food in the arts 当代 rn



Eating and Drinking in China

Food’s Central Place in Chinese Life/  ARTISTS 1900 onwards/ ART MAIN

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Food’s Central Place in Chinese Life

While 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

Rice 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).

Among the 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.

Table 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)


Chinese 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 face.

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)


Tea 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)

By 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

The 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 China.

The 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)  

There 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.

Translated 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)

The 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

The 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.

In 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

When 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.
Do 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.

From 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

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