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Food in Chinese Culture

The Chinese way of eating is further characterized by the ideas and beliefs about food, which actively affect the ways . . . in which food is prepared and taken. The overriding idea about food in China -in all likelihood an idea with solid, but as yet unrevealed, scientific backing-is that the kind and the amount of food one takes is intimately relevant to one's health. Food not only affects health as a matter of general principle, the selection of the right food at any particular time must also be dependent upon one's health condition at that time. Food, therefore, is also medicine. The regulation of diet as a disease preventive or cure is certainly as Western as it is Chinese. Common Western examples are the diet for arthritics and the recent organic food craze. But the Chinese case is distinctive for its underlying principles. The bodily functions, in the Chinese view, follow the basic yin-yang principles. Many foods are also classifiable into those that possess the yin quality and those of the yang quality. When yin and yang forces in the body are not balanced, problems result. Proper amounts of food of one kind or the other may then be administered (i.e., eaten) to counterbalance the yin and yang disequilibrium. If the body is normal, overeating of one kind of food would result in an excess of that force in the body, causing diseases.

At least two other concepts belong to the native Chinese food tradition. One is that, in consuming a meal, appropriate amounts of both fan and ts'ai should be taken. In fact, of the two, fan is the more fundamental and indispensable. . . . The other concept is frugality. Overindulgence in food and drink is a sin of such proportions that dynasties could fall on its account. . . . Although both the fants'ai and the frugality considerations are health based, at least in part they are related to China's traditional poverty in food resources.

Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of the Chinese food culture is the importance of food itself in Chinese culture. That Chinese cuisine is the greatest in the world is highly debatable and is essentially irrelevant. But few can take exception to the statement that few other cultures are as food oriented as the Chinese. And this orientation appears to be as ancient as Chinese culture itself. According to Lun yu (Confucian Analects, chap. "Wei Ling Kung"), when the duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius (551-479 B.C.) about military tactics, Confucius replied, "I have indeed heard about matters pertaining to tsu (meat stand) and tou (meat platter), but I have not learned military matters." Indeed, perhaps one of the most important qualifications of a Chinese gentleman was his knowledge and skill pertaining to food and drink. . . . The importance of the kitchen in the king's palace is amply shown in the personnel roster recorded in Chou li. Out of the almost four thousand persons who had the responsibility of running the king's residential quarters, 2,271, or almost 60 percent, of them handled food and wine.

What these specialists tended to were not just the king's palate pleasures: eating was also very serious business. In I li, the book that describes various ceremonies, food cannot be separated from ritual. . . . [In] Zhou texts [12th century B.C.E. - 221 B.C.E.] references were made of the use of the ding cauldron, a cooking vessel, as the prime symbol of the state. I cannot feel more confident to say that the ancient Chinese were among the peoples of the world who have been particularly preoccupied with food and eating. Furthermore, as Jacques Gernet has stated, "there is no doubt that in this sphere China has shown a greater inventiveness than any other civilization."2

1 Lau, D.C., trans. Mencius (Harmondworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. 1970), p, 161.
2 Jacques Gernet, Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion 1250-76
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), p. 135.

Adapted from Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives by K.C. Chang (Yale University Press, 1977). Reprinted with permission from Yale University Press.

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