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In-N-Out: HAN DYNASTY STYLE

 Eric Connor,  Dahuting Tomb Banquet Scene with Jugglers , Eastern Han Dynasty Mural (18 October 2016). Public Domain. Alt Text: Photo of a Mural inside the Dahuting Tomb depicting a banquet scene from the 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: Photo of a Mural inside the Dahuting Tomb depicting a banquet scene from the 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 1 , we look to their food and drink to attain a deeper knowledge about their daily lives.

 Fae,  Ornamental Gateway (Pailou) from Han Dynasty   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 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

We know that Chinese cuisine has gradually evolved through the centuries and dynasties, and for the Chinese of the Han Dynasty, 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 and distributed throughout China, having 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 external influences include imported ingredients, tea in trade, grape wine, and food production techniques.

INTERNAL

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

DAILY FOOD

 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

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 (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 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.


Stew (or geng) was, on the whole, a treasured dish. “Among princes and aristocrats, as among peasants, an ordinary meal always consisted of cooked grain and geng.”(p. 398) It appears to be a versatile dish, that could contain cereals, meat, vegetables, fish, or a combination of those ingredients. 2 Now, we will discuss more about about food consumed by the different social classes!


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: Photo of a brick painting 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: Photo of a brick painting 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 events, where poultry would occasionally be consumed. The type of meat available to respective classes differ as the affluent were able to dine on a wide assortment of hunted animals, which includes pheasants, wild rabbits, and sika deer, among others while the commoners eat easily available meat. 3 Furthermore, the difference between classes extends to the conduct of individuals during a ceremonial meal. 4

Just like consistent consumption of meat was associated with the upper classes, eating lots of soybean was an indicator of less wealth and status in society. 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.

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 5 , 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 is integral to their lifestyle so much so that tea even has its own culture 6!

 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 7 that was refined during the Han Dynasty to process and preserve them. However, tea-drinking was 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.

 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.

Under the reign of Han Dynasty rulers, major economic progresses and shift to central governance allowed tea to expand its reach to others, including the common-folk 8 . Tea soon became a hot beverage enjoyed by many.

The only kind of tea the Han Dynasty Chinese drank were non-fermented 9 , their preparation of tea is very different from what we are used to today. Before drinking it, they would boil and mixing these dried leaves with millet grains and other flavourful ingredients until it reaches a congee-like consistency.

WINE

In terms of drinks, jiu (酒 - “ale”, “wine”, or “liquor”) was the another commonly recorded beverage, with the exception of water. Alcoholic ales were also paramount for banquets and sacrifices.Particularly, wine. Conventionally, wine had 3 major uses. Namely, ritual performances, healing and alleviating problems.Chinese wine is traditionally refered 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.

 Dlanglois,  Grain millet, early grain fill, Tifton  (29 October 2005). Public Domain.  Alt text: A photo of the millet wine grain plantation    
  
   
  
    
  
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Dlanglois, Grain millet, early grain fill, Tifton (29 October 2005). Public Domain.

Alt text: A photo of the millet wine grain plantation

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

THE SILK ROAD

 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

Stretching across different continents, it is a massive network of inter-connected routes linking the East to the West 10 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.

Today, many Chinese cooks would be amazed if they knew that the ingredients they used daily were exotic imports from other countries. So what are these amazing ingredients and new dishes?

IMPORTED FOODS

 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

Interestingly, there were a variety of foods imported from regions to the west of China (those of Central Asia, India and Iran) that can be identified by the prefix hu.

Examples include the cucumber (hu gua), walnut (hu tao), sesame (hu ma) and black pepper (hu jiao), all of which were present in the Han Dynasty!

Sesame seeds were particularly important for oil and flavoring, and they still are. Another of the imported spices that is prominent in Chinese cooking today is the black pepper which originated from India.

Does it surprise you that ingredients such as the black pepper did not originate in China? 11

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:  Digital image of a hand-drawn painting of Emperor Gaozu with chinese characters

Miuki,  Han Gao Zu (5 February 2006). Public Domain.
Alt text:  Digital image of a hand-drawn painting 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 12. Tea-drinking soon made its way to the different regions 13 , allowing the ease of tea distribution to the rest of the people.

In addition, 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 14 .

 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 15 . 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

 Maxmann,  Wine Grapes  (30 September 2017). CC0 Creative Commons.  Alt text: A photo of grapes in a grape wine plantation    
  
   
  
    
  
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Maxmann, Wine Grapes (30 September 2017). CC0 Creative Commons.

Alt text: A photo of grapes in a grape wine plantation

China was typically known to be a closed country, allowing very little in or out of the country for very long. Thus, wine production had remained rather unsophisticated. This situation alleviated in 1979 when China opened up to the rest of the world.

Initially, during the Han Dynasty, the consumption of grape wine was not extensive. However, wine made of grape juice was common. As mentioned on The Record of the Grand Historian, initially, upon his arrival in the western region, the Han Dynasty envoy Zhang Qian, saw that “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 Han Dynasty people incipiently obtained grape plantations as well as wine brewing technology from the Persians.

FOOD PRODUCTION TECHNIQUES

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

The Han Dynasty made agricultural progressions that improved their agricultural 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). 16

Benefits from trade is also apparent as it brought over new machinery which paved the way for food creation for the Han Dynasty. The establishment of the Silk Road and extension to the West 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 resulted in the improvement of the pastoral sector as it facilitated the process of flour grinding which then allowed for noodles to be formed.

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) University of Pennsylvania Press.

Batmanglij, Najmieh. Silk Road Cooking: A Culinary Journey. (2002) The Smithsonian Institution.

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

Eijkhoff Pieter. Wine in China Its History and Cotemporary Developments. (2000)

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

Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. (2012) Oxford University Press. 25-56

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

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

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

Li Demei. The history of Chinese winegrowing and winemaking - part 1 (2013)

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

Li Zhengping. Chinese Wine (2011)

Lu, Houyuan, et al. Earliest tea as evidence for one branch of the Silk Road across the Tibetan Plateau. (2016)

Lu, Weijing. Beyond the Paradigm: Tea-Picking Women in Imperial China. (2004) Journal of Women's History 15(4), 19-46. Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved March 22, 2018.

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

Sartor, Valerie. All the Tea in China: The Political Impact of Tea. (2007) American Journal of Chinese Studies, 185-188.

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

Simoons, F. J. Food in China: a cultural and historical inquiry. (2014) CRC Press.

Sterckx, Roel. 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)

Wilkins, John & Nadeau, Robin. A Companion to Food in the Ancient World. (2015) John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.


  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. An individual’s understanding of the law of “chivalry and ritual propriety” were examined through an elaborate etiquette which consists of various procedures (p.29).
  5. References to Chinese tea dates back to the reign of Emperor Shen-Nung, and it all began with a colorful legend of a wild camellia blossom falling into a pot of boiling water. When infused with it, it emitted a fragrance and this created the first pot of tea.
  6. This culture is known as 茶艺 (cha-yi), which can be loosely translated to the 'art of drinking tea'.
  7. After gathering the tea leaves, the farmers steamed the freshly cultivated leaves with hot water. They then left them out in the sun to dry for preservation.
  8. This will be further explored below in the "external influences of tea". We can see that both internal and external influences are closely related.
  9. Non-fermented tea is also known as green tea (though this doesn't necessarily mean it has to be green!) It just refers to tea that has not been processed.
  10. This route extended from Southeast Asia to Europe and all the way to Africa.
  11. Bonus information about food: 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 had such a liking for this dish that it became wildly popular in the capital among the nobility.
  12. Including former barbaric territories such as the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces
  13. Tea was traded throughout China ,Central Asia, Tibet and more.
  14. Chang'an is the ancient Chinese capital of China
  15. These foreign commodities included: crops, spices, cloth, silk, etc. (pg 64-65)
  16. This suggests that the pastoral system of the Han Dynasty is reliable as it was adopted by another country a few centuries later.