According to the Chinese solar terms, it’s Minor Heat now, when most parts of China are going to experience the hottest days of the year. During the scorching summer, we modern people can enjoy cold drinks in an air-conditioned room to escape the heat. But how did ancient people cool down without these modern-day technologies?
Icehouse and ice ticket
As early as Pre-Qin Dynasty (2100-221 BC), people used natural ice to keep food fresh and make cold drinks. According to the record in the Confucian classic Zhou Rites, the Zhou royal court had a specialized department called the “ice administration” which had 80 employees. The department collected natural ice blocks each December, and then transported them to the ice house for storage.
Some senior officials were awarded ice cubes by the Zhou royal court, which was a big honor during that time. The system of granting ice lasted until the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. During the Qing Dynasty, “ice tickets” were distributed to officials instead of sending the ice directly to them.
The most commonly used cooling utensil is called “Jian”, which is a big container filled with ice. It was made of ceramic in early Chinese history, and was later made of copper. The “Jian” can be seen as an ancient refrigerator, which can be used to make cold drinks. Put the vessel holding food inside the “Jian”, close the lid, and the drinks would become cold after a while.
Hiding food in the well
During the Qin (221-207 BC) and Han (202 BC-AD 220) dynasties, for common people, the most common way to cool off is by using their wells. Some families put an urn in the well as a cold closet, or put food in a basket and lowered the basket into the well with a rope. Actually, ancient people don’t need cold beverages, as well water was the best drink in summer.
During the Qing Dynasty, taking Chinese herbal medicine was popular in Beijing. According to historical records, during the scorching summer, some people preferred to drink ice water, some boiled perilla leaves, and liquorice as summer soup to keep off the heat. Ancient people also loved to make lotus seed soup in summer which was said to have the benefit of strengthening the body.
Bed-mat for summer
Ancient people wove vines, reeds, or bamboo into bed-mats for summer which are cool to sleep on.
The surface of a porcelain pillow is a layer of glaze, which feels pleasantly cool. It is said that the Emperor Qianlong in Qing Dynasty liked his porcelain pillow a lot.
Dragon fur curtain
The dragon fur curtain was used during ancient times to block the hot waves in the summer, and keep interiors pleasantly cool. It was not really made of dragon fur, since there are no such creatures as dragons, so some say it was made of the skin of large boas. Surrounded by large and cold boa skins, the place would feel like an air-conditioned room. However, the skin was precious and difficult to obtain, so only the royal court was able to use it.
Ancient people in the southern parts of China preferred to use a cylinder-shaped bamboo ware, which is hollow in the middle and has grid mesh on the surface. It uses the principle of cross ventilation to cool people down, and can be hugged, or used to hold up your feet.
Last but not least, the most commonly used tool to cool down in the summer is the humble fan, and is still used nowadays. Fans were made of different materials, such as bird’s feathers, bamboo, or fur.