Food in Chinese Culture
by K.C. Chang
The importance of food in understanding human culture lies precisely in its infinite variability--variability that is not essential for species survival. For survival needs, people everywhere could eat the same food, to be measured only in calories, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins. But people of different backgrounds eat very differently. The basic stuffs from which food is prepared; the ways in which it is preserved, cut up, cooked (if at all); the amount and variety at each meal; the tastes that are liked and disliked; the customs of serving food; the utensils; the beliefs about the food's properties--these all vary. The number of such "food variables" is great.
An anthropological approach to the study of food would be to isolate and identify the food variables, arrange these variables systematically, and explain why some of these variables go together or do not go together.
For convenience, we may use culture as a divider in relating food variables' hierarchically. I am using the word culture here in a classificatory sense implying the pattern or style of behavior of a group of people who share it. Food habits may be used as an important, or even determining, criterion in this connection. People who have the same culture share the same food habits, that is, they share the same assemblage of food variables. Peoples of different cultures share different assemblages of food variables. We might say that different cultures have different food choices. (The word choices is used here not necessarily in an active sense, granting the possibility that some choices could be imposed rather than selected.) Why these choices? What determines them? These are among the first questions in any study of food habits.
Within the same culture, the food habits are not at all necessarily homogeneous. In fact, as a rule they are not. Within the same general food style, there are different manifestations of food variables of a smaller range, for different social situations. People of different social classes or occupations eat differently. People on festive occasions, in mourning, or on a daily routine eat again differently. Different religious sects have different eating codes. Men and women, in various stages of their lives, eat differently. Different individuals have different tastes. Some of these differences are ones of preference, but others may be downright prescribed. Identifying these differences, explaining them, and relating them to other facets of social life are again among the tasks of a serious scholar of food.
Finally, systematically articulated food variables can be laid out in a time perspective, as in historical periods of varying lengths. We see how food habits change and seek to explore the reasons and consequences.
My own generalizations pertain above all to the question: What characterizes Chinese food? . . . I see the following common themes:
The food style of a culture is certainly first of all determined by the natural resources that are available for its use. . . . It is thus not surprising that Chinese food is above all characterized by an assemblage of plants and animals that grew prosperously in the Chinese land for a long time. A detailed list would be out of place here, and quantitative data are not available. The following enumeration is highly impressionistic:
Starch Staples: millet, rice, kao-liang, wheat, maize, buckwheat, yam, sweet potato.
Legumes: soybean, broad bean, peanut, mung bean.
Vegetables: malva, amaranth, Chinese cabbage, mustard green, turnip, radish, mushroom.
Fruits: peach, apricot, plum, apple, jujube date, pear, crab apple, mountain haw, longan, litchi, orange.
Meats: pork, dog, beef, mutton, venison, chicken, duck, goose, pheasant, many fishes.
Spices: red pepper, ginger, garlic, spring onion, cinnamon.
Chinese cooking is, in this sense, the manipulation of these foodstuffs as basic ingredients. Since ingredients are not the same everywhere, Chinese food begins to assume a local character simply by virtue of the ingredients it uses. Obviously ingredients are not sufficient for characterization, but they are a good beginning. Compare, for example, the above list with one in which dairy products occupy a prominent place, and one immediately comes upon a significant contrast between the two food traditions.
One important point about the distinctive assemblage of ingredients is its change through history. Concerning food, the Chinese are not nationalistic to the point of resisting imports. In fact, foreign foodstuffs have been readily adopted since the dawn of history. Wheat and sheep and goats were possibly introduced from western Asia in prehistoric times, many fruits and vegetables came in from central Asia during the Han and the T'ang periods, and peanuts and sweet potatoes from coastal traders during the Ming period. These all became integral ingredients of Chinese food. At the same time,. . . milk and dairy products, to this date, have not taken a prominent place in Chinese cuisine.
In the Chinese culture, the whole process of preparing food from raw ingredients to morsels ready for the mouth involves a complex of interrelated variables that is highly distinctive when compared with other food traditions of major magnitude. At the base of this complex is the division between fan, grains and other starch foods, and ts'ai, vegetable and meat dishes. To prepare a balanced meal, it must have an appropriate amount of both rice or noodle product and meat and vegetables, and ingredients are readied along both tracks. Grains are cooked whole or as flour, making up the fan half of the meal in various forms: fan (in the narrow sense, "cooked rice"), steamed wheat-, millet-, or corn-flour bread, ping ("pancakes"), and noodles. Vegetables and meats are cut up and mixed in various ways into individual dishes to constitute the ts'ai half. Even in meals in which the staple starch portion and the meat-and-vegetable portion are apparently joined together, such as in . . . "wonton" . . . they are in fact put together but not mixed up, and each still retains its due proportion and own distinction.
For the preparation of cai, or dishes, the use of multiple ingredients and the mixing of flavors are the rules, which above all means that ingredients are usually cut up and not done whole, and that they are variously combined into individual dishes of vastly differing flavors. Pork for example, may be diced, slice shredded, or ground, and when combined with other meats and with various vegetable ingredients and spice produces dishes of utterly diverge, shapes, flavors, colors, tastes, and aromas.
The parallelism of fan and cai and the above-described principles of cai preparation account for a number (other features of the Chinese food culture, especially in the area of utensil To begin with, there are fan utensils and ts'ai utensils, both for cooking an for serving. In the modem kitchen, fan guo ("rice cooker") and cai kuo ("wok") are very different and as a rule not interchangeable utensils. . . . To prepare the kind of ts'ai that we have characterized, the chopping knife or cleaver and the chopping anvil are standard equipment in every Chinese kitchen, ancient and modern. To sweep the cooked grains into the mouth, and to serve the cut-up morsel of the meat-and vegetable dishes chopsticks have proved more service able than hands or other instruments (such as spoons and forks, the former being used in China alongside the chopsticks).
This complex of interrelated features of Chinese food may be described, for the purpose of shorthand reference, as the Chinese fan-ts'ai principle. Send a Chinese cook into an American kitchen, given Chinese or American ingredients, and he or she will (a) prepare an adequate amount of fan, (b) cut up the ingredients and mix them up in various combinations, and (c) cook the ingredients into several dishes and, perhaps, a soup. Given the right ingredients, the "Chineseness" of the meal would increase, but even with entirely native American ingredients and cooked in American utensils, it is still a Chinese meal.
The above example shows that the Chinese way of eating is characterized by a notable flexibility and adaptability. Since a cai dish is made of a mixture of ingredients, its distinctive appearance, taste, and flavor do not depend on the exact number of ingredients, nor, in most cases, on any single item. The same is true for a meal, made up of a combination of dishes. In times of affluence, a few more expensive items may be added, but if the times are hard they may be omitted without doing irreparable damage. If the season is not quite right, substitutes may be used. With the basic principles, a Chinese cook can prepare "Chinese" dishes for the poor as well as the rich, in times of scarcity as well as abundance, and even in a foreign country without many familiar ingredients. The Chinese way of cooking must have helped the Chinese people through some hard times throughout their history. And, of course, one may also say that the Chinese cook the way they do because of their need and desire for adaptability.
This adaptability is shown in at least two other features. The first is the amazing knowledge the Chinese have acquired about their wild plant resources. . . . The Chinese peasants apparently know every edible plant in their environment, and plants there are many. Most do not ordinarily belong on the dinner table, but they may be easily adapted for consumption in time of famine. . . . Here again is this flexibility: A smaller number of familiar foodstuffs are used ordinarily, but, if needed, a greater variety of wild plants would be made use of. The knowledge of these "famine plants" was carefully handed down as a living culture -apparently this knowledge was not placed in dead storage too long or too often.
Another feature of Chinese food habits that contributed to their notable adaptability is the large number and great variety of preserved foods. . . . Food is preserved by smoking, salting, sugaring, steeping, pickling, drying, soaking in many kinds of soy sauces, and so forth, and the whole range of foodstuffs is involved-grains, meat, fruit, eggs, vegetables, and everything else. Again, with preserved food, the Chinese people were ever ready in the event of hardship or scarcity.
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.