page contents

In-N-Out: Han Dynasty Style (draft)

 Eric Connor,  Dahuting Tomb Banquet Scene with Jugglers , Eastern Han Dynasty Mural (18 October 2016). Public Domain. Alt Text: Mural inside the Dahuting Tomb depicting a banquet scene in Eastern Han Dynasty. Male and female guests sit in rows on the floor with large plates of food in front of them and there are jugglers there to entertain them.

Eric Connor, Dahuting Tomb Banquet Scene with Jugglers, Eastern Han Dynasty Mural (18 October 2016). Public Domain. Alt Text: Mural inside the Dahuting Tomb depicting a banquet scene in Eastern Han Dynasty. Male and female guests sit in rows on the floor with large plates of food in front of them and there are jugglers there to entertain them.

History is important because it not only allows us to learn and understand our past, but also our present. It provides us an insight as to how people in the past lived their lives, and increases our cross-cultural awareness. We normally associate history with people living during a specific time period, including ideas ideas like societal norms, rites and rituals, and social behaviour. However, one category that we often overlook is food and drinks!

Cuisine often expresses a wide array of cultural meanings, especially in terms of one's social class, origin and wealth. Preparation and consumption of food and drink have symbolic references, reflecting the abstract importance of their social values/systems, the construction of self and the progressiveness of a society. It is imperative that when studying the Han Dynasty, we look to their food and drink to attain a deeper knowledge about their daily lives.

 Fae, Ornamental Gateway (Pailou) from Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE)  Across a Street Lined with Small Shops  (1 March 2014). Public Domain. Alt Text: Faded yellow photo of an ornamental gateway across a street lined with small shops in the Han Dynasty

Fae, Ornamental Gateway (Pailou) from Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) Across a Street Lined with Small Shops (1 March 2014). Public Domain.
Alt Text: Faded yellow photo of an ornamental gateway across a street lined with small shops in the Han Dynasty

Set from 206 BCE to 220 CE, it was one of the longest and important dynasty in the history of China. If we want to compare it with regards of power and stature, the Han Dynasty was comparable to that the Roman Empire.

We know that Chinese cuisine has gradually evolved through the centuries and dynasties, and for the Han Chinese, apart from food originated from China (internal), major trade and economic achievement that happened during this period of time had a significant role in it (external). With the Silk Road trade that occurred, new food sources and cooking techniques were brought into China and distributed throughout the country and this had a great impact to their daily lives.

Therefore, the daily consumption of food and drink in the Han Dynasty has been influenced from within and outside of China. Within China, the main influences include staple crops, food, tea, millet wine, and social class, whereas from outside of China, the imported ingredients, tea in trade, grape wine, and food production techniques are the main influences.

INTERNAL

Han China was self-sufficient as a whole, and was split into two, northern and southern regions in terms of food consumption. Although they had similar diets, there were some notable differences too. We often think of China as a whole entity, forgetting that it is a huge country, bound to have some regional differences in habits!

 J. Wilson,  Pearl millet after combine harvesting , (1 December 2007), Public Domain. Alt Text: Photo of a handful of yellow, pearl millets

J. Wilson, Pearl millet after combine harvesting, (1 December 2007), Public Domain.
Alt Text: Photo of a handful of yellow, pearl millets

DAILY FOOD

The essential staple food of the time (in both regions) was grain, which included millets, wheat, hemp, barley, and rice. The main staple was millet in the north and rice in the south. Grain was commonly consumed with fruits (such as plums, persimmons, and peaches), and vegetables (principally soybeans, or shu 菽). 
Soybean curd was first manufactured during the Han Dynasty (which will be explored more later under external influence!). Soybeans were also sought after for the making of soy sauce and salted dark beans.

 Phonet,  Tofu  4, (7 January 2018), Creative Commons. Alt Text: Photo of a plate with two pieces of soybean curd, or tofu.

Phonet, Tofu 4, (7 January 2018), Creative Commons. Alt Text: Photo of a plate with two pieces of soybean curd, or tofu.

Vegetables were either eaten separately or were in broths or stews (geng 羹).

In addition, Vegetable stews or broths were often linked to frugality. Officials and sages who had diets of vegetable stews were praised in texts for their modesty.

 Adonis Chen,  Chinese-style geng with meat, fish cakes, and squid , (10 February 2006), Creative Commons. Alt Text: Photo of a bowl of Chinese-style stew (geng), containing fish cakes, meat and squid.

Adonis Chen, Chinese-style geng with meat, fish cakes, and squid, (10 February 2006), Creative Commons.
Alt Text: Photo of a bowl of Chinese-style stew (geng), containing fish cakes, meat and squid.

Geng (or stew) was, on the whole, a treasured dish. “Geng of various compositions were eaten by most social strata, from noblemen to commoners.” It appears to be a versatile dish, that could contain cereals, meat, vegetables, fish, or a combination of those ingredients.

In the Southern regions, stews that contained turtles, shellfish, and fish were widespread. It was also documented that those in the South appreciated snake meat. Additionally, it was recorded that Southerners appreciated the taste of snake meat, and possibly sweet-and-sour cuisine. These main dishes were consumed with fermented sauces; the sauces were made from soy, fish, shrimp, and meats. Now, we will discuss more about food and class!

ROLE OF SOCIAL CLASS

Did you know? Class plays an important role in determining the type of food accessible and consumed by individuals!

 Felibrilu.  Han Dynasty brick painting of hunting from Jiayuguan fort  (18 Sept 2009). CC BY-NC 2.0 Alt text: Painting on a brick depicting a man on horseback aiming his bow and arrow to a fleeing animal.

Felibrilu. Han Dynasty brick painting of hunting from Jiayuguan fort (18 Sept 2009). CC BY-NC 2.0
Alt text: Painting on a brick depicting a man on horseback aiming his bow and arrow to a fleeing animal.

Those in the upper class had greater opportunity to consume meat while those in the lower class enjoy meat once in a while. Due to its relatively high prices, meat was an unaffordable luxury to those of the lower class, apart from special occasions or the entertainment of guests, where the odd fowl would be consumed. The type of meat available to respective classes differ as the affluent were able to dine on a wide assortment hunted animals, which includes pheasants, wild rabbits, and sika deer, among others while the commoners eat easily available meat. Meat such as “leopard fetus, yak tail and bear paws” were among the lavish meat enjoyed by the rich disapproved by scholars as it is viewed as excessive (p. 26). Furthermore, the difference between classes extends to the conduct of individuals during a ceremonial meal. An individual’s understanding of the law of “chivalry and ritual propriety” is examined through an elaborate etiquette which consists of various procedures (p.29).

Another food which is an indicator of class is soybean. Even though it is recognised for its importance as food to the Chinese, soybean was consumed mainly by those in the lower class. To indicate that it is the food for the underprivileged, it was referred to as the “bean leaf food” (p. 230). This highlights that food acted as an indicator of a person’s status in the society as it reflects their ability to purchase and consume certain types of food. It can also be seen that there has been progression for soybean from its status as a poor man’s meal to that which is widely used today during cooking.

After talking about food, don’t you feel a little...thirst-tea?
Next up, we have the drinks that the Chinese of the Han Dynasty drank!

TEA

 U. Leone,  Chinese Tea Set  (1 Jan 2018). CC BY 1.0 Alt text:  Photo of a turquoise ceramic chinese tea set with black chopsticks

U. Leone, Chinese Tea Set (1 Jan 2018). CC BY 1.0
Alt text:  Photo of a turquoise ceramic chinese tea set with black chopsticks

Tracing back to 2700 BCE, the reign of Emperor Shen-Nung, tea has been a part of the Chinese culture for approximately 4700 years to date! Today, tea has become a basic necessity of the Chinese, and the consumption of this beverage so integral in their lifestyle so much so that tea has its own culture, known as 茶艺 (cha-yi), which can be loosely translated to “the art of drinking tea”.

 Congerdesign,  H  erbal Tea  (23 May 2016). CC BY 1.0  Alt text:  Photo of two transparent glasses with medicinal tea leaves infused in water

Congerdesign, Herbal Tea (23 May 2016). CC BY 1.0
Alt text:  Photo of two transparent glasses with medicinal tea leaves infused in water

Olden-day Chinese used tea leaves as a source of food, medicine and even ancestral offerings. They had to grow/gather their own leaves, and used a technique to process them. By steaming the freshly cultivated leaves with hot water, they then dried them out in the sun for preservation. This preservation technique was refined during the Han Dynasty.  

 Fae,  A Chinese tea plantation with workers watering, picking and firing the tea.  (31 October 2014). CC BY 4.0.  Alt Text: Photo of a lithograph of a Chinese tea plantation with workers watering, picking, and firing tea that they harvest.

Fae, A Chinese tea plantation with workers watering, picking and firing the tea. (31 October 2014). CC BY 4.0.

Alt Text: Photo of a lithograph of a Chinese tea plantation with workers watering, picking, and firing tea that they harvest.

Tea-drinking used to be considered an art only enjoyed by the upper echelons of society. The Emperor would bestow tea leaves to reward statesmen/council members, and they in turn would gift tea to those who worked for them.

Under the reign of rulers of the Han Dynasty, major economic progresses and shift to central governance allowed tea to expand its reach to others, including the common-folk (further explored below). Tea soon became a hot beverage enjoyed by many.

The only kind of tea the Han Dynasty Chinese drank were non-fermented, otherwise known as green tea (this doesn't necessarily mean it has to be green). Yet the way they prepare tea was different from what we are used to today. They would boil and mixing these dried leaves with millet grains and other flavourful ingredients until it reaches a congee-like consistency, before they consumed it.

WINE

In terms of drinks, jiu (“ale”, “wine”, or “liquor”) was the most commonly recorded beverage, with the exception of water. Alcoholic ales were also paramount for banquets and sacrifices. Particularly, wine. Traditionally, wine had three essential needs. For ritual performances, healing and alleviating problems. Chinese wine is traditionally referred to as rice wine. The core ingredients are rice grain or other grains. The grain is steamed to form sugar and finally ferment in the process before being filtered out under pressure.

Because of its rich nutritional and medicinal value, wine is also commonly used in cooking. Wines can be categorized based on their ingredients and production methods. (p.24) Primarily, they are Shaoxing wine, millet wine and red ferment wine.

Millet wine is the most well-known wine type.In early times, millet grain was the main grain used in making of alcoholic beverages.It is seen as a symbol of harvest, thus commonly used in harvest festivals. Millet wine comprises millet, brewer’s yeast and water. Millet is soaked in cold water overnight. The next morning, the millet is carefully washed, then steamed and blended with brewer’s yeast and cold water.Lastly, for about a month,the mix is left to ferment.

 

 

EXTERNAL

Next up, we will look at how external influences has affected the food and drink consumption of the Han Chinese, specifically trade. Trade played a major role in impacting their consumption habits because The Silk Road was established during the Han Dynasty.

 Av320phile,  Silk Road Map  (8 October 2005). CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Alt Text: Digital image of a map of the Silk Road starting from Xi'An

Av320phile, Silk Road Map (8 October 2005). CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Alt Text: Digital image of a map of the Silk Road starting from Xi'An

WHAT IS THE SILK ROAD?

Stretching across different continents, it is a massive network of inter-connected routes linking the East to the West, extending from Southeast Asia to Europe and all the way to  Africa. With the many merchants trading along these routes, an array of foreign food, drinks and crops were traded and these contributed to the diversity of ingredients in the Chinese cuisine.

Frances Wood, author of The Silk Road: two thousand years in the heart of Asia claims that many Chinese cooks will be amazed if they knew that the ingredients they use were exotic imports from other countries. So what are these amazing ingredients and new dishes?

 Jolanta Waniowska,  Pepper Spices Black Pepper Kitchen Flavor , (1 April 2016), Creative Commons.  Alt text: Photo of black pepper seeds against a white background

Jolanta Waniowska, Pepper Spices Black Pepper Kitchen Flavor, (1 April 2016), Creative Commons.

Alt text: Photo of black pepper seeds against a white background

IMPORTED FOODS

Interestingly, there are a number of ingredients from regions to the west of China that contain the prefix hu (those of Central Asia, India and Iran). Examples include the cucumber (hu gua), walnut (hu tao), sesame (hu ma) and black pepper (hu jiao). Sesame seeds were particularly important for oil and flavoring.  One of the most essential of the spices imported into China is the black pepper, originating from India. The black pepper was most likely carried by Persian merchants to China!

Besides basic ingredients, a popular foreign dish was the hu fan (“foreign grain-food”), “a pancake stuffed with broiled meat, sour melon, and various kinds of fresh vegetables”. Han emperor Ling was had such a liking for this dish that it became wildly popular in the capital among the nobility.

TEA

Now we know that tea has been used for consumption, but did you know that it was also used as a currency for trade?

 Miuki,   Han Gao Zu  (5 February 2006). Public Domain. Alt text:  Hand-drawn image of Emperor Gaozu with chinese characters

Miuki,  Han Gao Zu (5 February 2006). Public Domain.
Alt text:  Hand-drawn image of Emperor Gaozu with chinese characters

With the new form of central governance by the first Han Emperor Gaozu, the Han empire was divided into distinct districts, including former barbaric territories such as the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Tea-drinking soon made its way to the different regions, allowing the ease of tea distribution to the rest of the people. Henceforth, tea was traded throughout China, Central Asia, Tibet and more.

Moreover, the opening of the Silk Road enabled tea to be exported to other parts of China via the Southern Silk Road, famously known as the Tea Horse Road . It ran through Yun’nan to the rest of China, so other than the upper classes of the Han Dynasty Chinese, common-folk were also exposed to tea and they consumed it too. Although there has not been much records, it has been hypothesized that tea was a key commodity that was exported out of Chang’An (ancient Chinese capital).  

 Shizuha,  Tea Bricks, Cakes, Lumps, Nuggets  (1 June 2011). CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0 Alt Text: Photo of tea bricks, cakes, lumps and nuggets

Shizuha, Tea Bricks, Cakes, Lumps, Nuggets (1 June 2011). CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0
Alt Text: Photo of tea bricks, cakes, lumps and nuggets

Furthermore, during the Han Dynasty, dried tea leaves were compressed into boxes to form tea bricks, making it easier for transportation and measurement. Exposed to other merchants who traded along the Silk Road, these bricks were used as currency for other various foreign commodities, such as crops, spices, cloth etcetera (pg 64-65).  Hence, it is evident that trade has commercialized tea, this in turn contributed to both the change in cuisine but also the economic development of China.  

WINE

Initially, during the Han Dynasty, the consumption of grape wine was not extensive. However, wine made of grape juice was common. Based on The Record of the Grand Historian, the Han Dynasty envoy Zhang Qian arrived in the western region, seeing “locals make wine in ceramic pots and wealthy people store tens of thousands of kilograms of wine, which could last for scores of years”. With trade done with Persia,the Xinjiang people incipiently obtained grape plantations as well as wine brewing technology from the Persians.

There are two distinct methods for making wine. One basic way was to “use grape juice for fermenting in the same way as the fermentation of glutinous rice, or use dried crushed grapes if no juice is available”, while the other way, like making of ardent spirits by “using scores of kilograms of grapes and fermenting them with raw starters in a caldron by steaming and then collecting the lively red dews dripping off with a container”.

 Xiao Niao @ SK.  Jia Liang (Grain Measure)  (18 July 2005). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Alt Tex: Faded photo of a bronze, grain measure cast with detailed patterns along the border

Xiao Niao @ SK. Jia Liang (Grain Measure) (18 July 2005). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Alt Tex: Faded photo of a bronze, grain measure cast with detailed patterns along the border

FOOD PRODUCTION TECHNIQUES

The Han Dynasty made agricultural progressions that improved their agriculture sector and that of another country. In the early 20th century, America borrowed and incorporated the “ever-normal granary system” established by the Han Dynasty into their farming process (p. 140). This suggests that the pastoral system of the Han Dynasty is reliable as it was adopted by another country a few centuries later.

Benefits from trade is also apparent as it brought over new machinery which paved way for food creation. The establishment of the Silk Road by the Han Dynasty resulted in the adoption of “mills for large-scale flour grinding” which was previously not present in China. The presence of an invention from another country allowed for the improvement of the pastoral sector as it facilitated the process of flour grinding which can then be transformed into noodles.

 

CONCLUSION

All in all, not only has the daily lives of people in the Han Dynasty been affected due to the shift  of  influence of food and drink consumption from within and outside China, it has in fact, benefited our lives today! From adapting their food production techniques to the types of food we eat, the Han Dynasty Chinese are surprisingly relevant to us, given that we still use their granary systems (albeit a more high-tech one) and consume much of their cuisine, such as rice, soybeans, tea, and wine. 

What is apparent in the present context is that class still plays a role in determining food accessibility for individuals. Naturally, those in the upper class will be able to afford a wider variety of delicacies, whereas the rest would consume food that is more accessible to them which parallels upper and middle classes having greater access to organic food today. Globalisation is seen as a modern concept but from the Han Dynasty, we can see that connections across the globe actually model the past.
 

 

 

References

Anderson, E. N. Food and environment in early and medieval china. (2014) Ebook Central.

de Crespigny, R. "South China under the Later Han Dynasty." (2001) The Australian National University

Fuchs, J. The Tea Horse Road. (2008) The Silk Road, 6(1), 63-71.

Knechtges, D. “Gradually Entering the Realm of Delight: Food and Drink in Early Medieval China.” (1997)  Journal of the American Oriental Society, 117(2): 229-239.

Laufer, Berthold. Sino-Iranica: Chinese contributions to the history of civilization in ancient Iran: With special reference to the history of cultivated plants and products. (1919) 

Law, K & Lee, C.M.  Authentic Recipes from China. (3 Nov 2015) Tuttle Publishing, 11

Lee, Moonsil. Dietary Conditions and Differential Access to Food Resources Among the Various Classes During the Han Period. (2001)

Li, X. Chinese Tea Culture (1993) The Journal of Popular Culture, 27(2), 75.

Lu, W. Beyond the Paradigm: Tea-Picking Women in Imperial China. Journal of Women's History 15(4), 19-46. Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved March 22, 2018.

Lu, H., Zhang, J., Yang, Y., Yang, X., Xu, B., et al. Earliest tea as evidence for one branch of the Silk Road across the Tibetan Plateau. (7 January 2016)

Murcott, A. Symposium on Food Habits and Culture in the UK. (1982) Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 4I, 203-204

Scheidel, W. Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires. (2009)

Sterckx, R. Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China. (1969) ACLS Humanities E-Book.

The Straits Times. 20 ingredients that made their way to China along the Silk Road. (2017)