Seasoning a Stew with Sour Prunes


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Tiao Mei He Geng 调梅和羹’ is a metaphor that likens the art of governing a country to the adequate seasoning of a stew with salt and sour prunes. The scene is often made up of a group of women or men surrounding a stove, on which a cauldron of food is being cooked, with an assistant holding a container with sour prunes.

In the Commentary of Zuo (左传 Zuo Zhuan), one of the oldest Chinese history books, written during the 4th century BCE, there is a famous passage in which the right method of preparing a perfectly seasoned stew is linked to the proper way of maintaining a harmonious relationship between the lord and his vassal. The statesman Yan Ying (晏婴 578–500 BCE) says to the Duke Jing of Qi (齐景公 Qi Jinggong, r. 547–490 BCE): ‘The cook blends the ingredients and balances them according to the right taste, adding whatever is lacking and negating whatever is excessive (宰夫和之,齐之以味;济其不及,以泄其过).’

From then on, the phrase 和羹 hegeng, ‘seasoning the stew’, or 调梅 tiaomei, ‘seasoning the stew with sour prunes’, or 调鼎 tiaoding, ‘seasoning the food in the cauldron’, has been widely used to refer to the business of ‘governing the country’, or, specifically, ‘serving as the prime minister to the emperor’.

This classic pictorial allusion depicted in the centre of the Kangxi plates in the collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art was first unveiled by Dr Yibin Ni. His research article on this topic is available here.

Examples of governors with good reputation:

Chen Ping Dividing Meat 陈平分肉

Bing Ji Inquiring about a Panting Buffalo 丙吉问牛喘

The Boot-Swapping Ceremony for the Departing Governor 民赞清官留旧靴


Fig 1: Seasoning the Stew with Sour Prunes, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, Chen Hongshou (陈洪绶 1598–1652), 1650, courtesy of Guangdong Museum, China

Fig 2-3: a pair of famille verte plates, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum

Fig 4: porcelain plate painted with overglaze polychrome enamels, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Fig 5: Seasoning the Stew, album leaf, ink and colour on paper, Chen Yin (陈尹, 17th century), private collection

Fig 6-7: porcelain lidded jar with underglaze blue decoration, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of Corsham Court Collection. Photograph provided by its custodian.

Fig 8-9: a pair of porcelain lidded jar with underglaze blue decoration, Kangxi period (1662–1722), Qing dynasty, courtesy of IL Ponte Casa D’Aste Auction House, Milan, Italy, 21 May 2019, Auction 451, Lot 147

Fig 10: album leaf, Tiao Geng Tu, ink and colour on paper, Zhou Yi (周怡, active in Qing dynasty), courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing, China

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