Food in Chinese Culture
Adapted from K.C. Chang, Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical
Perspectives, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977. Reprinted with
permission from Yale University Press.
To say that the consumption of food is a vital part of the chemical process
of life is to state the obvious, but sometimes we fail to realize that food
is more than just vital. The only other activity that we engage in that is
of comparable importance to our lives and to the life of our species is sex.
As Kao Tzu, a Warring States-period philosopher and keen observer of human
nature, said, "Appetite for food and sex is nature."1 But these two activities
are quite different. We are, I believe, much closer to our animal base in
our sexual endeavors than we are in our eating habits. Too, the range of
variations is infinitely wider in food than in sex. In fact, 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,
all men everywhere could eat the same food, to be measured only in calories,
fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins. But no, 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
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
Legumes: soybean, broad bean, pea- nut, mung bean.
Vegetables: malva, amaranth, Chi- nese cabbage, mustard green, turnip, radish,
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,
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 fan and ts'ai,
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 ts'ai, 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 ts'ai an the above-described principles of ts'ai'
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
kuo ("rice cooker") and Ts'ai 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 Chines kitchen, ancient and modem. 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 instrument
(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 ts'ai 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
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] Chou texts [12th
century B.C.-221 B.C.] references were made of the use of the ting 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.