Feasting & Sacrifice in the Chinese Bronze Age

A review of Politics of Food, Feasting and Sacrifice in the Chinese Bronze Age, by Katrinka Reinhart.

An old Chinese saying goes, “people regard food as heaven.” Food, the basis of human survival and development, has long attracted scholarly attention in archaeology. For a long time, archaeological research on food was mainly conducted from a functional and systematic perspective, focusing on its subsistence aspect, ignoring the social and political role of food. In “Politics of Food, Feasting and Sacrifice in the Chinese Bronze Age”, Katrinka Reinhart turns her attention to this overlooked aspect.

This dissertation is divided into seven chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the major themes of the study; chapter 7 summarizes the results and provides an outlook for future directions of research. The main content of this dissertation comprises Chapters 2 through 6. Chapter 2 provides the theoretical framework of the dissertation. Rather than emphasizing subsistence, Reinhart highlights the social and political roles of food by relating it to semiotics, theories of practice, agency and embodiment, social identities and value, as well as power. With respect to the semiotics of food, she points out that “food does not simply reflect cultural meanings and people do not passively emulate food practices, certain aspects of a structuralist approach may be applicable to the Chinese Bronze Age” (p.46).

In regard to practice, agency and embodiment, Reinhardt argues: “Since food is at the center of the mundane rituals of our individual and collective day-to-day lives, food practices are important ways in which people negotiate the social order, both unconsciously and intentionally” (p.47). In regard to cultural identities and value, she states that “people consume food, often together, and interact with associated material culture in particular ways in order to define themselves, reinforce cultural identities, distinguish themselves from others or other groups, and negotiate social status”(p.48). Food also plays an important role in power relations connecting food in the context of ritual feasting—“the communal consumption of food in ritual settings is one of the more important, overt and conspicuous ways that food is used to gain political power” (p.48).

Chapter 3 outlines the background and history of research at the site of Yanshi Shangcheng, Henan Province. The author introduces the geographical setting, chronology of three cultural phases, and layout of Yanshi Shangcheng. There is an ongoing debate surrounding the historical identity of Yanshi Shangcheng in relation to other political centers in the Early Bronze Age, such as Zhengzhou Shangcheng and Erlitou. Based on new radiocarbon dates, Reinhart suggests that “occupation at Zhengzhou does not date as far back as the beginning of the Shang with occupation beginning at a date later than Yanshi” (p. 63).

Chapters 4 and 5 contain the majority of the data presented in this dissertation. The author compares two ceramic assemblages from different social contexts. One assemblage, representing elites, stems from a ritual deposit in the royal palace (palace temple site). The other, representing common people, is from a workshop in a lower-class residential area (Area IV). Reinhart examines the quantitative differences between both assemblages. She investigates three components of ceramic analysis, pottery assemblage composition, vessel size and construction, and material and manufacture. Chapter 4 presents the results of her analysis of ceramic forms and pottery assemblage composition.

In regard to pottery assemblage composition, large vessel types such as Pen (basin, 盆), Da Guan(large jar, 大罐) and Weng(urn, 瓮) are more common in the palace context than in Area IV. These vessels are always used in serving, storage, and processing of food. Reinhart argues that “this is suggestive of a difference in social settings at meals and a difference in foodways possibly reflecting feasting in the Palace compared with smaller-scale meals in Area IV”(p.109). In regard to vessel size and construction as represented by rim diameter and wall thickness, her analysis suggests that the pottery in the Palace is larger than that used in Area IV. The author suggests that larger pottery may indicate that a “larger group of people were being fed” (p.142), e.g., during feasts.

Chapter 5 presents the result of her analysis of ceramic material composition and details of pottery manufacture. While the material compositions of pottery in the two contexts is not significantly different, differences in manufacture method exist between the Palace and Area IV assemblages. The Palace pottery assemblage has various signatures that indicate higher firing temperatures and a longer firing duration for the ceramics found in the Palace context. However, these differences may be due to any number of reasons: “Differences in the social setting of manufacture, the materials, and the manufacturing techniques may involve different practices and different decision making processes in the chaîne d’opératoire” (p.198).

The statistical techniques Reinhart applies in Chapter 4 and 5 provide compelling evidence to support her argument. She employs a variety of numeric techniques and graphic displays, including histograms, Kernel Density diagrams (KDE), and box plots to visualize key characteristics of the two ceramic assemblages. To quantitatively identify the differences between the two ceramic assemblages, she uses a synthesis of parametric and non-parametric significance tests, including chi-square test, t-test, Kolmogorov-Smirnov (K-S) test, and Wilcoxon Rank Sum test. Reinhart clearly understands the potential inaccuracies resulting from small expected numbers in contingency tables and reasonably adopts Monte-Carlo method to avoid the possible biases, revealing the author’s solid knowledge of statistics.

Chapter 6 contains the interpretation of the results of the ceramic analysis explained in detail in the previous two chapters. Reinhart bases her interpretation of the data on the theoretical literature discussed in Chapter 2. In addition to the archaeological evidence at Yanshi Shangcheng, early historic documents from the Late Shang oracle-bones, bronze vessel inscriptions, and transmitted texts of the early historic period are collected to underscore the importance of food and feasting for the negotiation of political power and embodiment of cultural identity. Both archaeological and historical lines of evidence suggest that “participation in ritual feasting banquets—restricted to the temple site—would have served to foster cohesion of the elite participants while simultaneously separating them from the lower echelons of society”(p.233); on the other hand, “simultaneous to this process of differentiation, however, was the unification of all strata under the common ‘Shang’ identity with the use of gray cord-marked and incised pottery in across domains”(p.233).

Katrinka Reinhart’s dissertation is a great contribution to research on food and feasting in Chinese archaeology theoretically and methodologically. On the aspect of theory, it provides a solid basis for archaeologists to consider the role of food beyond mere subsistence: Reinhart cogently show that food is an essential aspect of social systems, and differential access to food intensifies social inequality, negotiates political power, and manifests cultural identity. On the aspect of methodology, the ceramic analysis, particularly the use of statistical techniques, makes the dissertation an essential study for those interested in quantitative archaeology.

Zhen Qin
Department of Anthropology
Washington University in St. Louis

Primary Sources

Archaeological data from Yanshi Shangcheng

Dissertation Information

Department of Anthropology, Stanford University. 572 pp. June 2011. Primary Advisors: Ian Hodder.

Image: Photograph by Katrinka Reinhart, pots excavated from the early Shang dynasty settlement of Yanshi Shangcheng located in Yanshi, Luoyang, Henan, China.

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