What Is Ancient China Mortar And Pestle?

You can crush, grind, and mix just about anything with a mortar and pestle. An ordinary mortar is a bowl-shaped container made of stone, ceramic, or metal. Heavy and blunt, the pestle is used to crush or grind whatever is in the mortar. The ancient Chinese relied heavily on mortar and pestle for a wide range of tasks, from cooking to making herbal remedies.

What is a mortar and pestle?

To grind, crush, or mix ingredients, use a mortar and pestle in the kitchen. The mortar is the bowl-shaped container made of stone, ceramic, or metal, and the pestle is the heavy, blunt instrument used to grind or crush the substance in the mortar. When used together, the two parts of a grinding set reduce the material being ground to a uniformly fine powder.

The mortar and pestle were indispensable in prehistoric kitchens, as well as for the preparation of traditional medicines and even ancient cosmetics. Stone mortars and pestles, used for milling herbs and spices, have their origins in ancient Egypt and Greece. Pigments for paints and cosmetics were also made from them.

Who invented the mortar and pestle?

With the mortar and pestle’s long history of use, it’s hard to pinpoint one person or culture as the source of the idea for the tool’s creation. Ancient cultures like the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese all used mortar and pestles, which have been around since prehistoric times. The use of a mortar and pestle is so ancient that it predates written history; it was likely developed independently by various cultures. Instead, it’s more likely that various cultures around the world independently developed the mortar and pestle as a useful tool for cooking, medicine, and other purposes. Culture after culture has contributed to its development and improvement, and it is now a global standard.

Do Chinese use mortar and pestle?

The use of a mortar and pestle has a long and rich history in China, dating back thousands of years. Mortar and pestle were used in a variety of applications, from food preparation to medicine to art. In traditional Chinese medicine, the use of a mortar and pestle was particularly important, as practitioners used them to grind herbs and other medicinal substances into fine powders. The ground herbs could then be mixed with other ingredients to create various remedies and treatments.

In Chinese cooking, mortar and pestle are commonly used to grind spices, herbs, and grains, particularly for dishes that require a more coarse or uneven texture. For example, the Sichuanese dish mapo tofu often requires grinding Sichuan peppercorns into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle, which enhances the dish’s flavor and texture. Similarly, in Northern China, a mortar and pestle are often used to grind grains such as rice or millet to make dumplings and other traditional dishes.

Mortar and pestle are also used in Chinese art and calligraphy. The ink used for calligraphy is traditionally made by grinding an ink stick on a stone mortar with water to create a smooth, even ink. The grinding process is said to release the ink’s fragrance and improve its quality, resulting in more beautiful and expressive calligraphy.

In addition to its practical applications, the mortar and pestle have also been a symbol of wealth and status in Chinese history. The use of expensive materials like jade and gold to make mortar and pestle was a way for wealthy individuals to display their wealth and power. Some elaborate mortar and pestle sets were even decorated with intricate designs and motifs, such as dragons or floral patterns.

What is a Chinese mortar and pestle made of?

Depending on the context, a Chinese mortar and pestle may be made of ceramic, wood, metal, or stone. Mortar and pestles in TCM are typically made of ceramic or stone, while mortar and pestles in the kitchen can be made of anything from wood to granite or marble.

In traditional Chinese medicine, it is common practice to use a ceramic mortar and pestle, typically one made of porcelain or another high-fired ceramic. These materials were selected because of their longevity, inertness to common herbal remedies, and maintenance friendliness. Traditional Chinese motifs, like dragons or floral patterns, are often glazed or painted onto ceramic mortars and pestles.

Chinese medicine has long made use of stone tools such as mortars and pestles. Granite, marble, and basalt are all viable options for these kinds of uses because they are long-lasting and difficult to chip or crack. Depending on the design and level of detail desired, stone mortars and pestles can be carved either manually or mechanically.

Traditional Chinese cuisine makes frequent use of wooden mortars and pestles for the fine grinding of spices and herbs. Hardwoods such as teak and olive are commonly used because of their durability and resilience. The bowl of a wooden mortar and pestle is typically wide and deep, making it easy to grind a variety of materials.

Commercial kitchens in China are increasingly using mortar and pestles made of modern materials like stainless steel or plastic. These materials can be lighter and cheaper than more conventional ones like stone or wood, and they are also easier to clean.

What is a Chinese mortar and pestle used for?

Chinese mortar and pestle have a variety of uses, both in traditional medicine and in cooking. Here are some of the most common uses:

  • Traditional Chinese medicine: In Chinese medicine, a mortar and pestle are used to grind herbs and other medicinal substances into a fine powder. The powder can then be mixed with other ingredients to create various remedies and treatments.
  • Cooking: In Chinese cooking, a mortar and pestle are commonly used to grind spices, herbs, and grains. This can help to enhance the flavors and textures of dishes, particularly for recipes that require a more coarse or uneven texture.
  • Ink-making: In traditional Chinese art and calligraphy, a mortar and pestle are used to grind ink sticks into a fine powder, which can then be mixed with water to create a smooth, even ink for writing or painting.
  • Grain grinding: In Northern China, a mortar and pestle are often used to grind grains like rice or millet into a fine powder, which can then be used to make dumplings and other traditional dishes.
  • Symbolism: In addition to their practical uses, mortar and pestle have also been a symbol of wealth and status in Chinese history. Some elaborate mortar and pestle sets were even decorated with intricate designs and motifs, such as dragons or floral patterns, and made from expensive materials like jade or gold.

Overall, the use of a mortar and pestle in Chinese culture is varied and deeply rooted in tradition, reflecting the importance of finely ground ingredients in both medicine and cooking as well as the cultural value placed on craftsmanship and beauty.

What type of Chinese mortar and pestle

There is a wide range of types, materials, and sizes of Chinese mortars and pestles because each one serves a different purpose. Some of the most common kinds of Chinese pestles and mortars are as follows:

  • The ceramic mortar and pestle is a classic tool of traditional Chinese medicine; it is typically crafted from porcelain or another type of highly fired ceramic. These components last a long time, don’t react with natural medicines, and are simple to maintain.
  • Another classic Chinese medicine mortar and pestle set is fashioned from hard stones like granite, marble, or basalt. Extremely tough and not easily damaged by chips or cracks, these materials are a great investment.
  • Wooden mortar and pestle: used frequently in Chinese cuisine for grinding spices and herbs, these are typically crafted from dense hardwoods such as teak or olive, making them durable and long-lasting. For efficient grinding, a wooden mortar and pestle may be large and stout, with a wide bowl and a deep pestle.
  • The granite mortar and pestle is a common cooking tool in Chinese households. These are perfect for grinding spices and herbs because they are long-lasting, substantial, and not easily chipped or cracked.
  • Marble mortar and pestle: These are also used for grinding spices and herbs in Chinese cooking, but are made from solid marble rather than granite. With their smooth, polished surfaces, marble mortar and pestles are not only functional but also attractive.
  • Modern commercial kitchens and restaurants often use stainless steel mortars and pestles for grinding spices and herbs. Because of their low weight, long lifespan, and low maintenance requirements, stainless steel mortar and pestles are widely used in modern kitchens.

ancient Chinese mortar and pestle history

Origins of the mortar and pestle in ancient China: The mortar and pestle have been used for thousands of years across many cultures as a tool for grinding and crushing various substances. The mortar and pestle served multiple purposes in ancient China, including medicinal preparations and the preparation of food by grinding various ingredients.

In China, the mortar and pestle have been used since the Neolithic era, around 5000 BCE. It appears that ancient Chinese people ground their food with stone mortars and pestles. Bronze mortars and pestles were used to grind medicinal ingredients during the Shang dynasty (1600 BCE–1046 BCE).

The mortar and pestle were widely used in the preparation of traditional Chinese medicine during the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). Herbs, minerals, and even animal parts were ground with a pestle and mortar to create powders and pills for medicinal use.

The mortar and pestle underwent a series of design changes over time. Mortars and pestles made of porcelain, jade, and other materials became popular during the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE). Because of the use of these materials, grinding became more precise, and the healing qualities of the substances ground were not lost in the process.

Who invented the Chinese mortar and pestle?

Although the mortar and pestle have been used for thousands of years in China, their exact origins are unknown. However, the pestle and mortar were supposedly invented by the legendary figure Fuxi in Chinese mythology. There is widespread belief that an ancient Chinese inventor named Fuxi created the Chinese writing system, among other innovations.

Yongfu, a servant of the Yellow Emperor, is credited in another legend with the invention of the pestle and mortar. Legend has it that Yongfu created the pestle and mortar so that the Yellow Emperor, an ancient Chinese emperor, could easily grind his grains and other foods.

Traditional Chinese building methods, known as “banzhu,” involve pounding soil to create walls or foundations, and the pestle plays an important role in this process. For this reason, ancient soldiers adopted the pestle for their arsenal. So soldiers started carrying around pestles as weapons. The Wujing Zongyao, a Song dynasty military treatise, includes a description of the pestle club. The pestle club was widely employed during the time of heavily armored cavalry because of its devastating power and its ability to penetrate even the thickest of armor. Wang Gui is just one of many courageous men throughout history who rose to prominence while wielding an iron pestle.

The Development and Evolution of Mortar and Pestle in Ancient China

wood Chinese mortar and pestle

The mortar and pestle have a long and rich history in ancient China and have undergone significant development and evolution over time.

The use of mortars and pestles in China dates back to the Neolithic period, around 5000 BCE. Early Chinese people used stone mortars and pestles to grind grains and seeds.

During the Shang dynasty (1600 BCE–1046 BCE), bronze mortars and pestles were used for grinding medicinal substances. These were often elaborately decorated with inscriptions and designs, indicating their important status as tools used in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.

The mortar and pestle became an essential tool for preparing traditional Chinese medicine during the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). They were used to grind various substances, including herbs, minerals, and animal parts, to make medicinal powders and pills.

By the Tang dynasty (618 CE–907 CE), mortars and pestles made of porcelain, jade, and other materials became popular. The use of these materials improved the precision of grinding and helped preserve the medicinal properties of the substances being ground.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE), porcelain mortars and pestles became increasingly common. These were often highly decorated with intricate designs, reflecting the aesthetic sensibilities of the time. The use of porcelain also made the tools more hygienic and easier to clean, an important consideration in the practice of medicine.

The use of mortars and pestles continued to evolve over time. During the Ming dynasty (1368 CE–1644), stone mortars and pestles came back into fashion, as they were believed to be more effective for grinding certain substances. In modern times, mortars and pestles made of materials such as stainless steel and glass are also commonly used in Chinese medicine and cooking.

Chinese mortar and pestle symbolism in Chinese culture

Throughout their many centuries of use, the mortar and pestle have represented vital aspects of Chinese culture. Here are some instances where these implements have significant meaning in Chinese culture:

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) relies heavily on powders, pills, and other preparations made from grinding herbs and other medicinal substances using a mortar and pestle. Some believed that by doing this, the substances’ healing properties would be unlocked, increasing their utility in the fight against disease. The traditional use of a mortar and pestle in the medical profession is symbolic of health and healing.

The mortar and pestle is an essential tool in Chinese cuisine, where it is used to grind spices and other ingredients to add depth of flavor to the finished dish. In order to make tasty and nutritious meals, the process of grinding ingredients is considered crucial. In the kitchen, the mortar and pestle represent the value of persistence and diligence.

The mortar and pestle have also played an important role in religious ceremonies across the religious spectrum in China. They served a religious purpose by being placed on altars and used to grind incense and other offerings. The ritual use of a pestle and mortar represents the significance of cleansing and purification in religious rituals.

The mortar and pestle is a symbol of family tradition and heritage in some Chinese families. They stand for the significance of maintaining long-standing cultural norms and upholding family traditions.

Chinese mortar and pestle story

杵臼之交  A friend with a pestle and mortar

During the Eastern Han Dynasty, there was a man named Gongsun Mu who was very passionate about learning and always tried every possible way to seize opportunities to study. At that time, many people praised him as a diligent learner.

Gongsun Mu had already read many books while attending a local school. After finishing his studies at the local school, he still wanted to continue learning and expanding his knowledge. However, he felt that self-study alone was not enough, so he thought of going to a higher-level school, the Imperial Academy, to further his education. Unfortunately, attending the Imperial Academy required a large amount of tuition fees, and living expenses at the school were also very expensive. Gongsun Mu’s family was very poor and could not afford the extra money for him to continue his education at the Imperial Academy. Gongsun Mu looked at the huge expenses and sighed, temporarily giving up the idea of furthering his education.

At that time, there was a wealthy businessman named Wu Yu who was very understanding and sincere. One day, he needed to hire a group of rice-pounders, so he spread the news. Gongsun Mu accidentally heard this news and became very excited, thinking that he could earn some money to continue his studies. Although being a rice-pounder was considered a lowly job in society at the time, Gongsun Mu disregarded this discrimination. He dressed in a short shirt and shorts, looking like a laborer, and went to apply for the job.

One day, Wu Yu came to check the progress of the rice-pounding work. He walked around and finally stopped beside Gongsun Mu. Gongsun Mu was working hard, sweating profusely, and didn’t notice Wu Yu standing next to him, still pounding the rice.

Wu Yu watched Gongsun Mu’s rice-pounding movements and felt that he was not skilled enough and had relatively weak physical strength, not like a rice-pounder. He asked Gongsun Mu, “Young man, why did you come here to work for me?” Without thinking, Gongsun Mu replied, “I came here to earn money to continue my studies!” Wu Yu said, “So you are a scholar; no wonder you look refined and not like a worker. Stop working for a while, take a break, and let’s chat!” Wu Yu and Gongsun Mu talked very well and hit it off. Later, the two became close friends.

Wu Yu did not look down on Gongsun Mu because of his poverty. Instead, he became good friends with him. This spirit of not judging people by their material possessions is very valuable. In life, we should not judge our friends based on their social status or wealth, but rather value their qualities and talents.

铁杵成针 An iron pestle can be ground down to a needle.

Li Bai, a great poet of the Tang Dynasty, was very playful when he was young and did not like to study. In order to make him successful, his father sent him to school to study, but the books on history and philosophy were very difficult for Li Bai to learn, and he became even more unwilling to study. Sometimes he even sneaked out of school to play.

One day, Li Bai skipped school and went to play by a small river. Suddenly, he saw an old woman with white hair squatting beside a grindstone by the river, grinding an iron pestle one stroke at a time.

Curious, Li Bai approached the old woman and asked, “Grandma, what are you doing?” “I’m grinding a needle,” the old woman replied without looking up, grinding away at the iron pestle.

“Grinding a needle! With such a thick iron pestle, how long will it take to grind it into a fine embroidery needle?” Li Bai blurted out. At that moment, the old woman looked up, stopped her work, and kindly said to Li Bai, “Child, although the iron pestle is thick, it cannot withstand my daily grinding. Drops of water can wear away a stone. Can’t an iron pestle also be ground into a needle?”

Li Bai was moved by the old woman’s words. He thought to himself, “Yes, as long as you have perseverance, are not afraid of difficulties, and persist every day, you can do anything well. Isn’t reading also the same?” Li Bai turned around and ran back to school.

From then on, he studied hard, reading poetry, essays, and the works of various philosophers from different dynasties. He finally became a famous poet.

Jade Rabbit Tamping Medicine In Chinese Mythology

The Jade Rabbit Tamping Medicine (玉兔捣药), also known as “Pounding Medicine” or “Grinding Medicine” is a well-known Chinese legend that dates back to ancient times. According to the legend, there was once a jade rabbit living on the moon who was tasked with making medicine for the Queen Mother of the West.

The story goes that the jade rabbit would grind and pound herbs and other medicinal ingredients with a mortar and pestle, and then mix them together to create a special elixir. The medicine that the rabbit made was said to have powerful healing properties and was highly prized by the gods.

In some versions of the legend, the jade rabbit is said to have lived in the moon palace along with the moon goddess Chang’e, who was also tasked with making medicine for the gods. In these versions, the rabbit and the goddess would work together to create their magical medicines.

The Jade Rabbit Tamping Medicine is a beloved legend in Chinese culture, and has been depicted in numerous works of art, including paintings, sculptures, and folk crafts. The legend is often associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, a traditional Chinese holiday that celebrates the harvest moon and the reunion of family and friends. During the festival, it is common to eat mooncakes, which are round pastries with various fillings that are said to represent the moon, and to admire the full moon while thinking about the legend of the jade rabbit pounding medicine.

How to use the ancient Chinese mortar and pestle

The ancient Chinese mortar and pestle, also known as a stone mill, was commonly used for grinding grains, herbs, and other materials. Here are the steps to using it:

  • Place the mortar on a stable surface, such as a table or countertop.
  • Add the material you want to grind into the mortar. It’s best to add small amounts at a time to avoid overloading the mortar.
  • Hold the pestle with both hands and place the bottom end into the mortar.
  • Begin grinding the material by moving the pestle in a circular motion around the mortar. Apply firm pressure and use your arms and shoulders to move the pestle.
  • Continue grinding until the material is finely ground or reaches the desired consistency.
  • Use a spoon or spatula to remove the ground material from the mortar.
  • Clean the mortar and pestle after use by wiping them with a dry cloth or brush to remove any leftover material. If necessary, you can also wash them with soap and water.

It’s important to note that different materials may require different techniques for grinding, so it’s best to consult specific instructions or recipes for optimal results.

Chinese mortar and pestle vs. Egyptian mortar and pestle

Both the Chinese mortar and pestle and the Egyptian mortar and pestle serve a similar purpose, but their designs and intended uses are slightly different.

A mortar and pestle was a common tool in ancient China, used for everything from preparing medicinal herbs to creating calligraphy ink and painting pigments. Stone or ceramic materials were commonly used for the mortar and pestle, and a wide range of sizes were available.

Similar to today, ancient Egyptians used a mortar and pestle to crush and grind everything from grains and spices to herbs and nuts. They typically had a deep, rounded shape and were crafted from stone (usually basalt).

The fundamentally different forms of the two are immediately noticeable. The typical Chinese mortar and pestle are shorter and wider than their Egyptian counterparts, who typically have a greater depth. The Egyptian version is more rounded and conical in shape, whereas the Chinese version typically has a flat bottom that makes it easier to use on a table or countertop.

Porcelain, known for its smooth and non-porous surface, is commonly used to make Chinese mortars and pestles, while hard stones like basalt, which are more porous and can absorb some of the materials being ground, were commonly used to make Egyptian versions.

The mortar and pestle served a similar purpose in both Chinese and Egyptian cultures, being used to grind and prepare a wide range of substances.

Chinese mortar and pestle vs. Greek mortar and pestle

The Greek mortar and pestle and the Chinese mortar and pestle are two examples of this type of tool, each with their own unique characteristics.

To pulverize and grind ingredients, the Chinese use a “shlu” (石碓), a mortar and pestle typically fashioned from granite or marble. Products like pastes, powders, and sauces rely heavily on this ingredient. Traditional Chinese mortars and pestles consist of a large bowl-shaped mortar and a large, heavy pestle made of the same material. Pestles typically have a cylindrical shape with a rounded bottom to ensure a secure fit in the mortar.

However, the Greek “mortarium” and “pistillum,” respectively, were typically fabricated from ceramic or bronze. Like the traditional Chinese mortar and pestle, they were used to pulverize and crush various foodstuffs. When compared to their Chinese counterparts, Greek mortars tended to be shallower and more often than not featured a spout or lip on one side to facilitate pouring.

The Chinese mortar and pestle differs from its Greek counterpart in that its bowl is deeper and its pestle is heavier. Also, the mortar and pestle used in China are typically crafted from stone, while their Greek counterparts are typically made from ceramic or bronze.

While both the Chinese mortar and pestle and the Greek mortar and pestle serve the same basic purpose, they are constructed differently and use different materials.

Chinese mortar and pestle vs. Japanese mortar and pestle

The design and function of a Chinese mortar and pestle are not dissimilar from those of a Japanese one. The interior of both the ceramic and stone mortars is rough and textured to facilitate grinding. They serve the same purpose in grinding spices, herbs, and other ingredients in Asian cooking.

While the two are similar, there are a few key distinctions. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Japanese mortars tend to be on the smaller side and have a shallower bowl. As an added convenience, many Japanese mortars feature a spout or pour lip on one side. The Chinese mortars, on the other hand, typically do not have a pour spout.

The pestle is also shaped differently from a standard mortar and pestle. While Chinese pestles are typically longer and thinner with a pointed or rounded bottom, Japanese ones are typically shorter and thicker.

In sum, while the Chinese mortar and pestle and the Japanese mortar and pestle serve similar functions, there are some design and usage differences that reflect the respective cultures.

Chinese mortar and pestle vs. Korean mortar and pestle

Chinese mortars and pestles and Korean mortars and pestles are quite similar in design and function. They are both made of hard and durable materials like stone or ceramic and used for grinding and mixing various ingredients, including herbs, spices, grains, and seeds.

However, there are some differences between them. The Korean mortar and pestle, known as dolsot, is typically made of granite and has a rougher surface compared to Chinese mortar and pestle. This rough surface makes it more effective at crushing and grinding ingredients quickly.

In contrast, Chinese mortar and pestle, known as Lu, are often made of porcelain or pottery and have a smoother surface compared to Korean mortar and pestle. This smooth surface makes it more suitable for grinding delicate ingredients like herbs, spices, and tea leaves without damaging their flavors and aromas.

Overall, both Chinese and Korean mortar and pestles have their unique features and advantages, and their choice largely depends on the user’s personal preference and the type of ingredients they want to grind or mix.

In conclusion, the ancient Chinese mortar and pestle is a vital tool in Chinese cuisine and traditional medicine. Its use has been passed down through generations, and it remains an integral part of Chinese culture and traditions. The grinding process is seen as an art form, and the sound and rhythm of pounding and grinding are considered essential elements of the process. The ancient Chinese mortar and pestle are not only a tool for cooking and medicine but also a symbol of Chinese culture and traditions.

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