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2,000-Year-Old Meat Cauldrons Star in the Asian Art Museum's Newest Exhibit

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Lidded ancient Chinese food vessel with ornately carved handles.
An ornately carved food vessel from China's Warring States period — approximately 433 BCE. (Hubei Provincial Museum, courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

A wine cooler, a five-pound gold cup and a whole lot of cauldrons are a few of the ancient items you can find at the Asian Art Museum’s new Phoenix Kingdoms exhibit, which is open to the public from April 19 to July 22.

“At the beginning of the exhibit you seem to be going into a crack in time — a time tunnel — transporting you to the ancient world,” museum director Jay Xu said at a recent preview event.

Nicknamed “Hot Pot Time Machine” by associate communications director Zac Rose, the exhibit showcases over 150 artifacts from the Zhou Dynasty, all found in the tombs of the nobility.

Many of the tombs found in modern day Hubei province in central China were waterlogged by lakes and rivers, which will have you thinking, “Looks pretty good for a 2,000-year-old conjoined-pig food container.” Apparently, water submersion — and the absence of oxygen — was just what the doctor ordered for ancient, lacquered wood.

Lidded box in the shape of conjoined pigs, made of laquered wood.
A food container in the shape of conjoined pigs, from China’s Warring States period (approximately 340 BCE). (Jingzhou Municipal Museum, courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

The trove paints a picture of the lives of the rich and powerful in two vassal states known as Chu and Zeng, said museum curator Fan Jeremy Zhang during a tour of the exhibit. The two had an ongoing rivalry during the Warring States period in China, which lasted from around 475 BCE to 221 BCE.


Evidently, the affluent dead in Chu and Zeng kept the party going in the next world with plenty of food and alcohol. According to Zhang, some researchers believe a contributing factor to the fall of the earlier Shang Dynasty was excessive partying and drinking — not from the alcohol, which was pretty low proof in pre-distillation times, but from the lead in the bronze drinking vessels. Not unlike those found throughout the exhibit.

“There are records that their parties lasted for days,” said Zhang.

In the belly of the exhibit, there are rows of wine vessels shaped like gourds, others adorned with dragons, buffalo and phoenixes — a common motif that gives the collection its name. There are food storage containers shaped like ducks and personal-sized cauldrons that would have heated meat-heavy dishes for individual nobles.

Green ancient Chinese wine vessel with dragon carving.
A wine vessel from approximately 1000 BCE, carved to resemble a dragon. (Suizhou Municipal Museum, courtesy of the Asian Art Museum)

Phoenix Kingdoms also features ceremonial musical instruments, weapons, clothing and jade carvings. But the highlights are the ornate cookware, which allows viewers to imagine steaming cauldrons of lamb and condensating vats of chilled wine — which was actually more like millet ale or pre-beer, said Zhang.

The gallery opens through a curtain of floor to ceiling tassels and ends with a broad, orange light panel like a digital sunrise.

“At the end you emerge in the modern world,” museum director Xu said, as we completed the tour. “Where it’s bright and sunny.”

And where you can go in search of more modern hot pot and wine — hold the lead.

Phoenix Kingdoms is on view at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St., San Francisco) from April 19 to July 22.

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