Woman eating with chopsticks in Songpan county, China
Wei Zhou

BEIJING â€" In his book on Confucianism, Taiwanese academic Kung Peng-Cheng explored how Chinese people have historically had among the fewest cultural restraints related to the food and drink they consume. "They eat almost anything," Kung remarked.

Even alcohol, strictly prohibited in many societies for religious reasons, has only occasionally been banned in Chinese history, usually a provisional restriction based on practical reasons without serious enforcement. Never in Chinese history has temperance on religious grounds become any kind of national policy.

This consumption freedom is related to a particularity of Chinese society. Even as the country was precocious in establishing a strong political system, during the Qin (247â€"221 BC) and Han Dynasties (206 BCâ€"220 AD), religion was instead a relatively much more relaxed feature in China's society. Confucianism, indeed, upheld the belief that what people should be concerned about is the here and now.

Thus, apart from specific events in life, such as during a period of mourning where people adhere to a ritual of no alcohol, there exists no strict taboo on what can be consumed. Even when one violated the precept, it was characterized as "exceeding etiquette" or "being immoral." People rarely worried that after death they might fall into the Avici hell, where according to Taoism or Buddhism, doers of grave misdeeds in this life were sent.

In modern times, in Europe or America, although temperance movements usually applied secular reasoning such as "drinking is the cause of crime," or "a bad habit," the deeper driving force was often religious.

Tea drinking, on the other hand, is viewed as having a "non-essential but addictive nature," and has been widely allowed both in the West and in the Middle East where religious discipline is generously more vigorous. In China, it was banned in 1123 by the non-Han ethnic Jin Dynasty ruler for common people. He feared that "massive tea consumption was a severe depletion of national strength."

Drinking black lychee tea in Shenzhen â€" Photo: Laszlo Ilyes

Meanwhile, for the addictive opium, tobacco and cigarettes, which are obviously health hazards, China did not originally link them with morals. According to a study of China’s modern movements against smoking, Chinese historian Liu Wennan found they were either based on utilitarian arguments such as "it can cause an accidental fire," or that it was a form of "waste (that) should be eliminated."

Overall, Chinese society's attitudes towards alcohol, tea or smoking have come more from the perspective of social order or the state's financial resources. Rarely was consuming these products upgraded to the status of a crime or evil action.

Such a historical basis may be the best way to understand why Chinese people have no taboo on food â€" because they don't have to worry about violating precepts. Ultimately, this is due to their faint conception of religion and a long established social order dominated by secular politics.

Anything that crawls

This culinary freedom among Chinese people has long created a rather bizarre and decadent impression to the eyes of Westerners. In his 1832 memoir, U.S. diplomat Edmund Roberts, said of a trip to Canton that he witnessed "the most fallen and cruel customs." He saw people gambling, but also using "lethal drugs and spirits to bring pleasure, while at the same time being brutally omnivorous. They consume anything that runs, walks, crawls on the ground, flies in the sky or swims in the water."

Of course, it's been just as hard for Chinese people to understand why Europeans haven't eaten all the delicious hairy fresh-water crabs crawling around.

Even compared with Japan, which belongs to the same East Asia cultural circle, Chinese people are much more relaxed about food. Because of the introduction of Buddhism into their country, most Japanese emperors banned the eating of meat from 675 onwards, and at times even seafood. It was not until 1872, during the Meiji Reform, that the Japanese emperor encouraged people to eat meat again, because officials had come to believe it was meat that made Westerners strong and smart. Though Buddhism passed through China before arriving in Japan, a vegetarian diet and temperance obviously failed to become a social consensus for the Chinese.

A typical Chinese meal â€" Photo: Richard Whittington/VW Pics/ZUMA

Another convincing argument for why the Chinese have so little restraint about what is edible is that "China has too large a population," noted Lin Yutang, a renowned literati of the last century. "Famines have come much too often. To survive, one is obliged to eat everything that can be held between the fingers."

This doesn't explain why India, which also has a huge population and has often suffered from food shortages, has never approached food like China. Even more curious is why well-off Chinese people today can go wild with joy eating dishes such as chicken claws, tripe or blood pudding.

Ultimately, without the boundaries of religion, Chinese people’s appetites have been guided by pragmatism and eternal flexibility. Eugene Anderson, the American anthropology professor, noted in his book The Food of China that the relative lack of food taboos has allowed Chinese cooking to adopt far richer and more diverse sources of ingredients, while at the same time helping to keep social order and "feed the world's most populous nation over the long term."

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ