Those familiar with China will recognise the every-day greeting “你吃饭了吗？” – have you eaten yet? Food is a central aspect of Chinese culture, bringing families, friends and communities together and this “obsession with food” has deep historical roots. The majority of Chinese ritual bronze vessels date from the Shang and Zhou dynasties and appear in the archaeological record between 1600 and 250 BCE.
In ‘Feasting in the Afterlife: the Bronzes of the National Palace Museum’, Asia House’s latest lecture on the Treasures of the Palace Museum, Cambridge Professor Roel Sterckx explained that “there are few cultures that have more emphasis on food preparation” than China. In ancient China this emphasis extended beyond the physical world and into the spiritual.
As Sterckx described, the people of ancient China believed that if a person nourished their body with food, they were also nourishing their soul. Such nourishment would help to soul to live on after death. With food being so essential to the living soul, it followed that it must also be important to the souls of the dead.
Ancestor worship was widely practiced by these societies. It was believed that after death the spirit lived on in the spirit world and the living had a duty to nourish the spirits of their ancestors with offerings of food.
Food related objects made up the majority of tomb goods during this period. Tombs have been found to contain tables laid out with dishes of food and some Kings even had their cooks buried with them. Sterckx argues that this is because “food was the instrumental ingredient that established relationships between the living and the dead” – through feeding one’s ancestors one could maintain a connection with them.
Placing ancestor worship at the centre of society meant that vessels used to offer food to the dead became important ritual objects. The intricately cast bronze vessels of the Shang and Zhou seen in the National Palace Museum, Taipei would have belonged to powerful individuals. Bronze was expensive and casting such vessels would have required intensive, highly skilled labour.
In the Q&A, Sascha Priewe – Curator of Chinese and Korean Collections at the British Museum, explained that there are similarities in shape between the ritual bronze vessels and the everyday kitchen ware of the time. This means that different shaped vessels had different purposes.
Ancient Chinese bronzes were mostly made using piece-mould casting, a method unique to China at that time. A model would be made and then a clay mould would be taken. The mould would be cut into sections and then fired. After firing the model would be reassembled with a core placed inside. Liquid bronze would then be poured into the mould to form the vessel. This technique allowed for intricate, highly defined designs.
Today, inscriptions on bronze vessels are valuable historical records of the time. Many have wondered why such inscriptions, bearing tales of great and daring deeds by rulers and statesmen, appear on the inside of the vessels. Sterckx believes this is because inscriptions were not intended for the living but for the dead. Inscriptions could be transmitted through the sacrificial food to the spirit world.
Despite being handed-down through generations, these spectacular vessels eventually fell out of use. They were replaced by porcelain and lacquer ware and were virtually unknown by the subsequent Han dynasty. Today, Chinese bronzes are appreciated as exquisite art objects that offer us a window into life, death and the kitchen in ancient China.
‘Feasting in the Afterlife: the Bronzes of the National Palace Museum’ was the second in a series of lectures at Asia House focusing on the collections of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.
I will be reporting on the next lecture in the series ‘Bring Me a Glaze Like the Sky After Rain: Imperial Ceramics of the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties’ by Professor Stacey Pierson, chaired by Beth Mckillop, Deputy Director of the V&A.
(Image Courtesy of Asia House)