Extract from the press release for the exhibition “Les seductions du Palais – cooking and eating in China”, Chinese table traditions at the Muse du quai Branly in partnership with the National Museum of China from 06/19/12 to 09/30/ 12.
From raw to cooked, around the nolithic hearth
7000 – 2000 BC. J.-C.
Ancient documents, although written later, largely during the Zhou dynasty (1045-221), relate events and behaviors that often predate the first of the Chinese dynasties, the Xia (c.2100-c.1600). These chronicles date back to the 3rd millennium, at the time of the mythical rulers, where three characters, Yandi, Huangdi and Houji, take on a particular appearance. Each of them is considered a sort of founding demiurge.
Yandi is called Shennong, the “Divine ploughman”. He would have introduced agriculture and also fashioned the first ceramics. The second, Huangdi the “Yellow Emperor”, is credited with the invention of the five cereals. He would also be the first to have steamed cereals (fan). He is also said to have boiled seawater to obtain salt, introducing the pengtiao (“cook and season”) method that was to become one of the foundations of Chinese cuisine. As for Houji, the “Prince Millet”, he was Minister of Agriculture under the last two mythical rulers, Yao and Shun. It is to him that we should prepare alcoholic beverages from millet or fermented rice.
For the Chinese, agriculture was to become the occupation par excellence, the source of all wealth, the foundations of religion, the very symbol of civilization. In fact, the Han settled down permanently, with the first communities grouping together in hamlets around the hearth.
Power, drunkenness and divination in the Bronze Age
1600 – 222 BC. J.-C.
The mastery of bronze goes hand in hand with the first centralized state. The king resides in his palace and the bronze workers, who have replaced the potters, work close to the sovereign. The latter holds weapons and metal tools as well as rich crockery which he uses in particular to communicate with the spirits during ritual banquets in the temple of the ancestors. He is surrounded by soothsayers who perform magical acts on the remains of the offerings. From these ritual banquets will come writing, which will invest the bronzes under the 3rd dynasty, the Zhou.
For the Shang aristocracy (1600 – 1050 BC, 2nd royal dynasty) and Zhou (1045 – 221 BC, 3rd royal dynasty), the temple of the ancestors becomes a key place, both federator and identity, the place where we meet and where all decisions are submitted to the ancestors.
It is around him that the 2nd section is organized. We know, moreover, that these ceremonies of offerings to the ancestors were very similar to a banquet, giving both the living and the dead the opportunity to enjoy food and drink.
Under the Shang, drink became essential. Its consumption precedes all banquets. The large number of alcohol vases proves the predilection of the Shang aristocrats for drink. The main bronze vases selected in this section illustrate alcohol and its consumption.
Among the Zhou, alcohol vases are rare, food containers are more important. Etiquette governing banquets has become very rigorous. Meals are taken sitting on mats placed on the ground and the servants arrange the vases around the guests, hence the fact that the containers were designed on pedestals or provided with feet. First the wine is served, then the fish, meat and vegetables, and lastly the cereals.
For the meats, the cut pieces are placed on gift racks. Stews are offered in the ding tripods, while the gui cups are reserved for cereals. The ding tripods and the gui cups are called to become the emblems of power. The “nine ding”, (jiuding) each corresponding to a particular dish, are reserved for the sovereign alone. They will not only be the royal symbols, but also those of the whole country.
Banquets and celebrations in ancient China
Han Dynasty, 206 BC. AD – 221 AD J.-C.
Objects and information for this period come mainly from archaeological finds excavated from tombs of the Han period (206 BC, 221 AD). In the great ancient domains, the kitchens are always separated from the reception rooms: the first part of this section is devoted to the kitchen and the second to the banquet.
With its drudgery, cooking is usually the province of men. Even today, cooking remains a male privilege in China. The art of cooking is then gepeng, literally “cutting and cooking”, a descriptive terminology that could perfectly apply to current Chinese cuisine. Cut into small pieces, packaging adapted to the now widespread use of baguettes. You can also lacerate into thin strips or chop. There are many cooking methods: boiling, steaming, roasting, browning, frying, frying…
In the banquet hall, the master of the house generally sits at the back of the room, on a slightly raised platform, leaning against a screen facing his guests, as numerous representations attest. As for the guests, they appear lined up in two rows arranged on either side of the master, seated on mats with, in front of them, small low lacquered tables. Trays with legs are brought fully stocked from the kitchens where they were usually kept, stacked on top of each other. Lacquer crockery has replaced bronze, the use of which is now reserved for the manufacture of weapons.
Circular pans are the most common dishes. They are accompanied by oval cups with two erbei ears, shao spoons, kuaizi chopsticks, lian wine heaters, large hu alcohol vases.
Luxury, exoticism and extravagance in medieval times
Tang dynasty, 618 – 905 AD. J.-C.
Chang’an, the capital of the Tang, is the final stage of the “Silk Road” where many exotic foodstuffs arrive, which greatly contributes to the food revolution of the medieval period in China. In reality, this opening to the West began long before, from the Han, with the introduction of new products (cucumbers, pomegranates, walnuts, sesame, etc.) as well as new methods of preparation. The most important element for this era, however, is the adoption of the grinding technique. With the first real millstone mills, in the 1st century BC. J.-C., opens the universe of mian, breads, cakes and pasta. Then appear the mantou, round steamed buns, the hundun a variety of spaghetti, and the jiaozi, dumplings immersed in boiling soup, whose popularity will only grow over the centuries.
With the Tang (618 – 905) the Chinese empire becomes immense. There reigns then a spirit of tolerance unknown before, in particular vis-a-vis the habits and customs come from abroad. The many fruits and vegetables from the West are gradually acclimatized in the imperial gardens and orchards. All these new foodstuffs are designated by the prefix hu, foreigner.
The tables of the palaces are here evoked by the exotic crockery: pots in carved coconut, horns of rhinoceros works, cups in amber, agate, carnelian or jade, vases in blown glass. But undoubtedly even more characteristic are the pieces of goldsmithery, ewers in gilded silver, polylobed bowls in engraved silver, dishes and trays in embossed silver, cups and goblets in gold… The inevitable consequences of his excesses and extravagances at the table, obesity is appropriate among aristocrats. The great ladies of the time, thanks to the tricks of fashion, managed to transform their corpulence into majesty.
Diet and meditation in the classical period
960 – 1278 AD. J.-C.
It seems that during the Song dynasty (960 – 1278), urban life and its bustle succeeded imperial splendour. These three centuries experienced unprecedented population growth, due in particular to the introduction of a foreign variety of rice from Vietnam which allows two annual harvests. Large-scale tea plantation is also an important novelty. Now available to everyone, tea has gone from a luxury drink to a daily need. In the exhibition, this development is evoked around a pavilion where a few pieces made of different materials are brought together: the simplest ceramics, stoneware, containers decorated with poetic subjects, flowers, bamboo fruits.
The taste for monographs is particularly strong in the Song period, no doubt because of the development of town planning with its noise, its clutter, its nocturnal world, its artifices. Some scholars do not hesitate to retire to the mountains to lead a rustic life, writing short collections on mushrooms, citrus fruits, spices. Gastronomy has become a literary expression in its own right.
The most complete work of its kind is “Shanjia qinggong, The simple provisions of a mountain dweller” by Lin Hong, a character who lived in the middle of the 13th century, and left the city to meditate in the mountains. In his book, he leads the reader from the joys of the stove to the vanity of all things. Through the care he takes with his diet, he transposes nature onto his plate. Lin Hong is a good illustration of this ethic of the scholar who leaves the world and strips himself to reach the essential.
The food service of the last emperors
Qing Dynasty, 1644 – 1912 AD. J.-C.
The archives preserve numerous documents relating to official banquets. In China important events, celebrations, births, weddings, funerals have always been the subject of expensive banquets, and especially at the top of the state. The Zhouli or Ritual of the Zhou, during the 1st millennium BC, mentions more than 2,000 people working in the catering service of the palace. This way of life, despite the ups and downs of history, only grew to reach its climax under the last dynasty, the Qing, during the 18th century.
At the Forbidden City, the staff varies between 6,000 and 9,000 servants, the food service having to provide 12,000 meals per day on average, lunch, dinner and snacks included. Eight major types of banquets are listed. The qingzhu shenshou for imperial birthdays, the fengguang jiamian to announce the advancement in rank of civil servants, the yangqing shijie for seasonal calendar festivals, the cian zhu hou for vassal princes, the qian shouan in honor of the elderly , the jisi zhili or sacrificial banquet, the huanshan zhili for weddings or funerals.
Tableware in gold, in silver, in cloisonne metals, in porcelain, in jade, in ivory, is luxurious. The imperial kitchens have some 3,000 pieces of precious metal, but the amount of tableware allocated to each member of the imperial family is regulated. Only the emperor’s endowment is unlimited.