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Shang Dynasty Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(1) page(s): 7, and 16

Foods. facts, perhaps even some fantasies are the basis of China’s early food development. So it may be for much of the Shang Dynasty, about which there is little solid information, and nary a real recipe.

This dynasty is from 1776 BCE to 1122 BCE. Perhaps those who say there is no solid information have forgotten about the writings on oracle bones, tortoise shells, and bamboo, and on the little that exists on silk. These early writings were used for divination. We view them now as predictive science and for those that have been dated using radio-carbon techniques, corroboration may follow.

While the writings are real, the information in/on them can be considered both real and predictive. They were interpreted by and for the diviners of the day, and those that followed who recorded things handed down by mouth. Many divinations were done heating bones and shells to predict the future, and those doing that, no doubt used what they saw and knew about to describe/predict things. Items learned from this period were responses to questions such as: Will the people have enough to eat? And, what foods might there be plenty of?

There were other writings, too, on bronze and on tablets at the time of the beginning of Chinese language. Many national characteristics of the Chinese language, at that time, show it monosyllabic, tonal, and with compound words. And many of the words related to an important item of the day, their food.

During the Shang period, sacrificial animals such as ox, sheep, and dog were used. These were ritually slaughtered, probably with the reflex bow. They were already important sources of food and clothing. Also used were local domesticated animals. These were no doubt eaten after sacrifice as were cattle and water buffalo.

Agriculture was not yet orderly but it did exist in a rudimentary fashion. Things were made for it and for general use. There were many craftsman who worked with metals, jade, and leather. They wove items from silk and other fibers. They also made pottery and paintings and prepared items for warfare. Leather was of particular value for that as it was strong and used for garments, drums, and armor, and for carrying liquids.

The Shang was the second of three known dynasties in ancient China. Before it was the Xia, also spelled the 'Hsia' Dynasty, which was from about 2200 to 1776 BCE. The Zhou, which earlier was spelled 'Chou') began after the Shang and continued until 221 BCE. There are many tales of what was eaten and some information about how and prepared with what. These were believed to be tales, and were not initially trusted. But the writings during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 AD), it followed the Zhou, were validated by the aforementioned dating confirmations at archeological digs. They speak extensively about what foods were known before the Han Dynasty.

The Shang Dynasty did exist with indications of its own royal house of rulers. Archeologists, anthropologists, and historians believe its origins were the Tzu clan founded by Hsieh. Artifacts tell leadership and location of its capital. The location was certainly in Shandong and in the northern Shenxi. All of its capitals were north of the Yangtze River and north and south of the Yellow River. Thus the Shang was a large state and a large civilization, and an important period in history.

A lot is known about these times from a text about this period, called the Yin Pen Chi. Actually, it was not an entire book but rather a chapter in a book called the Shih Chi written by Suma Chien and not in the Shang period, but rather about it. Suma Chien was the official archivist in the Han Dynasty under Emperor Wu Ti. While his information is neither guaranteed nor a hundred percent accurate, much of it was confirmed by others then, and has been reconfirmed since. On the food scene is considerable documentation about royal hunts, little about what they ate on them, and less about non-royal folk.

In these documents, we learn about six types of food vessels. The three for cooking were called ting, li, and yen. There were also others called lu, chao, and tsao. Foods were stored in still other vessels known as kuei, hsu, fu, and tou. Foods were not served in them, but rather in those called ssu. Additionally, there were water and alcoholic beverage containers, some for drinking, others for warming, still others only to store these liquids. Some of the cooking and storage vessels were not flat-bottomed. They were round or pointed on their bottoms, and some sat on others made of metal or pottery for support and stability. (Note: these vessels are spelled as most early cooery ones were in earlier times, and not written in Pinyin here, as the literature about them usually spells them these ways.)

Many specific foods put into these containers have been confirmed. Some at Neolithic sites such as Banpo Village, others in times later than that. Should you go to Xian, do visit Banpo. There, you will see remnants of millet, wheat, and rice. They are also written about in the source already mentioned and elsewhere. Some records say there were soybeans, too, but their use is not always corroborated while rice use is.

Two- and four-legged animal remains believed to have been consumed during the Shang include those of racoon, fox, wild cat, water buffalo, deer, bamboo rat, chicken, peacock, rhinoceros, elephant, tiger, elaphure, boar, wolf, and wild cattle. Those from the sea and rivers are all kinds of fish, clams, mollusks, and shrimp; to name but a few. Records of hunting include use of dogs, cattle, sheep, horses, pigs, and chickens. Some or all of these were believed to be consumed. Other findings include apricots and medlar (lychii sinensis), and some vegetable remains.

Which of the above was eaten, which only used in rituals or ritualized slaughter, is not always known. Nor is there a single recipe from this period. What is known is that there were two kinds of millet, the 'foxtail' and the 'panic' varieties. The former was probably made into thick porridge; the latter probably into stews. Rather recently, noodles made from millet were found in northwestern China dated from late Neolithic times circa four thousand years ago. Unfortunately, they fell apart rather soon after exposure to air, but not before photographing them. One can read about this in the October 2005 British journal Nature (Volume 437 on pages 967 and 968). We also know that in this period, people acquired turtles and whales, tapirs, goats, and horses, too, among many other items assumed to be for food.

Not bad for a dynasty whose dates vary, as our science not yet good enough to predict them accurately, fine tunes them. We assume foods were divided into fan and cai, and that both were eaten at the same meal. We know they cooked their meats in liquid and that they grilled them.

Another important food find was salt. Some was used to preserve fish, and maybe meats, too. Both fish and meat were also dried and smoked during Shang times. In addition, there are records of trading rice and salt for wheat. The latter food item was not indigenous to the region, nor was barley. Barley came to China later than during the Shang Dynasty.

It is wrong to think of these ancient people as backward. They probably were not. They did know how to make bronze. They developed a calendar. Both may have origins in the folk wisdom of the day. They accurately predicted and reported various eclipses for the BCE years of 1371, 1344, 1322 1282, and 1279. Many were in places where they could not have been seen.

What was less accurate, but certainly a beginning, were their calendars. Having these accurate does aid agriculture. One calendar shows two periods with months of sixty-three days. They were grouped in a thirty-day set and in one slightly longer. Occasionally there was a time or month of twenty-nine days. They thought the year had three hundred sixty-five and a half days. They reported the day as ten hours long.

We may not know Shang Dynasty recipes ever, nor may we know how much of anything they ate. What is known is that they cleared land, stored seeds, and designed and baked clay vessels for storing solids and liquids. We also know they ate chestnuts, mulberries, apricots, and jujubes, and knew quite a lot about them.

As is said on radio and television, ‘stay tuned.’ More is learned almost daily about ancient China, including about facts and foods during the Shang Dynasty. The findings clearly show this period developing Chinese foods and flavors, Chinese food behaviors, and Chinese food-related beliefs. These formed the basis for what is Chinese food today.

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