Soy Sauce Casks and a History of Shenyang, Northeast China (Dongbei)

Soy Sauce Casks and History of Shenyang, Northeast China (Dongbei)

On a recent visit to Shenyang, Liaoning province, Northeast China (Dongbei), I discovered an interesting earthenware container or cask. The blue-white cask had, I was told, been excavated at some time during the 1980s at Taiyuan Jie, near Shenyang Railway Station.

soy sauce cask fengtian shenyang
Soy Sauce cask discovered at Taiyuan Jie, Shenyang, Liaoning province, China

At first sight, the rope-banded style cask seemed to be of Chinese origin. After further inspection, I considered that it might be a sake container or cask from the Japanese Meiji period (23 October 1868 – 30July 1912 ). Meiji period earthenware is generally characterised by blue and white decoration.

As my Chinese translation skills improved, I discovered that the characters on the cask indicated it to be a container for soy sauce (shoyu) . The main brand logo is a hexagon shape inset with the character 奉, (pinyin: feng), meaning ‘to serve’ and surrounded by 純良醬油 meaning ‘pure, fine, soy sauce’ (pinyin: chun liang jiang you). On the rear of the cask, there are Chinese characters, which translate as ‘This container is not for sale’. On the cask base there are a few slightly worn characters and a serial number. No other indication of its age or where it had come from other than Shenyang?

Searching the internet produced a few pictures of similar casks and containers with different logo for Japanese sake, their age often described as 19th century (Meiji period). I estimated the Shenyang cask to be Meiji period, circa 1900. However, with only little information I did not pursue further research into the soy sauce cask.

Imagine to my surprise when, some months later, I discovered and acquired a similar soy sauce cask in London, UK.

soy sauce cask fengtian
Soy Sauce cask discovered in London (2014)

This container clearly was made by the same hand as the one from Shenyang; although the body was cream with green banding. It had the same brand logo and Chinese characters meaning ‘This container is not for sale’. On the base, from a part translation, ‘… new design patent…’ serial number. More importantly, it had a further inscription: a block of four characters 株式会社 (Japanese kanji: kabushiki kaisha), followed by 奉天醬園 (pinyin: fengtian jiang yuan or Japanese kanji: hoten soyu en). The full meaning of the inscription can be translated as ‘Fengtian (or Hoten) Soy Garden Japanese Stock Company’.

On the body of both casks, the main outer hexagon part of the brand logo is a Japanese ‘kikko’ symbol: representing a tortoise or turtle, and meaning ‘longevity’. The inner characters show ‘Feng’ in Chinese, or ‘Hou’ in Japanese kanji, both translations meaning: to offer, to receive, to serve, to respect.

As for dating the ‘London-found’ cask, interestingly green became a fashionable colour from about 1910 through to the 1920s. Given that both cask were from the same soy supplier, from a narrow time period , my best guess is that the the green-cream cask was made just a few years later, perhaps circa 1910.

So why was a Japanese shoyu (soya sauce) earthenware cask from a period circa late Meji period, buried at Taiyuan Jie, near Shenyang Railyway Station? And how and why did the green-cream soy sauce cask from the same producer show up in London? More research on the history of soy sauce in Shenyang, and generally in North East China was definitely needed.

Shenyang city, was first established by General Qin Kai during the Warring States period (300 BC) at that time and named Hou City. In 1625, the Manchu leader Nurhaci, captured the city (known then as Simian Hoten (Manchu) and renamed it Shengjing, or Mukden (Manchu). In 1657 the name for part of the city was Fengtian 奉天, which was used synonymously with Shenyang/Mukden (sometimes spelt Moukden), and the post mark spelling ‘MOUKDEN/奉天‘ Moukden/Fengtian was franked on international mail until the late 1920s. The name Fengtian was used for Shenyang from for the period 1625 until the 1920s.

Modern-day Liaoning province is located in Northeast China ( Dongbei). It was called Mukden province until 1907; later renamed Fengtian or Fengtien province the name was later changed again to Liaoning in 1929. Under the later Japanese-puppet Manchukuo regime, the province reverted to its earlier name Fengtian province; however, the name Liaoning was restored in 1945 and again in 1954. Shenyang was referred to by the Japanese as Mukden or Hoten.

So the name ‘Fengtian’ relates to earlier names of Shenyang or Liaoning Province. But remember, the first cask that was excavated from near Shenyang Railway Station, so what the station’s history? South Manchuria Railway was built in 1898-1903 by Imperial Russia, as the southern branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway and Fengtian station 奉天驿 was opened in 1899.

shenyang railway station liaoning province china
Shenyang Railway Station, Liaoning province, China.

The Treaty of Portsmouth, which was signed on September 5, 1905, ended the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War. As a result there was recognition of Japan’s claims to Korea, and the evacuation of Russian forces from Manchuria. Russia also returned its leases in southern Manchuria (containing Port Arthur and Dalian), the Liaodong pensinsular, to China. The Treaty gave the South Manchuria Railway, from Dalian to Changchun, and concessions along the railway line to Japan. In 1906 Japan established the South Manchurian Railway and later, in 1910, the Japanese built a new Fengtian station. The station was later renamed Shenyang South Station in 1945 (after Second Sino-Japanese War) and later was renamed Shenyang Station in 1950, as it is today. Furthermore,Japan was able to coerce a lease for the Liaotung/Liaodong, establishing the Kwantung Leased Territory (1905 -1945).

From 1905 onwards, Japanese armies in Northeast China (Manchuria) discovered the high quality and flavour of the regional (Manchurian) soya bean. Subsequently, the Japanese Government underwrote Industrial Bank of Japan funding for the development of soya bean agriculture and soy products in Fengtian (Liaoning) province. Eventually, Japanese companies not only exported soya beans to Japan, but Japanese soy products were imported back into Northeast China.

It is possible to conclude that the two soy sauce casks came from a Japanese company called Fengtian (Hoten) Soy Garden. It is most probable that the earthenware casks were manufactured in Japan, some years apart, for either locally produced or Japanese imported soy sauce. The Meiji-period cask arriving in Shenyang circa 1905. This supplier was probably located in the area known today as Taiyuan Jie, near to Shenyang Railway Station.

Now, a little British history from Shepherds Bush, London, UK.

The 1910 Japan-British Exhibition was held at White City, Shepherd’s Bush, London. In fact, to this day, a very small area of the original Japanese exhibition garden is believed to exist near to the former BBC Television Centre at White City, Shepherd’s Bush.

japan-british exhibition london 1910
1910 Japan – British Exhibition Programme

According to Japan-British Exhibition records held Hammersmith library: in Pavilion 21 ‘The Palace of Natural Resources’ were displays of Government of Kwatung ( Kwatung Leased Territory) exhibits, from South Manchurian Railway Company, which included soya bean oil and soy sauce products. It is known that there were concerns by both Japanese organisers about Chinese exhibits from South Manchuria, and they were later moved to Pavilion 21, ‘The Palace of the Orient’ on the South Manchurian Railway Line exhibition stand. Furthermore, the Chinese Consul was angry about the placement of a drum tower model from Hoten (Mukden) and its representation of China peoples by the Japanese.

What is clear, is that there were exhibition displays of both Chinese and Japanese soy products from the Kwatung Leased Territory and South Manchurian Railway Company. Records show that there were 32 soy sauce producers at the exhibition. Interestingly, at the end of the Japan-British exhibition, many of the exhibits were given away to local institutions.

Could the green-cream soy sauce cask have one of those exhibits, it is a hypothesis? It is possible that the serial numbers on the barrels may give a further clues, but I am unable to make progress with the numbers.

Finally, the logo on the barrels has some similarity to the familiar Kikkoman brand logo. In 1782 Saheiji Mogi, head of Mogi-sa shoyu, gave his soy sauce the brand name Kikkoman, in three characters. Interestingly Japanese Trademark Law was not established until 1884. Later, in 1917, Noda Shoyu Co. Ltd. (forerunner to Kikkoman) was founded in Noda through the merger of eight family companies. It is my understanding that the Kikkoman Brand logo with the kikko hexagon symbol was of this time; perhaps Kikkoman Corporation know the exact date of their brand logo?

The style of the Kikkoman brand logo, is a kikko hexagon symbol with the inset character for 10,000 . Using the same analogy, could the Fengtian Soy Garden casks have been called ‘Kikkofeng’ (in Mandarin) or ‘Kikkohou’ (in Japanese) meaning ‘longevity with service’ or ‘long service’?

Perhaps the history of Fengtian Soy Garden is lost? But the story about two soy sauce casks, circa 1900s from Fengtian Soy Garden, Shenyang: one buried in Shenyang and the other found in London, is a somewhat fascinating mystery.

© 2017 Dr Robert Frew. All rights reserved.