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Han Dynasty Foods
Food in History
Winter Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(4) page(s): 5, 31, 32, and 33
The excavation of the 'Han Tombs' as they are called, began in 1972. There are three popularly discussed, and may be more, that have been excavated in China. The finds among them enable learning and confirming lifestyles at that time including what was eaten during this Han Dynasty which is recorded as having begun in 206 BCE and ending in 220 CE. In these tombs were food remains, artifacts, murals, a book, painted objects, and much more. Many of the artifacts and parts of some of the murals relate to food and its consumption during this dynastic period. Unearthed was a wealth of knowledge, particularly about people of high social, political, and military status. Investigations continue.
These Han Dynasty tombs are dubbed simply as Tomb 1, Tomb 2, and Tomb 3, and because they were neither broken into nor looted, they represent a very good picture of life intended for their occupants after their demise. It is thought that those entombed would continue doing things as they had, so they were sent off with many things for the afterlife.
Tomb 1, believed dated somewhat later than 168 BCE is at Mawangdui. It and the other two are near Changsha and the province of Hunan. This first one or Tomb 1 was built for the Marquise or wife of Hou Licang. Her name is Xinzui, and she is known as the Lady of Dai. She was sent off with lots to eat and ways to prepare these foods.
Her tomb offers a most detailed study of food. The first report about it was published in Beijing in 1973. The following year there was another done by Japan’s Tokyo National Museum. Neither are in English, but both have been cited on numerous occasions. This article relies heavily on the English comments and some English translations of written materials found in the tomb.
Tomb 2 is that of her husband, the Marquis or Hou Licang. Tomb 3 is that of their son, sometimes referred to as 'her son.' These are tombs of noble people so they are richly appointed as is appropriate to their noble rank. Marquis Hou Licang was Prime Minister to the reigning king of Changsha from 193 to 186 BCE.
Actually, these three tombs are in the Yangtze Valley, not exactly in Changsha. They are about two and a half miles east of that city on a hill known as Mawangdui. Hence they are also known as the Mawangdui Tombs. Historians report they were built successively over a twenty year period. Dates found in various sources are not exactly the same, but consensus is that the Marquis died in 186 BCE. His wife is believed to have died about 180 BCE, and we have never found the date of the demise of their son.
All three tombs are oblong, with a four-step access, and a slanted wall seen when entering these rather extensive chambers. Tomb 1 was the first one excavated. The main work on it exposing and cataloguing its contents was done between 1972 and 1974. This tomb of the Lady of Dai, the Marquise, is more than sixty feet long by just under sixty feet wide. Her body was found inside four wooden coffins, one nested in the other, the tomb itself lined with cypress wood.
Lady Dai’s remains are no longer at the tomb-site. The Marquise body can now be found at the Hunan Provincial Museum. It is there as are her major organs, each preserved in a separate jar; all in preserving liquid. Lady Dai’s body is in exceptional condition. It was found wrapped in about twenty layers of linen and silk. Her skin is still somewhat flexible.
Also at that museum, are most of the more than three thousand other cultural artifacts buried with her. We find it fascinating that so many of these are directly or indirectly related to food. They were found in one of the tomb’s five main areas. The Marquise is interned in the central area. The four side areas contain cooking and storage containers, foods in bamboo baskets, culinary information and identifications on wooden labels, inventory slips, and silk and other textiles, among other things. Also found are Daoist classics, military maps, astronomical charts, seven medical manuscripts that include treatments for various ailments, and more.
Some fascinating items in the central tomb area include a lacquered tray with five small dishes containing remains of mostly meats. There is an inscription there, jun xing shi, that translates to 'auspicious eating.' Can we assume that those who placed these things in her proximity were wishing that for her future? In addition to the tray, dishes, and their contents is a container for beer known as a hu, two goblets, some skewers, and a pair of bamboo chopsticks. Also found, but mostly elsewhere in the tomb are many other lacquerware dishes and serving pieces including a cup on a foot. That was then called a duo.
Learning about these items is not a task for a novice. That word on the above mentioned cup, for example, is written as the first syllable in doufu. Was she drinking or eating bean curd from it? Perhaps not, but what was in the cup that is no longer there? Found in Tomb 1 were many bamboo baskets with remains of different foods and medicinal plants, clothes, fabrics, musical instruments, and much, much more. All of these items are in the four areas surrounding the tomb with Lady Dai’s remains.
Scholars do not believe the tray accompanying her held a meal. They deem the foods on it were items to accompany beer drinking. They make this assumption because there are no stewed or steamed grain dishes on that tray. They are elsewhere in the tomb as are cookware pieces used to prepare them.
As to the type of beer, during Han times, there were fermented and unfermented beers. Which specific kind is unclear because beer and other liquids evaporate over time. It is thought to be one of these two types as they are listed among the bamboo slips found in these tombs. One is an unfermented malt beer, perhaps a wort-type containing very low alcohol. The other is a fermented beer-type beverage that uses yeast as its starter.
Elsewhere in the tomb are many earthenware and lacquerware pieces, some with or for stews, others for steaming, others mainly for storage. And, there are containers for beverages, etc. In addition, there are fruit, grain, meat, and fish sauces, salted dark beans, more beer, and many other food and herbal remains.
It is believed that Lady Dai most likely had just snacked before she died. The reasoning here is that her esophagus, stomach, and her intestines have remains of more than a hundred yellowish-brown muskmelon seeds. Elsewhere in the tomb is rice, wheat, barley, two kinds of millet, soy beans, red lentils, hemp, and malva; also ginger, lotus root, pears, jujubes, plums, and strawberries. Among the meat and poultry items, or parts thereof, are chicken, crane, deer, dog, duck, frog (bamboo chicken), goose, hare, magpie, ox, pheasant, pigeon, sheep, sparrow, and turtledove. The fish remains include many kinds of carp, also bream and perch.
To season the foods, the tomb contains the bark of cinnamon, prickly ash flowers (Sichuan pepper), magnolia buds, and galangal. Remains found do not equal the lists. Foods mentioned or illustrated but neither physically identified nor located include seasonings such as salt, sugar, honey, soy sauce, salted beans, and items for leavening.
In addition to specific foods and flavorings, some items discussed on the bamboo slips are specific dishes/stews of ox, sheep, deer, pig and suckling pig, dog, duck, pheasant, and chicken. Many of these indicate they are made with gravy. Some have grains, vegetables, or are only the cooked meat or meats.
Some bamboo slips mention specific animal parts such as lamb flank, pork shoulder, dog liver, beef lips, lung, or tongue. Horsemeat is mentioned, but none found, nor is it known if it was eaten by this lady or for her entourage. Why these items are there is unclear, because other writings of these times indicate, for example, that liver is not to be eaten as it is presumed to be poisonous.
Other information as to these and other food usage is learned from kitchen and festive pictorial scenes. Many Han pictorials are also in other tombs. All show scenes with many people in one kitchen, meat racks holding various whole or partial animals including chicken, turtle, pig, ox, and fish, and animal parts such as intestines, stomachs, and heads.
Bamboo slips and books about Han foods speak of administrative conditions, things philosophical, and things related to the food of those times. They deal with cooking or preserving foods by roasting, scalding, shallow-frying, steaming, deep-frying, stewing, salting, sun-drying, and pickling. These early food writings praise rice as delicious. They say that wine is an indispensable part of a feast, indicate the order of eating, and say that wine comes first followed by a stew, and/or other dishes. They report that grains come last and fruit comes after the grains.
Types of grain foods mentioned vary and include five, six, eight, or nine different ones. These are rice, wheat, barley, millet, soybeans, red lentils, lesser beans, hemp, and job’s tears. Some are spoken of as being dried or roasted. We know that not every grain is available everywhere, so these differences make sense. It is interesting to note that some grains are coarse and eaten with beans, and that most foods are boiled, stewed, or steamed with or without them, and served with or without them. Fried foods may be special or less common because they are mentioned less frequently than are other means of food preparation.
During Han Dynasty times, China began to divide itself into two dietary zones. One in the north with wheat the principle grain, the other in the south with rice its primary grain. This is not evident in the food findings of this noble Marquise as in her tomb there is mention of both.
This tomb also had imported foods such as grapes, alfalfa, pomegranate, walnut, sesame, onion, caraway seed, peas, coriander, and cucumber. The tomb had longan and litchi, these must have been brought from the south. These is some mention of fermented dark beans, of noodles, steamed breads, and cakes. Han foods, particularly those found in these three Mawangdui Tombs, show variety in the diet, foods in all categories, and that wine, beer and snacking is desirable and plentiful.
Tombs in different parts of China, but from the same time period, have many of the same foods and food vessels. These and all newer findings agree with things written later about this Han time period. This dynasty’s findings also confirm an expansion of types of foods consumed, innovation in the way they are consumed, and considerable interest in foods.
As more is learned about this and other time periods, it is clear that through tombs and written information, there is a good view of what was eaten in this period in China’s past. The tombs show that China’s rulers were serious about eating and that they had many servants. It is assumed that these people probably copied what they saw and passed the food and cookery notions on to other less aristocratic classes of people.
Illustrating this article about Han Dynasty and its food, the large brown picture is from the first page or writing found and photographed in a Mawangdui book. This book is reported to be the Daodejing. The second picture is the layout of another area with tomb contents; and the third is other writing found in that tomb. The picture of the layout of Tomb 1 is from a two-volume book transliterated as Changsha Mawangdui Yihao Han Mu I published and distributed in Beijing in 1973.
The recipes are those of foods said made during Han Dynasty times, rewritten in the style used by this magazine. They are from cookbooks in the Jacqueline M. Newman Chinese Cookbook Collection in Stony Brook University’s Special Collections department. There are thousands of Chinese cookbooks at that facility, and annotations of them, done by the donor, are now available at that university's website. The names of the recipes represent what some of the foods were called in those times. For example, scallops were called ‘pearl column, etc.
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