Food's Central Place in Chinese Life
people the world over must eat and drink, not many have felt the need
to develop such a complex cuisine as the Chinese. Perhaps because
famine has been a frequent occurrence in the past, the preparation and
consumption of food has always been a matter of great interest to
Chinese people. Special meals are served at family anniversaries and
religious festivals and food is offered to gods and ancestors. Business
deals are struck over a meal and presents often consist of food. The
medicinal value of food in promoting good health is taken very
seriously by Chinese people.
Rice and Other Things to Eat
has been China's chief grain since the Song dynasty (960-1279), but it
is not the only important staple foodstuff. Rice is grown and eaten
mostly in south China. In north China, where the main cereal crops are
wheat, millet and sorghum, noodles and steamed buns made from dough are
more usual. These grains and starchy foods are called fan; vegetables
and meat are called cai (prounounced 'tsai'). A balanced meal contains
both fan and cai.
A densely populated land
with limited fuel supplies needs a method of cooking that is economical
of resources. Chinese cuisine relies on much labour being spent on
preparation, in order that cooking can be done quickly. The most
common, but not the only, method used by Chinese cooks is stir-frying,
in which food is cut into bite-size pieces and cooked fast at high
temperature. The food is brought to the table on serving dishes from
which the diners help themselves. Each person usually has a bowl, a
pair of chopsticks and a spoon. Chopsticks have been in use since Shang
times (about 1700-1050BC).
well-to-do it was the custom to have a separate table for each person.
The narrow, rectangular tables were placed close together in a
semi-circular arrangement or as three sides of a square. Several people
would have been able to sit round a square table like the one
illustrated here. We know that this is a dining table because it has
raised edges to stop anything that spills from dripping in the diners'
laps. Tablecloths were not used to cover the table top although the
front and sides were sometimes draped with silk hangings.
and chair, 1550-1640. V&A Museum nos. FE.67-1983, FE.27-1983
Jade ewer and stemcup, a porcelain lidded food box and a porcelain
bowl, Ming dynasty. Museum nos. FE.41990, C.128-1928, FE.71-1977,
C.127-1928 (click image for larger version)
people have drunk alcohol with their meals since the Neolithic period
(about 5000-1700BC). Most alcoholic drinks are produced from cereal
grains and some are drunk warm. The little pot shown here, made between
AD 500 and 580, was used for heating wine. The tripod legs would have
straddled the heat source. The handle at the side of the pot is hollow
to take a wooden extension for lifting it off the stove. At the same
time a stick would have been passed through the ceramic loop on the
opposite side to steady the hot pot. Wine warmers like this often look
a bit like animals. The potters who made them sometimes played up this
resemblance by adding tails and beast-like heads or faces, or by giving
the tripod legs hooves or paws. This pot has an animal's tail but no
The ewer and stemcup shown on the
table were also for alcohol. The ewer is unusual because it is made out
of a piece of jade. Stemcups were only ever used for alcoholic drinks.
The Chinese term means 'urging cup': the drinker toasts his companions
and at the same time urges them to down another cup.
Wine warmer, 500-580. V&A Museum no. C.432-1922 (click image for larger version)
is China's most popular beverage. Chinese people drink green
unfermented tea, taken hot without milk or sugar, with meals and snacks
and on its own throughout the day. Today, they use mugs with lids and
handles, but up until this century tea was always drunk from small
bowls. Eight hundred years separate the two tea bowls in the picture.
The one on the stand was made between 1000 and 1125, by which time tea
drinking had become an everyday habit for most and an art for some.
Aristocrats and educated monks and nuns would gather together to taste
fine teas and appreciate beautiful utensils. The powdered tea favoured
at this time was whisked up with hot water in the tea bowl until it
formed a froth. The white whipped topping showed up well against black
tea bowls like this, which was one reason for their popularity. Tea
making competitions were held, the winner being the person whose froth
lasted longest. The thick sides of these stoneware bowls mean the heat
of the tea is not lost quickly and the tea- drinker's fingers do not
get scalded. Stands, such as the one here, were used for serving or to
raise steaming tea bowls to the lips.
Tea Bowls, 1984 and 1000-1125. Museum nos. C.18-1935, W.3-1938,
FE.51-1984 (click image for larger version)
the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) tea was no longer made in the bowl because
leaf tea replaced powder and the dried and rolled up leaves were brewed
in teapots. These were often quite small, just big enough to make one
or two cups. The small size meant that good leaves were not wasted; the
largest one shown here is only just over 8cm high. In other ways too,
post from the Yixing kilns, where these were made, are particularly
suitable for tea-making. Stoneware keeps the tea warm and they pour
well. They are manufactured in a wide range of imaginative shapes, such
as the one on the right in the form of a water chestnut.
An Emperor Describes the Wild Resources of China, about 1700
Funerary urn (hunping)
Western Jin dynasty (265–317), ca. 250–300 China
Earthenware with green glaze
Charlotte C. and John C. Weber Collection, Gift of Charlotte C. and John C. Weber, 1992 (1992.165.21)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
hunping, or funerary urn, is a vessel
type whose provenance is generally limited to the area south of the
Yangzi River corresponding to modern northern Zhejiang and Jiangsu
provinces. The vessel type dates to the relatively short period of time
from about 250 to 300. This magnificent example with olive-green celadon
glaze covering the body possesses an extraordinarily rich assortment of
modeled figures and architecture in a well-proportioned, tiered
arrangement. Of particular interest is the row of Buddhas sitting in
meditative postures on lion thrones with lotus petals around the waist
of the vessel. These are among the earliest Buddhist images known in
hunping reflects the southern tradition
of "burial of the summoned soul." Placed in a tomb together with
armrests, banqueting tables, food, and drink, it was hoped that the soul
of the deceased would return to reside in the urn, entering, in this
particular case, through the grand double-tiered gate that appears to
lead directly into the vessel. The auspicious beasts and birds and the
seated Buddhas represent mystical entities that could guide the soul to
be reborn in paradise.
Kitchen scene from a mural in an Eastern Han tomb, about 200 (click image for larger version)
are forests of oak and poplar and beech, and wild pears and peaches,
apples and apricots. Riding by, one can pick the little plums known as
ulana, pale red like sharp cherries, and in Jehol there are cherries
both white and red and the lard sour cherries, perfect in colour and
taste; or one can eat the hazelnuts fresh fallen from the trees and
mountain walnuts roasted over an open fire. There is tea, made from
fresh snow on the little brazier slung between two horses. There is the
perfect flavour of bream and carp from the mountain streams, caught by
oneself in the early morning - you can keep something of the flavour
for Peking eating if you enclose the fish in mutton fat or pickle them
in brine before frying them up in sesame oil or lard. There is venison,
roasted over an open fire by a tent pitched on the sunny slope of a
mountain; or the liver of a newly killed stag, cooked with one's own
hands (even if the rain is falling), and eaten with salt and vinegar.
And in the northeast one can have bear's paw, which the imperial cooks
value so highly.
by Jonathan D Spence and quoted in Spence, JD Emperor of China: Self
Portrait of K'ang-hsi, Jonathan Cape, 1974, p9 (with permission of
Peters, Frasers, Dunlop).
Poem about Tea, about 820
The white porcelain jar is scrupulously clean.
The red charcoal is burning with great intensity.
The fragrant powdered tea is under the froth
Blossoms float atop the fish-eye bubbles.
The fine colour is presented in a bowl.
The fragrance remains after the feast.
(Poet's note: Exuberance over tea after a nap, in memory of Master Yang of Tongzhou)
poet Bai Juyi (772-846) quoted by Song Boyin in 'Tea Drinking, Tea Ware
and Purple Clay Ware' in KS Lo Collection in the Flagstaff House Museum
of Tea Ware, Part 2 Urban Council, Hong Kong, 1984
A Portuguese Missionary's View, about 1565
principal food of all Chinos is rice, for although they have wheat and
sell bread therefrom, yet they do not eat it save as if it were a
fruit. Their chief bread is cooked rice, and they even make a wine from
it which is comparable with a reasonable grape-wine and might even be
mistaken for it. They eat seated at tables, but they do not use
tablecloths or napkins; for they do not touch with their fingers
anything that they are going to eat, but they pick up everything with
two long little sticks. They are so expert in this, that they can take
anything, however small and carry it to their mouth, even if it is
round, like plums and other such fruits. At the beginning of a meal
they eat meat without bread, and afterwards instead of bread they eat
three or four dishes of cooked rice, which they likewise eat with their
chopsticks, even though somewhat hoggishly. At banquets, a table is
placed for each guest, and when the banquet is a formal one, each guest
gets many tables, and to explain this I would like to recount what sort
of banquets they offered us, and the way in which they were served.
a large room, at the top of the hall, they placed seven tables in a row
for each one of the Religious, and along the side-walls five tables for
each of the Spanish laymen who were there, and three tables for each of
the Chinese captains who accompanied us. And next to the doors of the
hall, opposite the Religious, sat the captains who had invited us, each
one at this own table. In our room they had arranged on one side three
tables bearing the covers for each one of us. All these tables were
loaded as much as they could be with plates and dishes of food, save
that only the principal table contained cooked meats, and all the
uncooked food was on the other tables which were for grandeur and
display. There were whole geese and ducks, capons, and hens, gammons of
bacon and other chops of pork, fresh pieces of veal and beef, many
kinds of fish, a great quantity of fruits of all kinds, with elegant
pitchers and bowls and other knick-knacks all made of sugar, and so
forth. All this which was put upon the tables, when we got up
therefrom, was put into hampers and carried to our lodgings.
Fr. Martin de Rada quoted in Boxer, CR (ed) South China in the Sixteenth Century, Hakluyt Society, 1953, p.287
Table Manners, about 220
feasting with a man of superior rank and character, the guest first
tasted the dishes and then stopped. He should not bolt the food, nor
swill down the liquor. He should take small and frequent mouthfuls.
While chewing quickly, he did not make faces with his mouth.
Do not [roll] the grain into a ball: do not bolt down the various dishes; do not swill down the soup.
not make a noise in eating; do not crunch the bones with the teeth; do
not put back fish you have been eating; do not throw the bones to the
dogs; do not snatch at what you want.
Do not try to gulp down soup
with vegetables in it, nor add condiments to it; do not keep picking
the teeth, nor swill down the sauces. If a guest add[s] condiments, the
host will apologise for not having had the soup prepared better. If he
swill[s] down the sauces the host will apologise for his poverty.
the Li ji or 'Record of Ritual' compiled in the Han dynasty, translated
by James Legge, The Li Ki: The Sacred Books of the East, F Max Müller
(ed), Vols 27 & 28, Clarendon Press, 1885, pp 468-70
photography and food