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Chinese food: basic theories and diverse realities

A Chinese proverb goes, “Different kinds of water and soil raise different kinds of people (一方水土一方人).” There is a similar saying in the West: “You are what you eat”. Only when you know the entire history of a nation can you fully understand its food culture.

The basic concepts and theories of Chinese food science that exercised a profound influence on the diet and food culture of the Chinese were largely determined during the Warring States period (5–2 centuries B.C.E.). They can be summarized by the following four principles.

1) Unity of food and medicine (食醫合一): In traditional Chinese pharmacology, whose history goes back over 4,000 years, medicine originates from food. The idea of the unity of diet and treatment was systemized and popularized during the Zhou dynasty (11–3 centuries B.C.E.). Food and medicine were considered distinct yet inseparable from each other.

2) Nursing one’s health with food (飮食養生): Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu emphasized that, when consuming food, one should remember “the tongue cannot be satisfied”. According to them, not until one restrains his desire, common for all humans, to try every taste, can he gain health; and even though the tongue wants delicious food, one should not have it if it is harmful to one’s health.

3) Theory of the nature of taste (本味論): The Chinese, since olden times, have contemplated the ‘nature of the taste’ of ingredients, the taste of food, and the influence that the interaction of the two has on a person. Believing that the nature of an ingredient is revealed in its taste, the ancient Chinese attached great importance to the type of an ingredient’s taste.

4) The food philosophy of Confucius and Mencius (孔孟食道): A food philosophy that mainly refers to “be refined on two things, be appropriate with three issues, and avoid ten wrongs”(二不厭、三適度、十不食《論語·鄉黨篇》) - from Confucius’ and Mencius’ idea that “One cannot eat just for survival but has to work hard to get food, more than that, one has to get food in a proper way as well as respect and practice food rituals.”(食志—食功—食德) It is worth mentioning that some of these ideas are extensions to the ‘nursing one’s health with food’; for instance, maintaining an authentic taste, being rational and refraining from excess, following rules of nature, and seeking peace by nursing one’s health.

The food culture of the Chinese nation is characterized by five features, in terms of its forms and historical development: the broad spectrum of available ingredients, abundance of dishes, flexibility of cooking methods, continuity of regional customs, and cultural exchanges between different regions. These features underlie the tradition and essence of the Chinese food culture to this day.

China has always been very diverse geographically, and this explains the existence of the wide variety of food ingredients and the extensive range of their distribution. The Chinese made edible many living things that are not known or considered taboo in other nations; some of these became delectable dishes.

It is this wide scope and abundance, along with the unique Chinese ideology on food and culinary art that predetermined the flexibility of traditional ways of Chinese cooking. “Collecting experience by hand” is an important characteristic of the traditional Chinese cuisine, stemming from its history.

Areas with different food cultures have developed in China separately from each other. From the perspective of food history, the culture and character of each of those areas has evolved gradually through a long historical process. In China of the Middle Ages, different regions were able to maintain their distinctive features for a relatively long time because of their isolation, self-sufficient natural economies and the conservative feudal politics on one hand, as well as the primitive commodity economies and poverty of the common people on the other. The scenes of daily life in rural, mountainous, and border areas in premodern China are well described in the following saying: “Neighboring states face each other, can hear when a neighbor’s rooster cries and dog barks; yet their people grow old and die without stepping outside of their state.”

Despite the economic and systemic barriers, there were frequent exchanges between the areas. Merchants and travelers play an important part in the introduction and dissemination of different cultures. Wars and chaos stimulated food cultural exchanges widely, quickly, and aggressively. While another significant route for foodways were appointments of public officials, study trips of Confucian scholars, hired labor, stationing of armies, expulsion of criminals, migration, escaping turbulence, and so on.


Professor Rongguang ZHAO, Chinese Dietary Culture Institute of Zhejiang Gongshang University (zhaorongguang126@126.com)

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