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, and dining etiquettes.

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

 

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 Chinese food. 

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, and dishes and tablewares 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 Chinese food 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 as well, such as Tofu, vegetable oil, 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 types of 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, normal people ate two meals each day, when only nobles could eat three times. 

 

  • 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 most important cooking methods of Chinese food, 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 mostly could afford pork, chicken, fish, and duck.  

 

  • Morning market, night market, 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 types of 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. 

 

  • Chinese food culture reached 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 History of Chinese Dishes

 

Distribution and Classification of Chinese Cuisines

Eight Cuisines of Chinese Food

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

Till today, this is still the basic classification of Chinese cuisines, though many people feel this classification is partial, incomplete, and doesn't include large numbers of delicacies from lots of 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, religious temples on important days, is still an important rite by 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, there are many important days that 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

 

On every Traditional Chinese Festival, and each date of 24 Solar Terms, people would eat some traditional Chinese food. 

 

Such as Zongzi for Dragon Boat Festival, mooncake 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 to eat every day, including staple food like rice and wheaten food, vegetables and fruits, soybean products, 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 of Chinese Food Culture

 

  • Highly valued and promoted by royals and scholars. 

 

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

  • Relating food to Traditional Chinese Medicine.  

 

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

Neutralization of 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

 

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

Chinese Food Therapy
  • Seasonal differences.

Because of different situations in 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, 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 wheaten food as staples, while rice is the main staple food for southerners. 

 

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

  • No standardized production. 

 

In different Chinese cuisines, one ingredient can be cooked in many ways into different flavors. Moreover, different chefs could cook the same dish to different tastes. 

 

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

  • Hot food in small size for chopsticks.

Generally, the Chinese prefer hot food in all three meals and would cut food before cooking. This way, different ingredients would be better influencing each other during cooking, and easy to chopsticks to eat.  

  • To make the best possible use of food Ingredients.

 

As an agricultural society that had suffered countless times of famines in thousands of years of long history, ancient Chinese almost tried and test 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 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 affluent. 

 

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 folklores. 

 

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

 

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 in Chinese food culture, 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 legends that some carps 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 invented 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". 

 

  • Looks of dishes. The "Peacock Flaunting" is a type of fish dish named after its exquisite layout, or "Jade Heart" is made of Chinese radish.

Chinese food the Jade Heart Dish
 

What Are the Basic Cooking Methods of Chinese Food?

 

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

 

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

 

What Are the Tablewares of Chinese Food Culture?

Artifacts of Tablewares of Chinese Food, Photo by Dongmaiying.

 

Chinese Tea Culture

 

From planting to the drinking of tea, everything included in this procedure is the tea culture. 

 

No matter it is expensive or cheap tea leaves, drinking in fancy rites or simple cups, with or without exquisite refreshments, in a classy room, or on the road, or in beautiful nature, nothing is more important than the taste of the tea. 

 

Chinese Tea Culture can be extremely complicated, or quite simple.

 

It is in many ancient tea books, in countless historical poems and paintings, in many beautiful tea plantations, in Chinese philosophy and religions, and in everyone’s teacups. 

 

People are the culture; hence, whenever, whatever, and however they drink, they are all part of the Chinese Tea Culture. 

Tea Set

History and Development of Tea in China

 

Tea was firstly used in Chinese medicine when the Flame Emperor (Yan Di) discovered them. Since the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), tea became a type of beverage and valuable gift. 

 

Hundreds of years later, tea was an important daily necessity in China; from royal to civilians, artists to peasants.

 

This is the reason why tea culture can be both complex and easy, exquisite, and simple. 

 

Till the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), the drinking of tea formed an entire and classy theory. One of the best articles about tea culture during this period was written by Emperor Zhao Ji, a marvelous artist and a horrible monarch with a tragic ending. 

 

Gradually, more tea pieces were cultivated, more tea sets and making skills were invented, and more tasting methods were applied. 

 

Meanwhile, the utilization of tea expanded to almost all important events like the Chinese Wedding

 

Read More Fun Facts About Chinese Tea

In the Painting "Wen Hui Tu" by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135), People Are Making and Drinking Tea

In the Painting "Wen Hui Tu" by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135), People Are Making and Drinking Tea — Taipei Palace Museum

 

Chinese Alcohol Drinks 

Alcohol in Chinese means eternality, possession, and longevity. 

 

The most historical alcohol in China is the Millet Wine or the Rice Wine, which has been popularized for thousands of years. They were highly appreciated and noted in many poems and historical articles, and are more prevalent in southern China. 

 

The Distilled Spirit is relatively new, with a few hundred years of history. Nowadays, people in northern places in China are drinking them more. 

 

Grain, rice, fruit, and flower, all can be used to make wine. 

 

Function

 

In Chinese culture, wine is used to drink, cure disease, cook, and for health preservation.

 

Meanwhile, alcohol has been an important part of all traditional ceremonies, from the grand national rites to people’s big days.

Read More Fun Facts About Chinese Alcohol

Painting "Lan Ting Xiu Xi" by Wen Huiming (1470 - 1559)

Painting "Lan Ting Xiu Xi" by Wen Huiming (1470 - 1559), Presents An Ancient Way for People to Drink from Cups that are Floating in River — Palace  Museum

 

Basic Table Manners in Chinese Food Culture

 

 

  • Not to point at others using chopsticks;

 

  • Not to stir and pick up in dishes;

 

  • Only eat from dishes nearby;

 

  • Not to hit plates and bowls using chopsticks;

 

  • Not to stick or insert chopsticks in food;

  • Do not eat everything off the plate, which shows that you are full and the host has provided enough food. 

 

Click to Read More About Toasting and Table Manners