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Food culture reflects Chinese philosophy

CHEN ALONG | 2018-05-09
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Considered the god for the people, food culture manifests Chinese philosophy of tackling their relationship with other people, the nature and the world.


Considered a god for the people, food in Chinese culture provides a window in to the Chinese philosophy of tackling relationships with other people, nature and the world.


Most ancient writings that refer to feasts either recorded the recipes or complimented the food. However, it is not the delicious food but rather the insightful conversations that happened during the feast that made these works known to all. For example, during the Three Kingdoms period, before becoming the kings of the Wei and Shu Kingdom respectively, Cao Cao and Liu Bei once talked about the well-known influential figures in their time while together drinking boiled green plum wine. This story has been a frequent topic in literature for thousands of years.

Considered the first necessity, or “Heaven” of the people, food in Chinese culture carries more cultural significance and philosophical connotations. It provides a window into the Chinese way of tackling relationships with other people, nature and the world.


Philosophy of life
China is a nation of rites and etiquette. According to the Book of Rites, the first ceremonies began with meat and drink. In other words, all rules of rites and etiquette originate from diet. Although it is probably a loose generalization, it is true that rites and etiquette originate from sacrificial rituals that began with dietary rules.
A famous line originates from the Guanzi by Guanzhong (c.723-645 BCE), which goes “If the people have enough food supply stored in granaries, they will pay attention to etiquette; If the people have enough food and clothes, they will lay stress on the sense of honor and shame.” That being said, this saying corresponds with the Marxist theory that the economic foundation determines the superstructure and reveals food’s role in shaping a nation of rite and etiquette.

The Analects contains a lot of records about the diet rites. And the Book of Rites also contains several chapters dedicated to dietary rites for ranging from the king to ordinary people. Some of those rites are still followed in contemporary China regarding sitting arrangement, ordering the meal, proposing a toast and other issues.

Chinese food culture shows a strong sense of righteousness. The Chinese culture of righteousness reflects people’s beliefs, responsibilities and integrity. According to the Shizi by Shi Jiao, Confucius was thirsty when he passed the Robber Spring. He refused to drink from the spring because he loathed the name of the spring.

Another story in the Book of Rites goes that during a famine in Qi Kingdom, Qian Ao had food prepared on the roads, to give to the hungry people for charity. One day, there came a famished man, looking as if he could hardly see, his face covered with his sleeves, dragging his feet together. Qian, carrying with his left hand some rice, and holding some drink with the other, said to him “You! Come and eat!” The man, opening his eyes with a stare, and looking at him, said “It was exactly because I would not eat the food given in this ‘You!-come-and-eat’ way that I am in this state.” The man ultimately would not take the food and died.

These two stories are the sources of the well-known saying that “A noble person never drinks from the Robber Spring; A principled person never eats the food handed out in contempt.” A recent example reflecting how deeply Chinese people were influenced by this attitude is the story of Zhu Ziqing (1898-1948), a renowned Chinese poet and essayist. After signing a declaration that refused to take the food aid provided by the United States because of their support for the civil war launched by the Kuomintang Party, Zhu, living an impoverished life, died from a severe stomach disease in 1948.    

The Analects records a story of Yan Hui, one of the most well-known disciples of Confucius. Confucius praised Yan, saying “Incomparable indeed was Hui! A handful of rice to eat, a gourdful of water to drink, living in a mean street—others would have found it unendurably depressing, but to Hui’s cheerfulness it made no difference at all.” A life in poverty did not change Yan’s lofty pursuit of knowledge and truth. Yan’s attitudes towards material were admired for thousands of years by people who chose to live a simple, poor but virtuous life. Finding contentment in poverty that is represented by coarse food, and joy in one’s principles, is considered one of the most precious virtues for Chinese people.

The cultural emphasis on food demonstrates the Chinese philosophy of harmony. Ancient Chinese had a unique view about harmony between water and fire. The Huainanzi by Liu An includes the following lines, “Water and fire are not compatible with each other. Nonetheless, if a man pours some water into a small pot and puts it in over a fire, all the five flavors can be concocted.” Cooking contains a profound philosophy of life. The Book of Tang said that “Water will be tempered with fire; the salt will complement the smoked plum [that is sour].” Despite fire and water being incompatible, they can come together in cooking, as can various flavors like sour, sweet, bitter, pungent and salty. People of different temperaments were able to work harmoniously toward the same goal. And this also contributes to the cultural inclusiveness of different opinions.

In addition to this, the Chinese philosophy of harmony between yin and yang is also showcased in the food culture. Different food ingredients, even different parts of them, have a different nature of yin or yang. Even the time to cook or eat a certain dish would affect the balance of yin and yang inside a person’s body. Food, instead of medicine, is the major way for Chinese people to keep a healthy life. In this sense, traditional Chinese medicine culture is just a division of Chinese food culture. Whenever one feels unwell, the first idea that comes to his or her mind is to eat a certain dish to balance the yin-yang inside the body.   


Philosophy of governance
However absurd it may seem at first sight, it is actually quite normal to connect food to politics in China. A saying from the Records of Grand Historian goes “The people are the god for the emperor while the food is the god for the people.” The Chinese phrase for sovereignty or nation is sheji. She refers to the god of land while ji refers to the god of grain.

Whether one looks to the theories of Confucius or Mencius, a status quo where people are supplied with abundant, quality food has always been an indicator of good governance.

For example, when elaborating on benevolent governance, Mencius focused on food. King Hui of the Wei Kingdom asked Mencius how his kingdom could be more populous. Mencius replied “If the farming season is not interfered with [by unpaid labors], there will be more than enough grain. If close nets are not used in deep ponds, there will be more than enough fish and turtles…It is the first step of benevolent government that the people have no complaints about supporting their parents when they are alive and about arranging the funerals upon their death.” “With a kingdom where people of seventy are clothed in floss silk garments, and have meat to eat, it is impossible for the king to fail to unify the world.” Mencius always referred to food and drinks when discussing how a king should govern a nation. This indicates what a significant role that Chinese food culture plays in demonstrating the Confucian political philosophy that featured people-oriented doctrines.

In addition to Confucian philosophy, Taoist philosophy also has influenced Chinese food culture. The Tao Te Ching includes a famous line “Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish.”Another line goes “…Therefore, the sage rules by emptying hearts and filling bellies…”

Taoism proposes following the laws of the nature and not interfering with the natural development of things. Stirring the small fish when cooking will break the fish into pieces. Interfering with people’s daily life with all kinds of orders or government labor will exhaust the people. Similarly, the manufacturing or magnifying of people’s desires as the modern advertising industry does interferes with natural desires of people and makes people the slaves of their seduced and magnified desires. The idea of filling people’s bellies and emptying their minds proposes the satisfaction of basic rather than magnified needs.

Chinese attitudes towards food or hunting also reflect Chinese wisdom of coexisting with nature. The aforementioned idea that “close nets are not used in deep ponds” or the teaching “leaving one side of the net open when hunting or fishing” as well as the practice of freeing the captive animals that are pregnant all indicate that Chinese people have long realized the importance of sustainable development.

Yi Yin (1649-1549 BCE), the honorable chancellor who helped Shang Tang establish the Shang Dynasty, was a cook before he became a politician. He is considered the ancestor of all the chefs in China. As a result, seasoning the soup or seasoning the food inside the utensil of ding became a symbol of aspiration to pursue a political career. Meng Haoran (689-740) once wrote “Not entrusted with the mission of seasoning the ding, the empty hope of serving the nation is all that I have now.”   


(edited by CHEN ALONG)