The history of hot pot in China

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :March 5, 2021


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The second season of Pot of Fire, a popular documentary, was released lately, presenting viewers hot pots from different places in China. The variety of food materials for hot pots in the show is truly eye-opening, even for hot pot lovers.

The second season of Pot of Fire 
So, when did hot pot come into being in China? How did Chinese ancestors enjoy the delicacy? Now let's travel back to ancient China to explore the development of hot pot.

Created by Chinese in the Neolithic Age over 4,000 years ago, hot pot was originally heated up in certain types of vessels, such as double-deck pottery 'ding' as shown in the picture below. Ancient Chinese might ignite fire in the lower layer and cook the food on the top.
Four-footed square pottery ding, Neolithic Age
While hot pot was fairly primitive during the Neolithic Age, pot-for-one—Wen ding—emerged in the Shang and Zhou dynasties. With a height of some 10 centimeters, the utensil was designed with air holes and an extra "gate" for changing charcoal fire. Yet at that time, hot pot was exclusive to nobles and the wealthy.

Wen ding belonged to a marquis of Jin State, Western Zhou Dynasty, housed in Shanxi Museum
Not until the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring State Period (475-221 BC) did hot pot become accessible to the grassroots. But the containers at that time were too small to fill more than one kind of broth.

A bronze ding with soup residues was unearthed from an ancient tomb of the Warring States Period in Xi'an, Shaanxi province in 2010.

One may be astonished to know that multiple-flavor hot pot, a cuisine popular amongst foodies today, had already emerged in the Han Dynasty. 

A proof to it was a 'ding' found in the tomb of Liu Fei, who died in 128 BC after a rule of 26 years over the kingdom of Jiangdu during the Western Han Dynasty, at Yunshan Village of Xuyi County, Jiangsu province. Just like what was recorded in Sanguo Zhi (《三国志》), or Records of the Three Kingdoms, different types of ingredients were found soaked in a pair of utensils without tainting each other as the container was split into five grids.

Multiple-flavor pot of the Western Han Dynasty discovered in the tomb of Liu Fei

Gourmands of the Han Dynasty even learned to treat themselves to hot pot with dipping sauce by inventing paired utensils comprising of a pot and a stove. The sauce was placed in a pot while being heated up on top of a stove. Eating hot pot with dip is also a common habit today.

 A pair of utensils comprising of a stove and a pot for holding and heating dip, unearthed from the tomb of Haihun Hou, or Marquis Haihun, who was briefly emperor during the Western Han Dynasty

Bronze ware shaped like hot pot, unearthed from the tomb of Haihun Hou, Western Han Dynasty
In the Tang Dynasty, enjoying hot pot became a fashion among the rich. Such kind of dietary habit was also mentioned in one of the poems written by Bai Juyi, a renowned poet in his time, as he described "a small stove made of charcoal clay" being heated, in a similar way as hot pot, to keep the brewed liquor warm.

Tang tri-color glazed ceramic pot, housed in Chongqing Hot Pot Feast Museum
During the Song Dynasty, on the first day of the 10th lunar month each year, people would celebrate the coming of winter by sitting around a hot pot to enjoy meat and brewed liquor. This can be found recorded in Dong Jing Meng Hua Lu (《东京梦华录》), or Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital, written by 12th-century gourmand Meng Yuanlao.

When on earth did people start to sit around a hot pot, eating while cooking the food materials? A mural uncovered on an ancient tomb of the Liao Dynasty in North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 1984 may give us some clues.

On the mural, three Khitan people sat in front of a tripodic pot, and one of them was fiddling with the ingredients in the hot pot. Next to the pot was another three-legged container filled with prepared meat and other food materials, along with two small bowls for holding seasonings on the table aside. What a vivid scene of the Khitan people enjoying hot pot over 1,000 years ago!

A scene of several people having hot pot was found on a mural depicting life of the Khitan people in the Liao Dynasty. Discovered in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region in 1984, the scene was the earliest one of its kind in China.

In the Ming Dynasty, hot pot developed with the escalating importance of health maintenance. In a book about wellness written by Song Xu, an agronomist and food researcher in the Ming Dynasty, two ways of instant-boiling beef in a hot pot were listed, one of which was cutting the meat into slices and marinating it with brewed liquor, sauce and huajiao (or Sichuan pepper, the dried, rust-colored berries of a type of spiky shrub native to parts of western China) before instant-boiling it in the pot.

Silver pot produced during the reign of Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398) in the Ming Dynasty
Starting from the Qing Dynasty, hot pot boomed nationwide as it was highly sought-after by both emperors and commoners. Pots made with a variety of materials, such as ceramics, silver, gilded silver, bronze and iron, were widely used.

It's said that all emperors in the Qing Dynasty were enthusiasts for hot pot, especially Emperor Qianlong, who asked the chefs to serve hot pot in almost every meal, but with diverse food materials, undoubtedly. In a span of one month from lunar August 16, 1779, a total of 23 kinds of hot pots, with chicken, duck, mutton and other meat and various kinds of vegetables, had been served 66 times altogether in the emperor's meals.
Square pot made of tin, Qing Dynasty

Silver lidded pot used by the Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty, housed in the Palace Museum

Cloisonne pot with patterns of cluster flowers, late Qing Dynasty
One fact should not be neglected. Chili had not been introduced to China via the sea routes until the late Ming Dynasty. Thus cornel and mustard were served as spicy condiment for hot pot instead, from which piquancy could be extracted.
 Through all ages, Chinese people's love for hot pot never ceases. The culture has been passed down from generation to generation, carrying people's memory and wishes of family and friends sitting around the table in times of reunion.