Alcohol and Immortality in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE)
12 minute read
By James Lin
Alcohol has always been an important beverage in Chinese society, consumed at all levels and regardless of occasion. Alcoholic beverages made from fermented rice and sorghum grains were considered ritually important in ancient China. A few cases of well-preserved alcohol have been found in tombs of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), but in most, only the containers have survived.
From archaeological findings, we know that as early as the Shang dynasty (c. 1,600 – 1046 BCE), the Chinese developed a complicated system of rituals that revolved around presenting food and alcohol to their ancestors. Different types of food and containers were used to honour deceased ancestors and would be buried in tombs for continued use in the afterlife. It is possible that 1922.1098/Record 2 could have been one such object.
Between c. 1,700 and 1,300 BCE, bronze vessels began replacing neolithic ceramics like this one. In just one tomb, that of Lady Fuhao in Anyang, almost half the bronzes were ritual vessels. Some 20% of these were cooking vessels, and the rest were drinking vessels. Of the 15 types of drinking vessels, the most common are 爵 jue and 觚 gu.
Around c. 1,047 BCE, a restructuring of the royal government and a reconfiguration of its relations with the most prominent families led to the standardisation of bronze ritual vessels into sets of identical 鼎 ding and 簋 gui (cooking vessels and containers) to identify the social status of their owners.1 Small alcohol vessels such as 爵 jue and 觚 gu disappeared and were replaced by pairs of large alcohol containers 壺 hu and sets of bells, possibly indicating changes to rituals and social structures.2
A revolution in cuisines and rituals then occurred in the Han dynasty (c. 206 BCE–220 CE), in which traditional ritual vessels that had dominated the offering ceremony almost completely disappeared. Simple, daily-use utensils and new inventions and with various materials (e.g. jade and gold) and purposes increased, suggesting a new fashion and a new ideology of living.
Alcohol Containers in Tombs of the Han Dynasty
Alcohol containers commonly seen in tombs of the Han dynasty include a vase of a square shape, pi or containers resembling flattened oval, zhong or large pear-shaped container, zun or lain or a cylindrical alcohol container, and vessels for serving alcohol, such as er bei or the ear-cup and zhi or the lidded beaker. These items were produced from a variety of materials including ceramics, lacquer, bronze, gilt bronze, crystal and jade, depending on the status of the tomb’s occupants. Images from stone carvings at 諸城 Zhucheng Shandong (c. second century BCE) indicate that er bei and a cylindrical basin with a ladle were used as offerings to the the tomb’s occupant. Found in passageways between the front and central chambers of this tomb, these stone carvings depict kitchen scenes – how servants prepared meals or how the tomb’s occupant received his guests: seemingly seated in front of the table on which were placed rows of er bei with a tripod container that had a ladle in front of it.3 Similar containers and er bei appeared in other parts of stone carvings and scenes in this tomb. Inscriptions on lacquer er bei such as “君幸食 May you enjoy the food!” and “君幸酒 May you enjoy the alcohol!” from Lady Dai’s tomb at Mawangdui, Hunan province reveal that these er bei were used to drink alcohol or to eat food–possibly soup. So the containers and ladles next to them in the stone carvings in the tomb at 諸城 Zhucheng Shandong might have been used to serve both alcohol and soup.4
The use of durable materials such as jade or stone for offering vessels may have been seen as pragmatic, as they were likely to last for centuries. However, a comparison of the materials from different ranking tombs reveals a hierarchical system. The most powerful members of the Liu family from Xuzhou used jade er bei5, the king of Zhongshan, Liu Sheng, used glass in place of jade and a large quantity of pottery er bei instead of lacquer. In the south, in a tomb of a non-Liu family member who regardless ranked high at Mawangdui, lacquer was the main material, while in the lower ranking tombs, a small quantity of pottery vessels or images carved on stones were supplied. Jade was probably used in tombs of the highest elite, both because it was durable and because the stone was beautiful and precious. Jade also had other meanings. It was viewed as having the ability to ensure a good afterlife for its owners and it was regarded as possessing special powers when used for drinking and eating.
In addition to utensils made from jade, gold utensils were believed to have magic powers to reinforce longer lifespans. In the chapter xian yao (Immortal drug) in Baopuzi it is noted:
玉亦仙藥 但難得耳 服金者壽如金 服玉者壽如玉也
Jade is also an elixir, but it is difficult to obtain. Those who take gold will live as long as gold; those who take jade will live as long as jade.6
From the periods of the late Warring States and onwards, the search for immortality had become widespread. Gold gradually came to assume an important role in this search, alongside jade. Numerous necromancers (方士 fangshi) travelled to different States, providing advice to different rulers on how to achieve long life. Amongst these fangshi, the most famous was 李少君 Li Shaojun (c. second century BCE), who advised one of the rulers:
‘Offering sacrifices to the stove [god] allows one to transform cinnabar into gold. Making the gold into vessels for drinking and eating then increases the length of one’s life. With long life, one can meet the immortals of Penglai. On seeing them, one makes the Feng and Shan sacrifices to achieve deathlessness, just as the Yellow Emperor did’.7
The belief that drinking and eating from gold utensils could prolong life, as recorded in Shiji, is echoed by the discovery of gilt bronze utensils hu in the tomb of the King of Zhongshan, 劉勝 Liu Sheng (d. 113 BCE) at 滿城 Mancheng, Hebei province and the inscriptions on it:
Let delicacies fill the gates and increase our girth.
And give us a long life without illness for ten thousand years.8
Although this gilt vase may have been produced in the 4th century BC and buried with the King of Zhongshan as an heirloom, the inscription reflects the ruling class’s desire to prolong life and avoid sickness for thousands of years. It is also from this period onward that gilt bronze vessels were commonly seen in the tombs of the Han elites.
A new invention indicates a new ideology of living and belief. As part of an interest in pursuing immortality by the elites between the 4th and 2nd century BCE, gilt bronze vessels were produced in simulation of gold, since the Han Chinese believed that drinking and eating from gold could prolong life. This could also explain why a large number and variety of gilt bronze vessels were commonly found in Han royal tombs. Many lacquer, ceramic and glass utensils were reproduced in jade for the same reason. Both durable and valuable, jades were mostly imported from outside China from the modern Xinjiang region, reinforcing the eternal ideology and power when using it. In line with the idea that drinking and eating from gold vessels can increase the length of one’s life, alcohol was associated with immortality.
Dr. James C. S. Lin is responsible for the Asian art collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum. He obtained a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Chinese Art History at the University of Oxford and then worked as a research assistant in the Ashmolean Museum between 2000 and 2002. He was employed as a special assistant at the British Museum, helping to set up the Selwyn and Ellie Alleyne Gallery of Chinese Jade between June and November 2002. He then returned to Oxford as the first Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting, at the Khoan and Michael Sullivan Chinese painting gallery at the Ashmolean Museum. In September 2004, he was appointed as the Assistant Keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
- Edward L. Shaughnessy, ‘Western Zhou History’, in The Cambridge History of Ancient China—from the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, ed. Loewe & Shaughnessy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 293
- Jessica M. Rawson, ‘Changing Values of Ancient Chinese Bronzes’, in Ancient Chinese and Ordos Bronzes, ed. Jessica Rawson and Emma Bunker (Hong Kong: The Oriental Ceramic Society 1990), 37-38
- WW 1981.10, pp.14-21.
- Beijing (1973), p.83.
- Recently, a jade cup, jade ear-cup and two jade beakers were excavated from Shizishan, Xuzhou, Jiangsu. See WW 1998.8, pp. 4-33, especially p.17; KG 1998.8, pp.1-20; Beijing (1996e) 3/4, pp.3-13.
- Baopuzi neipian quanyi (Guizhou: Renmin chubanshe, 1980): 282
- 祠灶則致物，致物而丹沙可化為黃金，黃金成以為飲食器則益壽，益壽而海中蓬萊僊者 可見，見之以封禪則不死，黃帝是也。Shi ji :12 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959): 455; also see Shengyu Wang, ‘Cosmology, Fashion, and Good Fortune: Chinese Auspicious Ornament in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220)’ (PhD diss., University of Oxford University, 2020), 199-203
- Mancheng Hanmu fajue baogao 滿城漢墓發掘報告 (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980): vol.1: 43
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