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88. Nutrition in China during 100-200 CE

APR. 3, 2024


Pete and Ryan travel to Han Dynasty China to discover nutrition during 100 to 200 CE. Featuring a pioneering Empress whose humility took her to the top, a Chinese super-fruit, and a peek into one ancient physician’s golden cabinet.

This episode visits the people’s republic of China, a country in East Asia – if you start in Japan and head West, leap over the Koreas and you will hit China. Or start in India and go North. Or start in Russia and go South. In fact it has land borders with fourteen different countries.
China is big. Very big.
It’s the 3rd biggest country by area – after Russia and Canada. That’s 9,596,000 square kilometers, or 3,705,000 square miles making it 1,640% larger than France, in other words you’ll need 17 Frances to make a China.
It’s also, controversially the 2nd most populous. For a long time it held the top spot, since the 1950s at least, but in April 2023 it was overtaken by India. There are still plenty of people though - 1.4 billion people live there. In fact, if we got the entire population of China to take it in turns to listen to a single episode of HHE Podcast, it would take them 159,707 years to finish.
The official language is Standard Chinese which is a standardised version of Mandarin Chinese.
Religion-wise, the country is officially atheist but the constitution does guarantee freedom of religion. Wikipedia tells us Buddhism leads the pack with 33% of the people, 25% profess to no religion, 20% Taoism, 18% other folk beliefs and Christianity and Islam picking up the remaining couple of per cent.
The flag is very distinctive – a red flag, with a large yellow star in the top left or hoist corner, with four smaller yellow stars in an arc just to the right. The red represents communism as you may have guessed but is also a colour associated with the Han people, one of the dominant ethnic groups in China. The big yellow star supposedly represents the communist party, supported by the four little stars of the social classes: the proletariat, the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and the patriotic capitalists.
It was designed by Zeng Liansong (dzung lee en song), described by Wikipedia as a “Chinese supply chain manager and a secret agent of the Chinese Communist Party.” And apparently flag designer -a man of many talents.
The flag’s official debut was when it was raised by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on a pole by Tiananmen Square in Beijing on 1 October 1949.
Now for the Anthem and it is a good one. It’s now called "March of the Volunteers" which is a tightened up version of the original title of the "March of the Anti-Manchukuo Counter-Japan Volunteers."
It was inspired by a rise in nationalism after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.
The Lyrics are by a playwright called Tian Han, and they were written in 1935 although not deliberately with a national anthem in mind but rather were part of a poem and it was set to music by composer Nie Er.
China facts
The first fact is a great pub quiz question – how many time zones does China have? The answer is just one time zone. Although it’s big enough to span five time zones, they’ve decided not to. The whole country is on China Standard Time (CST), despite its great size.
So then I wanted to talk about things that China is famous for and the first one is, er, China.
China is another name for porcelain – china plates and stuff. Porcelain was first made in China and the secret for making it was jealously guarded.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), the Chinese began exporting porcelain to Europeans, which I guess is why the classic ‘expensive antique’ is a Ming vase.
In Europe porcelain became more valuable than gold. Europeans countries sent spies, tried to steal texts about it and even attempted to kidnap people who knew about the process.
In 1710 a German Johann Friedrich Böttger, an alchemist working on the philosopher’s stone, discovered the secret of porcelain manufacture, and founded the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, themselves also keeping the method a secret. But two years later, in 1712, Father Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, a French Jesuit who went around converting Chinese people and then, asking if, you know, they knew how to make porcelain, published a letter detailing what he’d learned, and from there, the china cat was really out of the bag.
That said, it didn’t do Meissen too much harm as they are still making porcelain today
China is also famous for the Great Wall. It’s a big wall, a big, beautiful wall. But it’s not visible from space, that is a popular myth.
It wasn’t built in one go, it was originally a number of walls, so it’s a bit of a ship of Theseus. Some is really old - there’s a section of the really ancient wall in the Shandong province, is made of hard-packed soil that is believed to be 2,500 years old.
It was around 220 B.C.E. when Qin Shi Huang, aka the First Emperor, united China and decided to unite the various walls into one – and it was mostly earth and wood at that time.
And it was the Ming dynasty starting in the 1300s who started to build the platforms and watchtowers that make up the wall as we think of it today.
Depending on how the wall is measured, it stretches somewhere between 4,000 and 5,500 kilometers (2,500 and 3,400 miles). I know that’s difficult to visualise, so instead just imagine 2 million grand pianos end to end.
Next famous Chinese thing - Basketball players
Yao Ming played for the Shanghai Sharks before moving to the NBA to play for the Houston. He was named to the All-NBA Team five times and is seven feet six inches tall.
Other famous Chinese people are plentiful including Confucius, a philosopher from about 500BCE. He is often quoted and just as often attributed with things he did not say, but I believe these are authentic.
 “The journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step.”
 “Silence is a true friend who never betrays.” Although he should probably have also added “but is a terrible for podcasting”
 And "A man who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it is committing another mistake."
Ai Wei Wei is a contemporary artist whose worked included one I saw at the Tate Gallery called Sunflower Seeds, which consisted of one hundred million individually hand-made porcelain sunflower seeds.

Fan Bingbing, an actress who has been in many things but I know for the film X-Men, Days of Future Past where she played Blink. But I only include her in this list so that I can say that I’m a big Fan Bingbing fan.
The final famous Chinese thing I have is Chinese food – as Chinese people have spread around the world they have brought their cooking with them, which I have to say made researching this episode particularly difficult, as every search I did seemed to bring up a selection of Chinese takeaways
History of China.
The Wikipedia entry on this topic says “the history of China spans several millennia across a wide geographical area” so summarising it in a couple of minutes is going to be tricky.
Culture first emerged in the Yellow River valley, which is now considered one of six cradles of civilisation
o Mesopotamia
o Ancient Egypt
o Ancient India
o Ancient china
o Caral-Supe civilization of coastal Peru
o Olmec civilization of Mexico

The Erlitou culture was an early Bronze Age society in the Yellow River valley from approximately 1900 to 1500 BC.
Now at the same time, this period is also said to be start of the first of the Chinese dynasties. Chinese history, as we see, tends to be divided into dynasties much like the Tudors and Stuarts and so on in the UK.
Traditionally said to be the first of these is the Xia dynasty is, which dates from around 2070 until 1600 B.C.E. However, there is some debate as to whether this is a real thing or just a myth that’s come down to us. So some say that the Xia was real and is in fact the same thing as the Erlitou culture whilst others say the Shang dynasty in 1600 B.E is in fact the first real dynasty. Personally, I don’t know what to believe, so do your own research.
In any event, the Shang dynasty stays on top of the heap for a good 600 years, inventing writing in the process. In fact, the earliest surviving written Chinese dates to roughly 1250 BCE.
The Shang dynasty is also sometimes known as a golden age of China, which I thought was impressive until I continued my research and discovered there are over 40 different periods considered golden ages in China.
But nothing lasts forever. In 1,046 BCE. The Shang were overthrown by the first Zhou (joe) king, ending the Shang and starting the Zhou dynasty. The Zhou dynasty was an absolute belter, clocking in 790 years from 1046 to 256 BCE and was characterised by Chinese celebrities including Confucius, who we met earlier.
From 476 to 221 BCE we have what is known as the "Warring States Period." When the seven regions controlled by the Zhou began fighting amongst themselves.
This ended with the armies of the Qin (chin) won out and the Qin dynasty began. In contrast to the 790 years of Zhou rule, this one lasted 15 years but despite that it’s actually kind of the start of a recognisable imperial China. As it expanded into the territories around it it established a substantial beaurocracy, standardising written scripts and weights and measures.
In fact it can be considered the first existence of what we would consider a single China – even giving it the name - from the Qin we get China – although I should note there is some debate about whether this is actually the origin.
And it was even in this period that the iconic terracotta army was created, found at the tomb of the Qin emperor Qin Shi Huang. But when that emperor died, within 2 years the dynasty was over, having been destroyed by revolting regions.
Don’t worry though, soon enough a new power emerged – the Han dynasty.
The Han dynasty lasted from 206 BCE to 220 CE and is considered a Golden Age of China. During this time Confucianism became the official state religion and the Silk Road was established —a route for traders running from Asia to Europe and East Africa— enabling the transfer of goods and ideas right across the continent.

The Han was followed by a period known as the Three Kingdoms, which in turn was followed by a quite brief Sui (sooee) dynasty, who their turn were overthrown by the Tang.
The Tang dynasty stuck around form 618–906 CE is often described as the greatest of the dynasties. In fact, some call it, you guessed it, a golden age, in particular for art and culture.
Then you have the Song Dynasty, followed by Mongol rule under the Yuan dynasty from 1279 until 1368 CE.
They are followed by the Flash Gordon years when China is ruled by the Emperor Ming aka the Ming Dyasty which lasted from 1368 and as we discussed beefed up the Great Wall of China, although clearly not enough as they were defeated in 1644 by the Qing dynasty.
The Qing was a good one, ruling from 1644 to 1911 CE, but the 19th and 20th centuries brought China into increasing conflict with Western powers.
In fact, the whole dynasty thing ended in 1911 when the last of the Chinese emperors, Puyi, stepped down and China became a republic.
The early 20th century is characterised by internecine conflict between Chinese nationalists, the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek and the communist party of Mao Zedong with a short break between 1939 and 1945 for everyone to fight the invading Japanese.
After World War 2 the nationalist vs communist conflict picked up again until 1949 when a victorious Chairman Mao declares victory and establishes the People’s Republic of China.
However, the economics of communism don’t work quite according to plan so Mao declares a plan in 1958 for a “Great Leap Forward” intended to increase in industrial and agricultural production. All land is collectivized and farmers organized into Communes.
This brilliant idea results in one of the largest famines in human history, with an estimated 30 million deaths from starvation.
This is also the period fo the Cold War, when China is aligned with the USSR and not very friendly with the West, which changes a little in 1972 when Richard Nixon visits China to establish relations between China and the United States. Side note, if this event interests you might consider a trip to the Opera, as Nixon in China is also the title and subject of an Opera that premiered in 1987.
1979 sees the introduction of the one child policy in an effort to control population growth .
The 1980s saw economic reforms, freeing up the economy somewhat to private enterprise but also the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of protesting students so it’s not all love and rainbows.
In 1997 China takes control of Hong Kong from the British and in 2008 China hosts the Olympics, in Beijing, with the host nation nabbing 100 medals, 47 of them gold.
And after a modern period of significant economic growth, China’s economy overtook France, the UK, Germany and Japan and in 2010 China became the world’s second largest economy, behind only the United States.
So economically, things are looking up, freedom not so much, with Freedom House .org awarding China a score of 9 out of 100 which it describes with some understatement as ‘not free’ commenting “China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years.”
Still, we wish the people of China all the best for a positive future.

Nutrition in China during 100 to 200CE
Nutrition doesn’t really need defining, but for the record it is “the process of taking in and using food, or the scientific study of this.”
However, the 100 to 200CE time period probably does bear some examination. This is the period of Chinese history known as the Han dynasty, which ran from 206 BCE–220 CE. more specifically it’s the Eastern Han.
The Han dynasty started with the Western Han, so called because the capital was Chang'an which is modern Xi'an. Then there was a bunch of infighting and rebellion, but the empire was restored again by another Han emperor named Liu Xiu.
ON 5 August 25CE, Liu Xiu became Emperor Guangwu of Han and he moved the capital to Louyang, a city of about half a million people located about 400km (250 miles) to the East, thereby starting the Eastern Han dynasty.
It was during the Eastern Han that we find our first story. In 81 AD in Nanyang a girl called Deng Sui was born to a noble family. She was a smart child, allegedly able to read historical texts from the age of six and absorbing the Analects, the writings of Confucius by the age of 12.
When she was 15 she went to the imperial palace, not for a job, or work experience, in fact at 16 became a concubine to the Emperor He, who himself was only 17 years old at the time.
Only 17 years old, but still married - his wife, the Empress Yin, was apparently jealous of this tall, beautiful, smart, humble new arrival. Well, you can hardly blame her.
It was quite a bad case though, when the Emperor was ill, Empress Yin is claimed to have said that if he died, she’d have all of Deng Sui’s family murdered.
Fortunately, the Emperor recovered.
Then in 102CE, Empress Yin and her grandmother were accused of using witchcraft to curse imperial consorts, which is likely to have included Deng Sui. In response, Empress Yin was deposed, and her father committed suicide. The rest of her family was exiled and she didn’t last much longer either, dying later that year.
And guess who was created empress to replace her- Deng Sui.
Although there’s nothing to suggest it, it’s hard not to suspect Deng Sui was behind the whole thing, although the fact that the empress had failed to produce a son may also have had something to do with it.
But true to her humble self, now-Empress Deng refused all the usual tributes asking only for annual gifts of ink and also supplies of a relatively recent invention on the scene – paper. In fact her passion for paper may have been world-changing. By sponsoring the usage of paper in the imperial palace, she is considered to be a key factor in the adoption of paper across the world.
Side note, she was also taught by Ban Zhao, China’s first known female historian.
In 106 CE Deng Sui’s husband, the Emperor He died, but fortunately before he did that he had had two sons by unnamed concubines.
The younger one, who was more healthy despite being only months old, was declared emperor and Deng Sui the Dowager Empress became the regent because apparently not yet one year old is considered too young to rule. That didn’t last long, the new emperor died at eight months old, to be replaced by a relatively elderly 12 year old Emperor – which left Deng still in the role of regent.
Overall as Empress and Regent, Deng Sui would be in power for 16 years and he is generally considered to have done a good job of it.
During her rule time she gave a general amnesty to prisoners, and cut the costs of clothes and food in the palace. She cut down on corruption, even within her own family. But more relevantly to nutrition, during her reign, she supported the development of water conservation and management and improved agricultural production resulting in increased grain production.
What’s more she stepped up when floods devastated the region and Deng Sui is known to have effectively organised disaster relief efforts.
These included tax remissions on famers - nutrition, donations to the poor, and in a direct act of nutrition, she twice opened the imperial granaries to feed the hungry. This responsibility for the nutrition of one’s subjects fits well with Deng’s identify as a Confucian scholar.
The Chinese Confucian philosopher Mencius said “As parents of a subject, when people starve to death, if they say “It’s not my fault, but the bad harvest,” how is that different from saying, “It’s not my fault, but the weapon” when one kills someone with a knife?”
Confucius himself stressed the importance of economic equality to maintain a stable and strong society and his phrase “huan bu jun” can be translated as “worry about the inequality of distribution”, or ‘fear not scarcity, fear inequality’
The analects also say “The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler.”
So nutrition for the people is a key tenet of the Confucian ruler. As a side note, some other things Confucius had to say about food would not look out of place in a modern restaurant review, including, “Eat fresh and local”, “Know the origin of your food,” “Don’t speak while eating,” and, “Meat should be eaten in moderation.”
Anyway, point being, Empress Deng was considered a good ruler in large part due to her ensuring that her people were sufficiently nourished.
Unfortunately it didn’t end so well for her. Rebellions and uprisings rocked the land, and the Han dynasty began to fall apart.
In 121 C.E., Empress Dowager Deng died at the age of 41 and she was buried beside her husband, the Emperor He.
Today Deng Sui is recognised and admired for putting the interests of the nation before herself and is seen as an example of a virtuous and benevolent ruler
Introducing The Jujube
When I was researching for this podcast, obviously I started to think ‘what did people in the Eastern Han dynasty eat’. Obviously, the first candidate is rice, but actually, at this time rice was not common across the country. It was found in the South, but to the North instead of rice you would find the grains proso millet and foxtail millet.
So I didn’t want to talk about rice. But what about noodles?
This was a bit more encouraging, because noodles definitely go that far back. In 2005 at an archaeological site at Laija smack in the middle of modern China, a pot was discovered. Fortunately it had buried upside down with the soil sealing the neck.
And inside they found some thin yellow strands of something that, on closer examination turned out to be strands made of foxtail and proso millet, along with some other grain possibly wheat or barley pressed into noodles.
They were dated to around 4,000 years age, about 2000BC, making them the worlds oldest noodles.
So I thought I was onto something with noodles. In fact The earliest written record of noodles is found in a dictionary dated to the Eastern Han period (25–220 CE). And I discovered that noodles made from wheat dough became a prominent food for the people of the Han dynasty.
Apparently at that time, noodles were referred to as cake, which was a bit of a catch all used for any food made from flour and water. Side note - when noodles were cooked in soup, it was called soup cake, which just sounds incredibly wrong to me.
But then I kind of ran out of road on noodles too – other than to find that people ate them.
Carrots were another dead end – they came late to China, but I am mentioning them now just so I can observe that the Chinese for carrot is ‘barbarian radish’.
But anyway, as I googled again and again, I kept coming across the name of a fruit I had never heard of…. Jujube. It just kept coming up.
The oldest collection of Chinese poems, called Shijing or ‘The Book of Songs’, contains poems written dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BCE and it includes the sentence ‘Jujube fruit picked in August and rice harvested in October’
Then closer to our time, Jujube fruit were found amongst other foods in the tomb of lady Dai, a Han dynasty noble who died in about 168 BCE and whose body was so well preserved an autopsy revealed she suffered from heart problems caused by poor nutrition, in this case a diet too rich in sugars and meats.
And in our time, is the Shennong Bencao Jing (300 BC-200 AD). This is a book that translates rather brilliantly as Shennong's Herbal Classics and it is a record of medicinal herbs and foods.
In this, jujube is listed as one of the superior herbal medicines that are harmless to humans with medicinal benefits, although it’s also worth noting that cannabis is also on this list of "noble" or "upper herbs".
Side note, in Chinese mythology, Shennong is a legendary emperor who supposedly taught humans the use of the plow and other agricultural knowledge, also known as the "Divine Farmer" or "Divine Husbandman" so if it was his book, you knew it was good stuff.
So anyway, clearly this Jujube is a fruit of some importance and relevance not just in our time period and beyond – yet I’d never heard of it yet it turns out the Jujube is something of a superfruit.
Jujube (Ziziphus jujuba), also called the red date or the Chinese date, is one of the oldest cultivated fruit trees in the world and it is still cultivated today. 95% of the jujube is grown in China where it provides the main income source of income for about 20 million farmers.
In fact, it was during the Han dynasty that large scale cultivation of this fruit started in China which included the appointment of special officials to regulate jujube production.
But what makes it so special?
It gets started quick – it can blossom and even bear fruit in its first year and can get up to high yields in just 3–5 yearsIt also buds later in the year than other fruit, which means it avoids late frosts.
It basically prunes itself - fruit-bearing shoots fall off in the autumn and secondary shoots die back year by year. But probably most importantly it’s highly tolerant of drought, infertility and salinity, and doesn’t need a huge amount of water, making it particularly useful for farmers in marginally fertile areas.
And nutritionally it does you good. It’s high in nutrients including vitamin C and B potassium, iron, and zinc and it’s a rich source of polysaccharides, triterpenic acids, flavonoids, alkaloids and polyphenols, which apparently are all good antioxidant things to be getting inside you.
Jujube fruit also has very positive meanings in Chinese culture, such as a sweet life, a flourishing business, fertility, harmony, and happiness.
And therefore it also won’t surprise you to learn it is used extensively in traditional Chinese Medicine,– particularly it’s used to calm the mind, as an aid to sleep, and also to help with constipation.
And it really does – as far as we can tell. According to WebMD the antioxidants, may indeed prevent or delay types of cell damage. And there is some evidence for its sleep-promoting properties.
And as for the relief of constipation, at least one small study found that those who took liquid jujube extract had improved constipation symptoms compared with a placebo.
So you may want to be careful with the amount of jujube that you’re taking on.

You may also want to avoid eating jujube if you take antidepressant drugs like venlafaxine as it may interact with those drugs. Likewise some seizure medications.
If you’re not on those though, and perhaps you’re having trouble sleeping or with other natural functions, perhaps it’s time to get yourself a nice big bag of jujube.
Nutrition in Chinese Medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine, as indeed in modern medicine, it’s difficult to differentiate nutrition and medicine values. So I’m going to include a bit about medicine in the Eastern Han.
At that time, there was a Chinese pharmacologist, physician, inventor, and writer who made a substantial contribution to the development of Traditional Chinese Medicine. His name was Zhang Zhongjing.
He was born in Nanyang in central China and lived roughly from 150 to 219 CE , putting him in our time period.
Not much is known about his life, unfortunately, other than a) he studied medicine and, b) it is said he invented Chinese stuffed dumplings. Supposedly Zhang went to his ancestral village during the winter and he found many of the villagers suffering from frostbite, particularly around their ears. To treat this, he cooked up a batch of mutton, chili and healing herbs and wrapped them in scraps of dough which he folded to look like little ears. He boiled them and handed them out to his afflicted neighbors.
I can’t imagine it did much for the frostbite, but when your prescribed medicine is delicious dumplings, that’s a doctor you’re going to go back to.
Anyway, Zhang wrote his a book covering all the things he’d learned about medicine entitled Jingui Yaolüe which translates rather wonderfully as Essential Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet.
I don’t know why, but although he wrote it during the Eastern Han, apparently it was first published in the Northern Song dynasty. The original is lost to us sadly, and the oldest known copy comes from 1340CE in the early Ming dynasty.
In this book, he makes a clear link between nutrition and health. “Ingredients with a sour taste function on the liver. Scorched and bitter drugs function on the heart and sweet ingredients function on the spleen.” And he also recommends for good health a “moderate diet with bitter, sour, pungent and sweet flavours.”
He also notes, “Diseases of the five viscera have their respective healthful and harmful foods. When a patient eats food he likes he is likely to recover quickly. Or on the other hand when he is given food he dislikes, his disease will be aggravated.” So you can see why he was a popular doctor this Dr Dumpling.
All that said, you are taking a risk going to him, because alongside the ‘tasty foods’ prescription, there is one treatment that jumped out at me where he says one must ‘fumigate the anus’.
And of course in his book I found numerous prescription recipes in the book that called for the use of our friend the jujube fruit.
Throughout the book, balance is an important concept, and this is true in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a whole. Zhang talks about the concept of Yin and Yang which I’m sure you’ve heard of . “Diseases of a Yang nature include headache, pains in the neck, spine arm and referred pain in the foot” and “Diseases of a Yin nature include cough, nausea, abdominal issues, and heart-stroke”, which sounds nasty.
And he also talks about the concepts of heat and cold in the body, which is connected to the Yin and Yang as well as relating to nutrition. Apparently a concept that first appearing in our old friend the Shennong Bencao Jing, is the notion in traditional Chinese medicine of heating and cooling foods.
This doesn’t refer to the actual temperature, but their effects on a person's body, so your goal for a healthy life is to maintain a balance of hot and cold in your body.
Foods that have a warming nature include beef, coffee, ginger, hot chilies and fried foods and cooling foods are things like salad, yoghurt, fruits and beer.
So the idea is that one should maintain a balance of heating and cooling foods in our life and respond to excesses of heat and cold in your body with the opposing foods.
Now you might believe in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or you might be Paul Dersley and be sceptical, but whatever you feel, you have to admit that aiming for a balanced diet is pretty good advice for everyone, from the Eastern Han Dynasty, right through to today.

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