Moonshine and Millet: Feasting and Purification Rituals in Ancient China

  • Constance A. Cook


The social role of food in Bronze Age China (the first two millennia BCE) is defined both by the relationship of a person to the supernatural and by the control of the bronze industry to produce vessels for sacrifice. Food production and human fertility were seen as gifts from Heaven—the realm of the High God and their ancestors. The descendants returned the gifts through sacrifices. The “cuisine of sacrifice” in ancient China united all generations of a family—dead, living,and unborn—into a whole, a community built on a continuous exchange of food and gifts throughout time. The living fed their ancestors, who in turn blessed their descendants with food and children. This cycle of nurturing between the natural and supernatural worlds was maintained through a mortuary feast system tied to a hierarchy of lineages. As far as we can tell from material cultural remains and paleographic records, the system peaked during the Late Shang (1200–1046 BCE) up through the Western Zhou (1046–771 BCE) periods. After that, the effect of multiple competing lineages during the Spring and Autumn (770–476 BCE) and Warring States periods (475–221 BcE) forced localization of the system and numerous changes in the relationship of an individual to the divine.1 Lineage hierarchies had broken down and cults of disenfranchised elite men recreated the terms of the relationship as well as the image of the supernatural as peopled only with ancestral spirits.


Water Buffalo Water Chestnut Warring States Period Ancestral Spirit Bronze Vessel 
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© Roel Sterckx 2005

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  • Constance A. Cook

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