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Nine Tripod Cauldrons

A tripod cauldron or ding from the late Shang Dynasty

The Nine Tripod Cauldrons (Chinese: 九鼎; pinyin: Jiǔ Dǐng) were a collection of ding cast by the legendary Yu the Great of the Xia dynasty of ancient China. They were viewed as symbols of the authority given to the ruler by the mandate of heaven.[1]

At the time of the Shang dynasty during the 2nd millennium BCE, the tripod cauldrons came to symbolize the power and authority of the ruling dynasty with strict regulations imposed as to their use. Members of the scholarly gentry class were permitted to use one or three cauldrons; the ministers of state (大夫, dàfū) five; the vassal lords seven; and only the sovereign Son of Heaven was entitled to use nine.[2] The use of the nine tripod cauldrons to offer ritual sacrifices to the ancestors from heaven and earth was a major ceremonial occasion so that by natural progression the ding came to symbolize national political power[3] and later to be regarded as a National Treasure. Sources state that two years after the fall of the Zhou dynasty at the hands of what would become the Qin dynasty the nine tripod cauldrons were taken from the Zhou royal palace and moved westward to the Qin capital at Xianyang.[4][5] However, by the time Qin Shi Huang had eliminated the other six Warring States to become the first emperor of China in 221 BCE, the whereabouts of the nine tripod cauldrons were unknown. Sima Qian records in his Records of the Grand Historian that they were lost in the Si River to where Qin Shi Huang later dispatched a thousand men to search for the cauldrons but to no avail.[4]


The Records of the Grand Historian recount that once Yu the Great had finished taming the floods that once engulfed the land, he divided the territory into the Nine Provinces and collected bronze in tribute from each one. Thereafter he cast the metal into nine large tripod cauldrons.[6] Legend says that each ding weighed around 30,000 catties equivalent to 7.5 tons. However, the Zuo Zhuan or Commentary of Zuo, states that the nine tripod cauldrons were cast by Yu the Great's son, Qi of Xia, the second Xia Emperor, and it was he who received the tributes of bronze from the Nine Provinces.[7][8] The Xia Shu (夏書) section of the Book of Documents contains the Yu Gong or "Tribute of Yu" that describes the rivers and mountains of the Nine Provinces.

Vicissitudes of the cauldronsEdit

After Tang of Shang overthrew Jie of Xia, the nine tripod cauldrons were moved to the Shang capital at Yan. Later, when the Shang king Pan Geng moved his capital to Yin (殷), the cauldrons again went with him. Following the overthrow of the Shang Dynasty by the Zhou Dynasty, the new King Wu of Zhou put the nine tripod cauldrons on public display for the first time.[9]

When King Cheng of Zhou ascended the throne, the Duke of Zhou built the eastern capital of Luoyi (later Luoyang), he moved the cauldrons there, at the same time asking King Cheng to carry out their ritual installation in the settlement's Ancestral Hall (太廟).[9][10]

The power of the Zhou royal family began to decline at the start of the Eastern Zhou Period in 771 BCE, with each vassal state clamoring for kingship. At the time of King Ding of Zhou (r. 605-506 BCE), King Zhuang of Chu inquired for the first time regarding the "weight of the cauldrons" (問鼎之輕重) only to be rebuffed by the Zhou minister Wangsun Man (王孫滿). Asking such a question was at that time a direct challenge to the power of the reigning dynasty. King Ling of Chu (r. 540 - 529 BCE) later again inquired of the cauldrons but was unsuccessful due to unrest sweeping the country[11] During the reign of King Huiwen of Qin (r.338 - 311 BCE), the strategist Zhang Yi formulated a plan by which he hoped to seize the Nine Tripod Cauldrons and thus gain command of the other Zhou vassal states.[12] King Qingxiang of Chu, along with the king of the State of Qi also sought possession of the treasures as did the states of Wei and Han. The last Eastern Zhou monarch King Nan of Zhou (314-256 BCE) dealt with all these rival claimants by playing them off against one another and thus kept possession of the cauldrons.

Loss and recastingEdit

After the overthrow of Zhou and the foundation of the new Qin Dynasty, the Nine Tripod Cauldrons disappeared. Theories as to their fate abound[4][5] with no clear agreement amongst scholars. Amongst these theories are claims that the cauldrons were:

According to historical records, both Qin Shi Huang[4] and Emperor Wen of Han (r. 180-157 BCE)[13] searched for the nine tripod cauldrons in the Si River but with no success.

Later emperors time and again recast the cauldrons, the most well known examples being Wu Zetian in 696 CE [14] and the two recastings by Song Dynasty Huizong Emperor in 1105 CE.[15] Cauldrons were also cast by other dynasties in the Sinosphere, such as the Nguyen dynasty. The Nine Cauldrons of the Nguyen dynasty are placed in front of the Ancestral Temple in Hue Imperial Palace.

In 2006, the National Museum of China in Beijing cast Nine Tripod Cauldrons which are now on permanent display as a tourist attraction.[16]

Cultural influenceEdit

Baopuzi mentions "Records on the Nine Cauldrons" (Jiu ding ji 九鼎記), an alleged description of the vessels commenting on their protective function.

In all Chinese speaking societies, if someone commented on someone's words as having the weight of nine tripod cauldrons (一言九鼎), this was a great compliment to the person. It meant that the person was very trustworthy and would never break their promises.

See alsoEdit


This article is partly based on a translation of 九鼎 九鼎 in the Chinese Wikipedia
  1. ^ Greg Woolf (2007). Ancient civilizations: the illustrated guide to belief, mythology, and art. Barnes & Noble. p. 210. ISBN 978-1-4351-0121-0.
  2. ^ Gongyang Zhuan's Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals - 天子九鼎,诸侯七卿大夫五,元士三/天子九鼎,諸侯七,卿大夫五,元士三。
  3. ^ Strategies of the Warring States, Scroll 1 - Eastern Zhou The Qin State Dispatched Troops to the Borders of Zhou to Demand the Nine Tripod Cauldrons (秦兴师临周求九鼎/秦興師臨周求九鼎).
  4. ^ a b c d Records of the Grand Historian - Scrolls 6, 28 of Qin Shihuang
  5. ^ a b Lunheng - Scroll 26
  6. ^ Records of the Grand Historian - Scroll 28 "黃帝作寶鼎三,象天地人。禹收九牧之金,鑄九鼎"
  7. ^ Zuo Zhuan, Third year of Duke Xuan
  8. ^ Records of the Grand Historian Chu Family Records (楚世家)
  9. ^ a b Records of the Grand Historian Scroll 4, Zhou Biography
  10. ^ According to an annotation to the text of Mozi by his disciple Geng Zhuzi (耕柱子), After the Xia Dynasty lost the cauldrons, the Yin (Shang) Dynasty received them, when they lost them, the Zhou Dynasty received them "墨子•耕注:夏后氏失之,殷人受之;殷人失之,周人受之。夏后、殷、周之相受也."
  11. ^ Records of the Grand Historian - Chu Family Records
  12. ^ Strategies of the Warring States - Scroll 3
  13. ^ Lunheng - Scroll 13
  14. ^ Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government – Scroll 206
  15. ^ Book of Song – Scroll 66
  16. ^ (in Japanese) Treasures of the Zhou Royal Family on Display in Beijing