when all around it -- blenders and Cuisinarts and wireless meat thermometers -- melted into gooey sludge. I have little doubt that my current Le Creuset will last far longer than I will. I am even tempted to emulate the Shang kings of old: perhaps I will decree in my will that my Le Creuset be buried with me, after family and friends have cooked one last communal meal of braised pork belly.
Of course, as one of my children pointed out when I shared my latest whimsy, such an act would be selfish. A fair point. I guess I won’t deprive my descendants of their “high end ceramic and enameled” inheritance.
But how then are we to regard the Shang dynasty’s phenomenally morbid allocation of precious bronze cooking pots and drinking jugs? Civilization has never witnessed a greater display of mortuary selfishness. The sheer tonnage of bronze ritual culinary vessels that was buried in the tombs of China’s Bronze Age elite is unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
Roughly 3000-3500 years ago, the biggest bronze items forged on this planet were manufactured in east Asia, via a piece-mold casting technique capable of delivering extraordinary aesthetic complexity. In the spectacular tomb of Queen Fu Hao, a consort of the Shang king Wu Ding, and a warrior in her own right who led armies against Shang enemies in the 12th century B.C, archaeologists uncovered 3500 pounds worth of bronze items, including 195 bronze vessels.
The most important of these vessels were the bronze cauldrons variously known as ding tripods or fangding tetrapods. Some were supposedly capacious enough to stew an ox. The largest ever unearthed, the “Si Mu Wu Ding,” weighs almost 2000 pounds. It is so big and heavy, in fact, that Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was unable to include it in the incredible collection of Chinese art that the KMT spirited away to Taiwan after losing the civil war with the Communists. According to the art historian Lillian Lan-ying Tseng, “[it] was reportedly high on the list of treasures to be taken away, but the lack of powerful cranes at the harbors near Nanjing and Taipei made the shipping of this extraordinarily heavy object impossible.”
“One of the major cultural developments that made early Chinese civilization unique is the elite’s obsessions with bronze ritual vessels. Such a passion is inseparable from the ruling elites’ desire for ritual power believed to be embedded in bronze vessels, which were used as a necessary component in various religious ceremonies.”
Li Liu and Xingcan Chen, The Archaeology of China
Bronze vessels designed to decant alcoholic beverages or stew meat are believed to have been central elements of ancestor worship rituals in which the Shang kings divined the future by asking their predecessors questions about how to proceed with affairs of state. Governance was inseparable from ritual and ritual was inseparable from bronze cooking pots.
Some Chinese archaeologists go so far as to argue that the emergence of the first “Chinese” states in the Central Plains in the second millennium B.C. was at least in part driven by an insatiable demand for bronze. As one expert in Chinese bronzes, Jessica Rawson, wrote:
“Sets of numerous bronzes for ritual banquet performances required immense efforts in mining, smelting, transport, mold making, casting and finishing. As bronzes were buried in tombs, new vessels were continually commissioned. The intensity and scale of labor required for the bronze industry were driving forces in expanding the numbers of Shang centers, as well elaborating extensive networks for the acquisition of resources.”
In other words, the desire to secure sources of copper, tin, and lead instigated “military expansion and economic hegemony,” and the level of organization required to churn out bronze ritual vessels at scale catalyzed social change.
Liu and Chen:
“Piece-mold bronze production, using multiple inner and outer clay molds, requires high levels of division of labor, great control of material resources, and high degrees of technical and managerial complexity. These requirements could be met only within a highly stratified social organization and, in turn, may have further stimulated the development of social complexity.”
Over the past couple of decades, the incredible scale of archaeological research in China has unearthed enormous amounts of new information about Neolithic and Bronze Age East Asian societies. This has led to some pushback, particularly from Western archaeologists, on just how critical the lust for bronze ritual vessels was to the process of state formation, and just how monolithic the power of the Shang was in east Asia during the second millennium B.C. I will come back to this point in a future installment in this series. But for the moment, the key observation that no one disagrees with is that by the time of the Late Shang, the bronze ding symbolized the ultimate power and authority of the Shang rulers. Ownership of the biggest ding – the four-footed tetrapods – was the sole prerogative of the Shang kings.
How this came about; how cooking pots intersected with increasing social complexity and class stratification to become what the archaeologist Li Min calls “the primary symbol of political authority,” is the be-all and end-all of any “food and Chinese culture” narrative. In ancient China, ownership of the mandate of heaven was physically manifested in the form of giant pots originally used to cook meat. And these pots were built to last.
All around, then:
The cinnabar stair towers above,
The crimson court is gleaming gloriously.
The precious tripods arrayed
Contend in metallic gleam.
Li Bai, Rhapsody on the Hall of Light
When the 8th century poet Li Bai composed his rhapsody extolling the wonders of the Mingtang “Hall of Light” built by the Empress Wu Zetian – the only woman in China’s long dynastic history to rule the empire under her own name -- he was most likely still young, unknown and living in Sichuan. But he had chutzpah, because not only had he probably never even seen the magnificent construction he was describing, he also could be accused of making a dangerous political error by mentioning it in the first place, much less centering it as the subject of an epic poem. Empress Wu’s purpose in building the Mingtang at the end of the seventh century was to symbolically shore up her own authority. Although the emperor on the throne when Li wrote his poem was Wu Zetian’s grandson, the empress, who had tried to start her own dynasty, was immediately labeled a usurper after her death, and generations of male historians have blackballed her ever since as an exceedingly licentious and murderous tyrant.
According to Nicholas Morrow Williams, Li Bai was “making a typically daring appropriation of a vastly important topic, based on no authority more solid than his own poetic inspiration.”
Which is why we love Li Bai.
But the point of the excerpt above is not to drool over Li’s “celestial hyperbole” or get caught in the messy family politics of the Tang dynasty. Of interest here is the reference to “the precious tripods arrayed.” This is generally assumed to be a reference to the giant replicas of the legendary “Nine Tripods of Yu” that Empress Wu commissioned for installation in her Hall of Light. Empress Wu not only personally wrote the inscription carved into the biggest of these ding tripods, but she also wrote a song, “Hauling the Tripods,” that the laborers who transported the ding from the forge to the Hall of Light were commanded to sing.
Said to be initially created by the legendary Yu, stopper of floods and founder of the Xia dynasty at the dawn of Chinese civilization, the Nine Tripods were ding cauldrons that symbolized the union of nine different regions of east Asia.
From the Zuo Zhuan, one of China’s first works of history (albeit written at least a thousand years after the events it purports to recount):
“Formerly, when the dynasty of Xia had attained the height of its greatness, the distant regions made pictures of the (material and spiritual) things natural to them and the governors of the nine provinces made tribute offerings of metal. With this (Yu the Great) caused cauldrons to be cast on which these pictures were represented.”
The Zuo Zhuan further informs us that when the Shang overthrew the Xia they appropriated the Nine Tripods, which were in turn seized by the Zhou after that dynasty defeated the Shang. The trail gets murkier during the disintegration of Zhou hegemony that stretched into the era of the Warring States. Several accounts report that the Nine Tripods were lost when a ship carrying them to the state of Qin sank. During the succeeding Han dynasty, this was widely interpreted to signify that the Qin had never truly deserved to rule.
Funny thing: There is no material archaeological evidence that the Nine Tripods ever actually existed. None of the writers who extolled their significance ever saw the objects. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Because for millennia, the most important people in China certainly believed that they had existed. The Grand Historian, Sima Qian, tells us the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty futilely dredged the River Si in search of the lost tripods. And Empress Wu wasn’t the only top autocrat to order up replica tripods as a status signifier. In the Northern Song, Emperor Huizong also commissioned a Mingtang and new set of Nine Tripods. (Unfortunately this did not prevent him from ending his life as a prisoner of the invading Jurchen.) As recently as 2006 replicas of the Nine Tripods were reportedly commissioned for installation in the National Museum of China (though pictures of these seem remarkably difficult to locate). And in the previous installment in this series, I mentioned the ding tetrapod commissioned to celebrate the return of Hong Kong to the PRC. (The backers of that effort even criss-crossed China to gather building materials from all the “nine regions” to fully bring to life the creation myth of the Nine Tripods).
Given the enduring symbolic importance of bronze ding, and the established historical record that incontrovertibly associates ownership of them with authority in both the Shang and Zhou dynasties, it might seem justifiable to dismiss the question of the authenticity of Nine Tripods of Yu as irrelevant. But I’m more interested in a different question. What exactly is being symbolized here?
Lillian Lan-ying Tseng tells us that when the recently deceased premier Jiang Zemin “gave a newly created ding to the United Nations for its 50th anniversary [in 1995] he said ‘The ding vessel, as a type of important ritual object, symbolizes unitedness, unification, and authority; it is an auspicious object that stands for peace, development, and prosperity.’ The political connotation – unitedness, unification and authority – agreed with the memory of the nine ding vessels. The more general implications – peace, development, and prosperity – were seldom associated with the ding vessels historically.”
Tseng’s restraint is admirable. From the historical record, as documented by Shang dynasty oracle bones, it is indeed hard to argue that dings signify peace in any possible way. Quite the contrary: judging by the number of questions Shang kings asked their ancestors about upcoming battles, it seems pretty evident that warfare was more or less constant during the later Shang era. It also seems worth noting that along with the oracle bones and bronze vessels dug up from Shang tombs, archaeologists also found the skeletons of at least 13,000 humans whose sacrifices were an essential part of a few hundred years worth of divinatory events and celebratory banquets. There’s also the significant probability that manufacturing a profusion of ding undoubtedly required the exploitation of huge numbers of workers.
The symbolism of the ding strikes me as a lot more attractive to the ruler than to the ruled. If I was, say, a resident of Taiwan mindful of what has happened to freedom of expression in Hong Kong since its return to China, I might not be so enthusiastic about the glorious “unification” symbolism of the Nine Tripods of Yu. As Wu Hong wrote in Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture, “the Nine Tripods not only commemorated a past event but also legitimated and consolidated the consequence of the event -- the implementation of a centralized political power over the whole country… When bronze from various places was mixed and cast into a single set of ritual vessels, it was understood that those who presented the material were assimilated into a single unity.”
Chinese archaeologists take justifiable satisfaction in how far back into the deep past they can trace cultural factors that still resonate in China today. It’s one of the things that makes Chinese archaeology so fascinating; the material record is so extensive and continuous that it is reasonable to conclude that meaningful questions about how civilization emerged from prehistory can actually be answered. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the enduring symbolic significance of physical items such as bronze ding cauldrons are necessarily a source for pride. The legacy of the ding is far from untarnished.
When the first piece-mold casters of the “Erlitou culture” started forging bronze versions of existing ceramic drinking vessels and meat stewing pots around 1500 B.C. they were deploying new technology in the service of ritual traditions that already stretched into the distant past. This is the core argument of Li Min’s Social Memory and State Formation. But those Neolithic ritual traditions themselves may have contributed to the earliest division of society into haves and have nots. Over time the ding evolved into highly prized “prestige” artifacts central to a process in which social status was defined via ever-more-high-stakes “competitive feasting.”
In other words, food in Chinese culture spawned inequality.
But that’s a story for Part III: The Original Sin of Competitive Feasting.