Engilsh Language Institute

           Yaolin Weng

How Food Habits Are Affected by Chinese Culture


What is food? Food, as defined in Encyclopedia Britannica, is any material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to maintain growth, repair, and life processes and to provide energy. “Food habits” are the ways which humans use food, including how food is obtained and stored, how food is prepared, how food is served and to whom, and how food is consumed (Foyan & Sucher, 1995).
Most animals normally stop eating when they get full, but people enjoy eating even though they are full. The main reason people eat is for survival. However, that is not the only reason for eating. If people ate only to satisfy survival needs, all humans everywhere would eat the same diet consisting of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and calories. But it seems not so easy, people eat variously. Jules Zanger (1996) said that food is not only an absolute necessity for all of us, but also a linkage between individuals and groups. Foods can satisfy our physical needs, but beyond that, eating and drinking are also the things most people like to do together. People of different backgrounds eat very differently, but most of them share the same happiness when they eat with friends or family. Food is life, and life can be understood through food. This is why food plays a very influential role in every society.
Culture is broadly defined in Encyclopedia Britannica as the beliefs, attitudes, values, customs, language, taboos, and habits accepted by a community of individuals. Culture is learned, not inherited; it is passed from generation to generation through learning. When people are young, they can’t decide instinctively by themselves which food they want to eat. First, they learn food preferences from their family and eventually they are affected by their culture. Culture affects food a lot, and this effect is deep-rooted. Foyan & Sucher, in their Food and Culture in America (1995), mentioned that the food and food habits of each group are always associated with religious beliefs or ethnic behaviors. Eating, like dressing in traditional clothing or speaking in a native language, is a daily reaffirmation of cultural identity. Therefore, that food is affected by culture is incontrovertibly strong.
People who come from the same culture share the same feeling about food choices. However, as Chang (1977) said, even within the same culture, food habits are not all necessarily analogous. There are some other variables and uncontrollable causes that make even the comparable ethnic groups eat differently. For instance, people in different social classes or positions eat differently. People on festivals, on ceremonies, in burials, or on a daily routine, again eat differently. Different religious beliefs have different eating taboos. Men and women, in distinct situation of their lives, eat differently. Even different individuals have different tastes as well. (Chang, 1977).
To take an example from my culture, it is very difficult to introduce Chinese food without bringing out our culture. If we take a look on Chinese culture before we eat the Chinese food, we will know that Chinese food is a social accomplishment. In Chinese culture, food is the most appropriate gift for our friends, especially when they come a long distance. We can’t celebrate weddings, birthdays, graduations, newborns, passed exams, new jobs, and even holidays without having dinners. Chinese civilization is more than 4000 years old and has made a number of significant contributions in many areas, especially in cooking. The great Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu once said that governing a great nation is much like cooking a small fish. From that, we can see what is the position that food has occupied in Chinese culture throughout history. This is no doubt that Chinese food enjoys a delicary reputation. This paper will describe three influential factors that affect food habit and acceptance in Chinese culture: socioeconomic factor, religion, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Socioeconomic Factors

 China was an agricultural country for a long time. As a result, China was developed as a country with abundant agricultural products and rich lands. Historically, cultivation was the most important thing for every family, especially during the harvest season. My grandfather told me that when he was a child, he needed to help his family sow, weed and harvest after the school. Sometimes, in the harvest season, schools even took a day off to let the students help their family. Although everyone worked hard, the life was one of poverty. That was because they needed to pay heavy taxes to the government. In addition, even though they worked hard, the land still belonged to the government. As a result, the farmers experienced extremely difficult times; therefore, the food style in that era was simple, cheap, and something contained high carbohydrate which could supply enough energy for farm labor. For instance, the typical meal in the general families was rice, yam, steamed bread, corn, and some wild vegetables, such as the leaves of yams or potatoes. There was no “meat” or “fish” at all because those are the luxury foods for special holidays only.
I read an article from my elementary textbooks called “The story of the fish head” which impressed me deeply. It was about a family they bought a fish for celebrating the Chinese New Year. Of course, everyone in this family was very happy and excited about that fish. When they started to eat, everyone tried to eat the fish body where has the most fish on, except their mother who ate the fish head only. After several years, the mother still only ate the fish head, so the children thought their mother must like it very much. Then, when they could offer better life and buy fish often, they always left the head to their mother. Until the day before their mother died, the mother finally told them that she didn’t like the fish head at all. She ate it was because she wanted her children to eat more if she didn’t eat the fish body. I think it was really sad and touchable, but it was true story. In the past time, the greeting was “Chi-Bao-Mei”. It means that did you eat yet. The important thing then was if you could eat or not, and it didn’t matter if you could full or not.
In addition, preserved foods were popular in the past time because the farmers needed to preserve the surplus foods in case of a bad harvest or difficult winter. Chang (1977) said that the Chinese preserve their food in many ways and in greater quantities than most other peoples. He also mentioned that food is preserved by smoking, salting, sugaring, steeping, pickling, drying, and soaking in many kinds of soy sauces. Many kinds of foodstuffs are involved, such as grains, meat, fruit, eggs, vegetables, and everything else. Chang (1977) thinks that with preserved food, the Chinese people were ready for the hardship and scarcity.
About 40 years ago, the government practiced the “land to the tiller policy”- it means that every farmer could buy or loan the land which they used to planet, and the “land development policy”- the government helped those farmers how to utilize their land well, so that they could improve their life. After that, the economy grew rapidly, then the life became much easier than before. Meat and fish were not luxury goods any more. Right now, most Chinese eat meat and fish almost every day, and famine is not a problem any more, instead of that it is obesity. My father said that in their age, life was difficult when they were young, the only chance they could eat meat, fish or even just eggs was their sickness, someone’s birthday or Chinese New Year. Therefore, my father always reminds us not to waste food and he wants us to keep a thankful mind for what we have today.
Someone once said that you are what you eat. That goes not only for nutrition, but also for social status. In China, status emulation is apparent in food choice. Undeniably, money is the most important reason for people considering what they want to consume. Therefore, eating together also has a certain social status meaning. For example, Chang (1977) said that a person of high social status wouldn’t accept an invitation to eat with a lower social status person. We also can see what is this person’s social position from the seat in the table when we are eating. Generally, a person of high social status sits on the main seat and makes an announcement for start.


Like ethnic identity belief, religious beliefs may have a great impact on food or may have no influence at all. It depends on what kind of religion is followed and how much it is adhered to. In China, food is an important part of religious symbolism. The Chinese major religion is Buddhism, which was developed in India, and flourished during T’ang (618-917) dynasty in China. (Foyan & Sucher, 1995) Unlike the Western religions, Buddhism doesn’t teach that God is the leader of the universe. The main belief in Buddhism is to deliver the human soul, and the Buddhists believe that life is a cycle, including the past, present, and future life. If you want to be a human being in your future life, you should be good in the present life which means you always need to help other people even animals. Moreover, Buddhist tenet forbids the taking of life; therefore, most Buddhists are vegetarians. However, Register and Sonnenberg (1973) said that there are two kinds of vegetarians, including strict-vegetarian (no eggs and dairy products) and lacto-ovo-vegetarians (eating eggs and dairy products, but no meat). What kind of vegetarians they are depends on the different situation and sect. For instance, my grandmother, my aunt and my cousin are all vegetarians, but they eat differently. My grandmother and my aunt are strict-vegetarians, so they don’t eat meat, eggs, milk or any dairy products. They eat soybean products, such as soy-bean milk, tofu, or bean-curd cake etc.. In addition, they intake the vitamin B-complex capsule to get complete nutrients which are only included in the meat products. However, my cousin is a lacto-ovo-vegetarian. She doesn’t eat meat, but she eats eggs, milk every day, especially when she got pregnant, she even ate some fish for good quality protein and calcium sources. My grandmother told me that it would be fine to eat meat or something else under the special reasons. She said Buddhism would understand and wouldn’t blame you for that.
Moreover, there is a phenomenon, which may not be found in the U.S, called “manism”. most Chinese prepare the food to serve their ancestors’ spirits and deities on a special holiday and on the dates they died - that is manism. There are many different deities in the Buddhist pantheon, including the Kitchen God that we call “Cho San”. He is the Kitchen God, guardian of the family, protector of the hearth, and patron deity of professional cooks. In the book Food in China, Simoons (1991) explained why food is related to this phenomenon and what kinds of food would be offered. In Chinese culture, several days before the Chinese New Year, Cho San and other deities will all be invited by the supreme Buddhist god to have a meeting about their annual jobs in earth. Before that time, Cho San is given a farewell dinner by Chinese people, that only includes sweets, such as sugar candy, honey, sweet rice, cake and fruit. Chinese people hope that can seal his lips, then he will say only sweet things when he visits the god to give his annual family report.
In addition, Chinese people offer not only food, but also everything to their ancestors as if they are still alive. They buy the paper house, car, clothes, and money, then burn those during manism. They hope their ancestors can have a good life and eat well in the heaven. My grandmother, my aunt and my cousin are all Buddhist, for them, manism is their belief. As the result, they offer food to our ancestors every month. Even my parents, who are not Buddhist, also do this every year. It doesn’t matter if we are Buddhists or not, Chang (1977) said in Chinese culture, it is believed deeply that our ancestors’ spirits would protect us forever if we did well on manism.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Chinese medicine has spread for a long time since Three Kingdoms Dynasty (220-265). Hua Tou was the father of traditional Chinese medicine; he enhanced and compiled the most traditional medicine recipes which spread around the whole China (Chang, 1977). Chinese medicine gathers many secret recipes from professional practice by physicians and folk remedies. Foyan and Sucher (1995) think that the Chinese medical therapy depends on the dynamic equilibrium of forces necessary for humans. These include the five elements of fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. Each of them may become unbalanced, such as fire consumes wood, or wood absorbs earth. These elements correspond with five organs in our body: the heart, spleen, lungs, kidney, and gallbladder, respectively. Then, associations with secretions (perspiration, saliva, mucous, spit, and tears); the seasons (summer, late summer, autumn, winter, and spring); tongue colors (red, yellow, white, blue, and green); tastes (bitter, sweet, pungent, salty, and sour); and directions (south, center, west, north, and east) and sometimes times of day, odors, sounds, and emotions may also occur (Gould-Martin & Ngin, 1981;Ludman et al., 1989; Sheikh & Sheikh, 1989, cited in Foyan and Sucher,1995;323). Chinese medical therapy is to emphasize dietary and lifestyle changes, or attempt to balance the organs so that emotional balance results. After asking about symptoms, examining the tongue, and evaluating the pulse, the doctor will determine the proper mixture of plant, animal, and mineral products to cure the disease.
Chinese medicine advocates that the human body is a harmony that must include yin and yang, and illness occurs when disequilibrium happens. The forces of yin are cooling, dark, and feminine; and those of yang are heating, light, and masculine. Woman natually tend to have more yin than man, but there are individual differences. Moreover, organs such as the liver, heart, spleen, kidney, and lungs are yin, as is the inside and the front of the body. The gallbladder, stomach, intestines, and bladder are yang, as well as the body surface and the back. Outside forces, such as the seasons, are also defined as yin (winter/spring) and yang (summer/fall) and illnesses associated with these times may fall into corresponding categories. Symptoms of disease usually reflect an imbalance between yin and yang.
Chinese people classify foods as hot and cold. When the body has too much yin, then the body needs the hot food to balance its harmony; if too much yang, then the body needs the cold foods. Chang (1977) told us the commonly classify hot foods are (1) fatty flesh, such as meat and oil; (2) spices, such as; chili peppers and ginger; and (3) strong alcoholic drinks. Hot foods generally include those that are high in calories, cooked in oil, and irritating to the mouth and those that are red, orange, or yellow in color. However, cold foods are mostly fruits, bland or low-calorie vegetables, raw or boiled/steamed, soothing, and green or white in color. Of course, the cooking method and other factors will have different effects on food. For example, the ingredients used in preparing foods contribute on their hotness or coldness as well. We can make slightly cold food into a hot dish by adding chili to it. In addition, grilling, roasting, and baking are hot, and deep-frying is hottest. Foyan and Sucher thought that health is generally maintained by eating the proper balance of yin and yang food. Typically, hot foods are eaten in the winter, by menstruation, pregnant, and postpartum women (especially during the first month following childbirth), and for fatigue. For instance, the sesame chicken is the best tonic for postpartum women. Cool foods are consumed in the summer, for dry lips, and to relieve irritability. For example, my favorite foods in summer are watermelon, green bean ice soup and almond-flavored tofu soup.
Some food taboos have been noted during pregnancy. Soy sauce may be avoided to prevent dark skin, and iron supplements may not be taken because they are thought to harden the baby’s bones and make birth difficult. Shellfish may also be shunned in the belief that eating it will cause allergies later in the child’s life. Ginseng is taken as a general tonic, especially in the later months ( Campbell & Chang, 1981 ). Chinese medicine is always in Chinese mind from this generation to other generation, and possesses one part in Chinese culture, especially on food choice.
The study of culturally based food habits is not an exact science; further, there are no absolute right or wrong ways to use food. The more we understand multicuture, the better we accept the food differences. Food in Chinese culture is fascinating. It takes a long time to begin to form its own characters. Even in the present time, Chinese still maintain a lot of traditional food habits while they are eating, such as manism, preserved food and harmonic diet. Chinese believe that the balanced diet can keep body harmony, therefore, it is very important to eat everything consist of cereal, meat, vegetable, and fruit. In addition, when Chinese cook, food taboos are the main reason to be considered at most time, especially during pregnancy. No matter how long it will be, I believe that Chinese culture will still be the most important reason to affect food habits. They are inseparable. Those three factors only some of them, there are still other factors, such as lifestyle, festivals, gender, age, region, and cuisine so on. All of them work together and make food in every ethnic group more characteristic.


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Chang. K. C., (1977). Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. New Haven, CT : Yale University Press.
Foyan Pamela K. & Sucher Kathryn P. (1995) Food and Culture in America. C.A.: Wadsworth Publishment Company.
Gould-Martin, K., & Ngin, C.(1981). Chinese Americans. In Ethnicity and Medical Care. A. Harwood ( Ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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updata Aug 10,98 by Yao-Lin Weng, yaoweng@hotmail