Chinese food for thought

March 31, 2011
Chinese food for thought

Chinese food contains a hidden recipe for living, a new analysis reveals.

Writing in a book published this week, Cambridge academic Professor Roel Sterckx argues that the culinary arts supplied some of the key concepts and metaphors in Chinese philosophy and political thought over 2,000 years ago.

Much of the symbolism that pervades Chinese food culture, he suggests, not only influenced the early Chinese but also survives in Chinese society today.

Drawing on virtually the entire corpus of texts that were produced in China for 800 years after the 6th century BCE, Sterckx explores how a vibrant culinary culture was important for how the early Chinese explained the workings of the human senses.

He discovered that one of the most recurrent portrayals of ministers, advisers, and those offering counsel to rulers and emperors is that they started their careers as cooks or butchers.

"Cooking, eating, feeding, dining and banqueting were a much used craft analogy for good and moral government in traditional China," explained Sterckx, who is the Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History, Science and Civilisation. "Cooks, butchers and stewards exemplified some of the worldly skills upon which the art of rulership was modelled."

For instance, the ability to combine ingredients in equal proportion to ensure that no individual flavour overpowers the other symbolised the idea of harmony. Likewise, chopping up meat in equal portions, or controlling one's intake of alcohol during banquets and rituals, exemplified a sense for propriety and order.

China's most famous thinker Confucius (551-479 BCE) claimed that a person of good morals should not crave a full stomach. He allegedly found pleasure in coarse food and plain water, did not speak during his meal, and would not eat to the full in the presence of someone in mourning. The Chinese sage was also said to be able to go through an entire day of ritual drinking without getting inebriated.

The ancient Chinese also believed that nutrition influenced the moral character of human beings, including an unborn person's moral development. A mother could 'instruct' the fetus by eating only food that was cut properly and from well-balanced dishes.

Rulers and emperors were admonished to modify their intake of food depending on the circumstances of the day. This included economising on the amount of dishes served at court in times of famine, or switching to vegetarian fare in times of floods and droughts.

"In political terms, the banquet in China was a coded environment, at times reminiscent of high table at Cambridge colleges," said Sterckx. "Banquets affirmed respective hierarchies among participants that were expressed in the seating arrangements, in the number of allocated dishes, in the sequence in which guests toasted their host or vice versa, and in the utensils, food vessels and cups used during a meal."

Banquets were also venues where matters of political and military honour were settled and drinking parties were often put on as a ploy to trick, humiliate, or eliminate political opponents.

"Chinese culture is remarkably continuous," Sterckx added, "and it is fascinating to observe how many of the ideas and practices I discovered in ancient texts while researching this book survive in Chinese society today: the presentation of food offerings is still at the heart of Chinese religious practice, a lively religious economy centred on hosting and the exchange of gifts is resurfacing in China, and the Chinese language remains peppered with vocabulary and images that draw on dietary culture."

"Remarkably, some of the complex rules and etiquette that surround the banqueting of guests and hosting of visitors and political delegations today differ little from the regulations prescribed in the ritual classics from the time of Confucius!"

More information: … 3/?site_locale=en_GB

Related Stories

Recommended for you

175 years on, study finds where you live still determines your life expectancy

December 13, 2017
Research led by the University of Liverpool has revisited a study carried out 175 years ago which compared the health and life expectancy of people in different parts of the country, including Liverpool, to see if its findings ...

Postmenopausal women should still steer clear of HRT: task force

December 12, 2017
(HealthDay)—Yet again, the nation's leading authority on preventive medicine says postmenopausal women should avoid hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Will 'AI' be part of your health-care team?

December 12, 2017
(HealthDay)—Artificial intelligence is assuming a greater role in many walks of life, with research suggesting it may even help doctors diagnose disease.

State-level disclosure laws affect patients' eagerness to have their DNA tested

December 12, 2017
Different types of privacy laws in U.S. states produce markedly different effects on the willingness of patients to have genetic testing done, according to a new study co-authored by an MIT professor.

Babies born during famine have lower cognition in midlife

December 12, 2017
Hunger and malnutrition in infancy may lead to poor cognitive performance in midlife, according to a new study.

Full moon linked to increased risk of fatal motorcycle crashes

December 11, 2017
The full moon is associated with an increased risk of fatal motorcycle crashes in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, finds a study in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (2) Mar 31, 2011
China's most famous thinker Confucius (551-479 BCE) claimed that...

Practicing eating short of a really full stomach keeps a person from over-eating. Over-eating leaves a person sluggish mentaly and physically for sometime, invites obesity and sloth. Coarse foods means lots of fibre and not refined starches. Plain water is essential for the body, not for the taste buds by adding sugar or else. Silent eating makes you concentrate on the food and chewing properly, for best digestion of the amount of food ingested. It also concentrate the mind that you are spending considerable time eating, so you would eat less overall.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 01, 2011
It all breaks down to: all things in moderation, balance and good morals shown through actions. Real intelligent people. Westerners could learn a thing or 500 from the Chinese and Japanese cultures like working for the betterment of the whole community and not being so selfish.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.