Food in Chinese Culture: An Introduction

David Chung '94, English 34, 1993

According to K. C. Chang, the editor of Food in Chinese Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), "few other cultures are as food oriented as the Chinese. . . Indeed, perhaps one of the most important qualifications of a gentleman was his knowledge and skill pertaining to food and drink" (11).

Chinese culture sees a sharp "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" (7). Furthermore, "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. . . . The overriding idea about food in that the kind and the amount of food one takes is intimately relevant to one's health...Food, therefore, is also medicine" (10).

Chang, who argues that Chinese food and civilization are intertwined in culturally important ways, claims that several major "thresholds" produced the Chinese philosophy of food. "The first such threshold is the beginning of farming . . . which alone could possibly have established the fan-ts'ai principle of Chinese cooking . . . Chinese food style is simply unimaginable without Chinese agriculture" (20). . . . [follow link to Man Kee and Mangoes] The second threshold that I recognize is the beginning of a highly stratified society . . . On one side were the food-producers...and on the other stood the food-consumers. . . . Small wonder that such a stratified, exploiter-exploited society is in China considered, in traditional popular phraseology, a "man-eats-man" society" (21).

Despie the fundamental links among Chinese culture, history, and cooking, "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" (7). In fact, "the Chinese way of eating is characterized by a notable flexibility and adaptability...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" (8-9). Such adaptability -- and the encounter with non-Chinese cusine that prompts it -- provides a subject for Anglo-Chinese and Anglo-American authors.

Within the Chinese communities, local origin is expressed in foods, and certain foods become widely accepted and recognized markers, such as sweet-sour dishes for Cantonese and stuffed bean curd for Hakka. In areas where many Chinese groups are living together, such as Singapore and Malaysia, there is much borrowing and learning of each other's styles, and the styles tend to blur, especially since some members of some groups have assimilated in varying degrees into other groups, to say nothing of the Chinese whose native language is Malay or English" (375).

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