Monday, June 27, 2016

Lord of the Dings

Hi guys, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor: the Show where I Say Things. Today I have something cool to show you. It’s really a cultural treasure, and I’m super excited to become a participant in this ancient tradition. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting: the one ding, to rule them all.


So as I say, this is what’s called a ding. It might just look like an extremely ornate thing to eat cereal out of, but bear with me, because it’s a lot more than that. I got it a few weeks ago in Taiwan and it’s probably the most awesome souvenir that I’ve ever picked up from a trip. So today I’d like to talk about the ding and its enormous significance in Chinese culture.

Dings are ceremonial cauldrons that were used in ancient times to hold offerings of food and alcohol. The offerings were made either to one’s ancestors or to nature deities. Dings are present from the very earliest stages of Chinese cultural development. The very earliest ceramic dings date from the neolithic Cishan and Yangshao cultures that existed between eight and five thousand years ago: 

This culture appears, by way of the related Longshan culture, to be ancestral to the second-millennium-BC Erlitou culture, which is a strong candidate for in fact being the legendary Xia, the first royal dynasty mentioned in ancient Chinese histories. The ding, therefore, is a symbol of a staggering seven thousand years of continuous cultural, and very possibly linguistic, heritage. The language of the Shang dynasty, which succeeded the Xia, was unquestionably Chinese. The Shang dynasty was the heir of the Erlitou culture, which followed Longshan, which followed Yangshao. It seems not entirely unreasonable, therefore, to hypothesize that the language of the Yangshao people—makers of the first Dings—may be ancestral, or at least related, to modern Chinese!

It gives me chills to look at these very early Yangshao or Erlitou dings and think about the people who made them. I like to imagine their voices, and the words they might have used. It’s a heritage that I’ve become a part of, too, and I think a symbol of that continuity is this beautiful ding!

So, dings were a big deal in ancient China. So much so that as soon as bronze began to be used, huge amounts of the stuff were cast into dings—very telling, considering how valuable bronze would have been at this time.

Gradually, dings outgrew a purely ceremonial role and came to be symbols of power, wealth and prestige. How much of a badass you were in ancient China was directly proportional to the number—and size—of your dings.

The textbook example of dings being serious business is that of Da Yu, one of the biggest badasses in all of Chinese history. He’s a kind of Chinese King Arthur figure. He’s so badass that he, in an effort to control the flooded Yangtze, took a magic battle ax and cleaved open the mountains to form the famous Three Gorges. Or so the legend goes. My man Yu would also go on to found the Xia, which, remember, is the first Chinese dynasty mentioned by ancient sources.

So Yu was what you’d call an honest to goodness badass...and consequently, he was very well-endowed in the ding department. He had not one, not two, but nine big, beautiful bronze dings! Knowing that nine was just too much ding for one man to handle, he distributed them among his vassal lords. From that day on, the dings became the Dragon Balls of ancient China. It was every badass’s quest to bring all nine back together. Two thousand years later, the wicked emperor Qin Shi Huang actually managed to do it—but before he could wish Goku back from the dead the nine great dings mysteriously vanished. No one knows for sure what happened. Some say they were stolen by loyalists to the previous dynasty. Others say they fell into the Yangtze river and were swept away by the current. I prefer the latter—the dings were retaken by the very river that Da Yu had tamed. Perhaps even Da Yu’s vengeful spirit was involved—reclaiming the dings as a sign of his displeasure with the tyrannical Qin Shi Huang.

All this, of course, is probably just a story...but part of me wants to believe that somewhere in the vastness of China, in some undiscovered tomb or ancient riverbed, the nine dings are still there, waiting to be discovered by the next big hero.

But, that said, I at least am not that hero. I am a humble scholar, which according to ancient Chinese law entitles me to just one ding. Although my ding is an unorthodox ding, since it’s made of cast iron rather than bronze. It also has these cool nine dragons on it, which is cool because Da Yu seems to have liked both the number nine and dragons. So I’d like to think that if I went back in time and met my bro Da Yu, he’d think me and my ding were pretty cool. Maybe he’d be so impressed that he’d make me his royal historical linguist, and I could spend my days putting together an Old Chinese etymological dictionary that would make even Edwin Pulleybank come back to life and give me a high five.

It’s fun to dream.

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