Big Grams Cauldron

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One of the most famous Chinese bronze vessels of antiquity, preserved in the Shanghai Museum, is the Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 ("Larger Ke Cauldron"), dated to ca. 891-886 BC.  Discovered around 1890 AD, it is 75.6 cm in diameter and 93.1 cm in height and weighs 201.5 kg.

In terms of language and script, the Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 is distinguished by its lengthy inscriptions amounting to 290 characters in 28 lines.  The inscriptions tell how a noble named Ke cast the vessel during the reign period of King Xiao of the Zhou Dynasty and records the King's praise to Ke's grandfather and the award of a royal estate to Ke.  Ke is said to have cast this vessel in appreciation of the King's favors and as a tribute to his grandfather.  It is called the Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 ("Larger Ke Cauldron") inasmuch as it was discovered together with more than 1,200 other bronzes, including seven smaller Kè cauldrons.

The Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 ("Larger Ke Cauldron") inscriptions are recorded here in Wikipedia.

Dǐng 鼎 is usually translated as "tripod", but since not all dǐng 鼎 have three legs (some have four), I have chosen to render it as "cauldron".

The immediate occasion for this post is my noticing that the online Chinese encyclopedia, Baidu, translates Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎 as "Big Grams Tripod".  One might well ask how that is possible.  It just so happens that kè 克, which means "overcome; subdue", also is the Chinese transcription of the measure of weight "gram(me)".  This same sort of semantic interference also happens frequently with the Chinese transcription of "meter", mǐ 米, which often mistakenly gets translated as "rice".

For an introduction to Baidu, see "Soon to be lost in translation" (7/11/10).

[H.t. Rostislav Berezkin; thanks to Edward Shaughnessy, Lothar von Falkenhausen, Bob Bagley, Connie Cook, and Adam Smith]


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 12:31 am

    It can work the other way. I frequently annoy my children when pretending to mis-understand 米 (e.g. in road signs) as "rice" … :)

  2. AntC said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 2:57 am

    Ah, when I saw the title of the post, I was expecting something about n-Grams, and how Google is boiling up 'big data' to improve translation of ancient inscriptions.

    Google certainly needs to improve the translation of that wikipedia page: "now hidden in the Shanghai Museum . … and known as the "domestic bronze Sambo." " The translation alleges many museums are in the habit of "hiding" treasures.

    BTW, how did somebody manage to lose a 200kgs bronze artefact for 1,000 years?

  3. david said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 6:55 am

    The Baidu page shows that it has three legs. I think Homer would have called it a tripod.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 7:50 am


    Correct! It is a tripod.

    However, I checked with a number of eminent bronze specialists (several of whom are listed in the acknowledgements at the bottom of the o.p.) on what to call a dǐng 鼎 in English, and they all advised me not to refer to them (including the Dà Kè dǐng 大克鼎) as "ding" or "ca(u)ldron".

  5. Scott P. said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 8:42 am

    It just so happens that kè 克, which means "overcome; subdue", also is the Chinese transcription of the measure of weight "gram(me)".

    Why wouldn't they come up with a separate character for 'gram'? It's hardly a rare or obscure word.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 9:05 am

    @Scott P.

    You'd think so, but Chinese is full of such transcribed terms, e.g., wǎ 瓦 ("tile") for "watt". This sort of thing all too often leads to semantic interference and outright confusion. It is one of the many reasons why I strongly advocate the adoption of an auxiliary phonetic script like kana for Chinese.

  7. JK said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

    This reminds me of a Wikipedia problem I had: I have been confused by this Wikipedia page for the new governor of Guizhou 谌贻琴 (, while Xinhua calls her Shen Yiqin. The pinyin on the page is even wrong for both the words Chen and Yi. When I type "Guizhou governor" into Google a box pops up that says "Chen Yiqin", making me wonder whether they are just pulling that result from Wikipedia.

  8. Mara K said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

    Based solely on the title I thought this post would be about bigrams.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 11:09 pm


    This page from the online Baidu encyclopedia article on the surname 谌 specifically says that it can be read both chén and shèn. It also mentions a differentiation between north and south. The long article explains why the character is read chén and stresses the effort to make that the standard in MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin). The native speakers whom I consulted mostly said that it should be read shèn, though some said it could be read either chén or shèn.

    Note that 谌贻琴 is a native of the southwestern province of Guizhou who is of Bai ethnicity. This may have an impact upon how she pronounces her name. I have met people of Zhuang ethnicity from Guangxi Province in southeast China surnamed Tán 覃 who also pronounced their surname Qín. In fact, I met one and the same person with this surname who pronounced it Qín in Nanning, Guangxi, and later when I met him in Ürümchi, Xinjiang he pronounced it Tán. I was astounded by this and asked him why he did so. He didn't have a clear answer, though I think he may have been trying to downplay his Zhuang ethnicity by doing so.

    Anyway, the question of how to pronounce surnames — and even personal names — that have multiple readings is a very tricky business, so I'd be wary of declaring that one reading is wrong and another right unless you hear it from the horse's mouth, and even then I'd be careful because — due to ethnic and topolectal factors– the same name may be pronounced differently even by its owner and his / her acquaintances at different times and different places.

    There is controversy over how to pronounce the name of even someone as famous as 陳寅恪 (1890-1969), one of the most distinguished Chinese scholars of the 20th century. During the fall semester of 2011, I held the 陳寅恪 chair at Tsinghua University. Still today, though, I'm not entirely confident about how to pronounce his name. Different people pronounce it differently: Chén Yínquè / kè / even quò (though that's not a legal Mandarin syllable). I have heard passionate arguments erupt over how to pronounce 陳寅恪's name. When that happens, I just back off.

    "The pinyin on the page is even wrong for both the words Chen and Yi".

    I've already discussed the problem with "Chen", but how / where is the page wrong for Yi? Are you referring to the fact that it has fourth tone instead of second tone? In any event, it would be helpful if you'd specify how the "Yi" is wrong. Otherwise, readers of your comment will simply be mystified.

  10. B.Ma said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 6:44 am

    That was a fascinating anecdote about Mr 覃, but similar things happen when Europeans migrate to the US – they start pronouncing their surnames according to English orthography (perhaps over multiple generations), and this might even include the surname Mair.

    Also, I know several Germans and Scandinavians (and for that matter, Chinese) who pronounce their surname in a more American way when speaking English as opposed to their home language.

    Even if there was a separate character for kè when it is used to mean gram, or it was written in a phonetic script, it would still be pronounced kè.

    I doubt that any human would think that the sound kè referred to 'gram' when hearing the sounds dà kè dǐng, nor would they think that the character 克 referred to 'gram' when seeing the characters 大克鼎.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 8:19 am

    "similar things happen when Europeans migrate to the US"

    You're right about that. I had a student named "Boucher". People within his own family pronounced it two different ways! Ditto for a colleague named "Naquin". My very famous (now deceased) colleague Derk Bodde pronounced his own name and surname in a strange way that was different from how everyone else said them!

    "I doubt that any human would think that the sound kè referred to 'gram' when hearing the sounds dà kè dǐng, nor would they think that the character 克 referred to 'gram' when seeing the characters 大克鼎."

    You're wrong about that. I've seen / heard it happen many a time.

  12. Chris Button said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

    Regarding the multiple pronunciations of 覃, I would go with the following:

    – Its main pronunciation tán is from OC *lə́m.

    – Its variant pronunciation qín shows a shift in moraic weight from the sonorant coda to the nucleus as *-ə̀m and a lateral initial *l- which seems to be in some kind of a fortis~lenis association with the main pronunciation above (I think Baxter & Sagart would reconstruct a sibilant prefix/pre-initial of some kind here to account for this).

    – Its other variant pronunciation yǎn (corresponding to 剡) goes back to *làmʔ and is in a ə/a ablaut relationship with the other two forms above (along with a glottal coda that led to the tonal distinction).

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