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Chinese Food Culture — Fun Facts, History, Development, and Etiquette

Chinese food is an entire system that includes tens of thousands of dishes throughout history, various cooking methods, symbolic meanings, artsy tableware, and dining etiquette.

Rosewood Food Box with Silver Dinnerwares of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Rosewood Food Box with Silver Dinnerwares of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum

Facts

Fun Facts and History of Chinese Food by Ancient Dynasties.

 

  • The invention of porcelains and cultivation of the Five Grains (soybeans, wheat, broom corn, foxtail millet, and rice) and certain livestock in the Neolithic Era, plus hunting and fishing, formed the most basic diet foundation of the Chinese diet. 

Millet Noodle Unearthed from Lajia Site (about 4000 years ago) of Late Neolithic

Millet Noodle Unearthed from Lajia Site (about 4000 years ago) of Late Neolithic — Qinghai Museum

  • In the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), ancient Chinese food culture was officially formed, including dining etiquette, dishes, and tableware that were strictly regulated by one's social status. 

 

The ruling class was also referred to as Meat Eaters because, generally, only they could eat meat during this period.  

  • Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC), the founder of Confucianism, concluded an entire system of dining culture, from ingredients, cooking methods, table manners, dining environments, food quality, quantity, and drink. 

Bronze Container (Jian) that Could Place Ice Cubes to Cool Wine and Food, Unearthed from Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (about 475 BC — 433 BC)

Bronze Container (Jian) that Could Place Ice Cubes to Cool Wine and Food, Unearthed from Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (about 475 BC — 433 BC) — National Museum of China

  • During Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Zhang Qian opened up the Silk Road and introduced many new types of food, including vegetables, fruits, flavorings, etc.

 

  • With the scientific development of this era, more cooking methods and food were invented, such as Tofu, vegetable oil, and pastry fermentation.

Grave Mural of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) 7.3 m × 0.7m

Royal Banquet of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) — Grave Mural in Dahuting Tomb in Zhengzhou

 

Diary products from nomadic regimes were introduced and flourished in the north, and more fish dishes and rice became popular in the south. 

  • In the gold age Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), ingredients and cooking methods thrived.

 

  • Most flavorings had been discovered and widely used in cooking, except for capsicum. 

 

  • Civilians started to eat three meals every day during this period. Before Tang, ordinary people ate two meals daily, while only nobles could eat thrice. 

 

  • Mutton was the most popular meat, and different types of wheaten food were the main staple food. 

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty

Unearthed Wheaten Food and Utensils of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

  • Stir fry food in the iron pot, one of the essential cooking methods of Chinese dishes, was popularized in the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) when technology extensively reduced the cost of producing iron.

 

  • In the Song Empire, mutton was mainly eaten by royals and nobles, while civilians could mostly afford pork, chicken, fish, and duck.  

 

  • Morning markets, night markets, professional catering, and takeouts all appeared and flourished during the Song Dynasty to serve exquisite food.

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan

Along the River During the Qingming Festival or Qingming Shang He Tu, Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — The Palace Museum

  • More crops were introduced in the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), such as sweet potatoes, maize, potato, and peanuts, which became the staple food of poor people. 

 

  • Food culture reached its prime during Ming (1368 — 1644) and Qing (1636 — 1912) dynasties when previous cuisines were further developed and more minority cuisines were included.  

 

Click to Read More About Chinese Dishes

Classification

Distribution and Classification of Chinese Cuisines.

Eight Cuisines

Because of the geographical, climatic, and historical differences, during the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), the Eight Cuisines of China have formed: Shandong CuisineZhejiang CuisineGuangdong CuisineHunan Cuisine, Sichuan CuisineAnhui CuisineJiangsu Cuisine, and Fujian Cuisine.

Till today, this is still the primary classification of Chinese Cuisine. However, many people feel this classification is partial and incomplete and doesn't include many delicacies from other places in China.

Sacrificial Food

 

In ancient history, sacrifice and worship ceremonies to heaven, earth, immortals, and ancestors, were significant rites of an empire.

Hence, ritual food, drink, and wares had strict regulations based on one's social status and dynasty. 

 

Today, offering ceremonial food to ancestors, deities, and religious temples on important days is still an essential rite for many Chinese people. 

Ritual Bronze Tripod of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) Used to Place Food

Ritual Bronze Tripod of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) Used to Place Food — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ceremonial Food

 

In the lifetime of a person, many important days worthing celebrating, when certain types of dishes were provided in different ceremonies, according to tradition and customs, from Birth Celebration, Coming of Age Ceremony, to one's Wedding, Birthday, and to celebrate one's good scores in Imperial Examination.  

Steamed Flower Buns in Traditional Weddings of Some Northern Places in China.

Steamed Flower Buns in Traditional Weddings of Some Northern Places in China.

Festival Food

 

People would eat some traditional Chinese food at every Traditional Chinese Festival and each date of 24 Solar Terms. 

 

Such as Zongzi for Dragon Boat Festival, mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival, dumplings for Winter Solstice, etc. 

 

Read more about Traditional Chinese Festivals and 24 Solar Terms.

Daily Food

 

The most common food for people daily includes staple food like rice and wheat, vegetables and fruits, soybean, meat, dairy products, desserts, tea, alcoholic drinks, and beverages

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) of the Song Dynasty, Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135), Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars — Taipei Palace Museum

Characteristics

Characteristics of Chinese Food Culture.

 

  • Highly valued and promoted by royals and scholars. 

 

Many well-established great scholars were great gourmets and frequently noted and described fine dining culture in their poems and articles, such as Confucius, Li Bai, and Su Shi. 

  • Related food to Traditional Chinese Medicine.  

 

Based on Yin Yang and Five Elements, food has been used to improve one's health or cure certain diseases, such as Diet Therapy or Medical Diet.

 

In this theory, all types of food can be divided into Yin (those that make the body cold) and Yang (those that make the body warm) while corresponding to the Five Elements. 

Neutralizing the Five Flavors and Yin-Yang is the Essence of Chinese Food Culture and the Medical Diet.

 

Five Elements in Chinese Culture: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, Earth

Five Flavors of food: Spicy, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Sweet 

Five Main Colors: White, Cyan, Black, Red, Yellow

Five Internal Organs: Lung, Liver, Kidney, Heart, Spleen

Five Sense Organs: Nose, Eye, Ear, Tongue, Mouth

 

Particular food is good for the corresponding organs and is more beneficial in specific seasons. 

Chinese Food Therapy
  • Seasonal differences.

Because of different situations in the four seasons, diet and cooking methods also are suggested to be adaptable to these changes. 

 

For instance, mild food in spring, light and cold ones in summer, digestive food in autumn, and high-calorie and nutritious dishes in winter.

 

  • Flavoring and diet diversity regionally.

 

In a country with a long history and vast territory, diet shows diversity in different regions of China.

 

In the north, people eat different types of wheat food as staples, while rice is the main staple food for southerners. 

 

As for flavorings of dishes, a fundamental conclusion is salty in the north, sweet in the south, sour in the east, and spicy in the west.

  • No standardized production. 

 

In different Chinese cuisines, one ingredient can be cooked into other flavors. Moreover, different chefs could make the same dish to different tastes. 

 

Therefore, there's no universal standard for a specific dish. Also, it is common that one can only eat certain types of food in a particular place or restaurant. 

  • Hot food in small size for chopsticks.

Generally, the Chinese prefer hot food for all three meals and would cut food before cooking. This way, different ingredients would better influence each other, making it easy for chopsticks to eat.  

  • To make the best possible use of food ingredients.

 

As an agricultural society that had suffered countless famines over thousands of years of long history, ancient Chinese almost tried and tested everything edible and preserved many ways to cook them into tasty dishes, such as offals.

  • Integration of food with symbolic meanings. 

 

Remarkable scholars' love of food throughout history, rich local tradition and folklore, and exceptional creativities of civilians together give many dishes interesting names with beautiful meanings.

Lucky Meaning

Lucky Meanings of Some Popular Food in Chinese Culture.

 

Here lists some popular food in Chinese culture with lucky meanings because of homophonic pronunciations:

 

Fish: surplus, wealth, and affluence. 

 

Chicken: auspiciousness.

 

New Year Cake or Nian Gao: higher, promotion, and more accomplishments.

 

Glutinous Ball or Tang Yuan: reunite and perfect. 

 

Celery: diligent. 

 

Lettuce: make a fortune.

 

Chinese Cabbage or Bai Cai: auspicious and wealthy.

Peanut: have beautiful children soon.

 

Noodle: longevity.

 

Apple: safe and sound. 

 

Persimmon: everything goes well as one wishes. 

 

Peach: represents longevity in ancient mythological folklore. 

 

Dumplings: they look like silver or gold ingots in ancient history, representing wealth and fortune.

Gold Ingot Especially Offered to Princes During Tianqi Emperor's Reign

Gold Ingot Especially Offered to Princes During Tianqi Emperor's Reign (1621 —  1627) — National Museum of China

Name

What Are Interesting Ways to Name Chinese Dishes?

 

Names of many dishes in Chinese cuisines are classy, beautiful, or very funny, such as Sweet-scented Osmanthus In the Moon, General Crossing Bridge, Buddha Jumping Over the Wall, Tai Ji Vegetable, Jade Heart, etc. 

 

There are some ways to name dishes, which may explain those interesting names:

 

  • Historical events. Such as "Bawang Bie Ji" to memorize King Xiangyu, one of the strongest forces that overthrew the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC). 

 

  • Mythological legends. Such as "Carp Jumping Dragon Gate" based on myths that some carp can incarnate into dragons if they succeed in jumping over the Dragon Gate.

Chinese food the Carp Jumping Dragon Gate Dish
  • Famous people. Such as "Dongpo Pork" which was invented by the great poet and official Su Shi (1037 — 1101), and "Kung Pao Chicken" which was created by official Ding Baozhen (1821 — 1886).

 

  • Regional specialty. Such as "Beijing Duck" and "Dezhou Braised Chicken". 

 

  • Ingredients or cooking methods. Like "Scrambled Eggs with Tomatoes" and "Braised Eggplant". 

 

  • The looks of the dishes. The "Peacock Flaunting" is a fish dish named after its exquisite layout, and the "Jade Heart" is made of Chinese radish.

Chinese food the Jade Heart Dish
Cooking Methods

Basic Chinese Cooking Methods

 

Today, there are about 36 main cooking methods in Chinese Cuisine, and some dishes need more than one method. 

 

Some common ones include stir-frying, deep-frying, braising, boiling, steaming,  shallow-frying, red stewing, roasting, broiling, grilling, baking, sauteing, simmering, and so on.

Tablewares

Artsy Tableware Throughout History

Artifacts of Tableware, Photo by Dongmaiying.