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 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
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
Starch Staples: millet, rice, kao-liang, wheat, maize,
buckwheat, yam, sweet potato.
Legumes: soybean, broad bean, pea- nut, mung bean.
Vegetables: malva, amaranth, Chi- nese cabbage, mustard green, turnip,
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
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
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 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
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
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
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), p. 135.