Woman eating with chopsticks in Songpan county, China
Woman eating with chopsticks in Songpan county, China
Wei Zhou

BEIJING — 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 (247—221 BC) and Han Dynasties (206 BC—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."

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Drinking black lychee tea in Shenzhen — 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 — 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.

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."

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