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Chinese Food Symbolism: Meat (Part II)

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Foods and Symbolism

Summer Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(2) page(s): 13 and14


The Chinese people place great emphasis on cultural significance and symbolism of the foods that they eat. In the last issue, facts about fruits were detailed; in this issue, meats and meanings, handed down from generation to generation, are the topic tended. Animals have significance at table, in speech, at festivities, and on clothing and walls. The latter are often pictorial prayers asking providential blessing.

In the sayings category, a common phrase is that if a Chinese man dies without marriage, he is buried without ceremony. Another says that if he eats without meat, his meal is no ceremony. The rationale of the latter is that the meals served at life-cycle events such as marriages, weddings, and funerals, except for those of the Buddhist persuasion, include much animal protein. It celebrates occasions showing status and wealth. At these times, it appeared often and in many guises.

One may wonder about the importance of meat beside cash and class. If you do, think of Noah or Buddha and perhaps your musings will cease. Speaking of Buddha and his concern for animals, remember that when he called the animals to him the rat arrived first. The Chinese zodiac uses the twelve animals that appeared before Buddha in the order they arrived. This is the Year of the Rat, the start of the 79th cycle of sets of sixty years, part of the Chinese calendrical system. However, our society began in the Year of the Tiger. Those big cats have lots of charm and even more braveur; they expose themselves to great risk. We eat little of either of these fellows. Why would one eat a rat, emblematic of meanness and timidity; why consume the tiger who also wants to be mean. These two animals are the good and bad of the world with little else in their sacks of symbolism. Their lesser and greater relations have lots of symbolism. For example a relative to the rat, his flying cousin the bat, brings happiness. This little night wanderer is often shown in quintuplicate. Each bat represents a blessing, that of wealth, health, love of virtue, old age, and a wish for death by natural causes. Why a bat? In Chinese, the word for bat is fu, and is identical to the sound of the word for 'good fortune.'

An equally lofty fellow, the swallow, regurgitates his saliva as he makes his home. His domicile is relished in dishes such as Birds Nest Soup. Eating this nest means gaining strength and stimulation; the Chinese believe that birds nests are an aphrodisiac. Another textured food, shark's fin (traditionally the third course at a wedding feast) also boasts aphrodisiac qualities, they are believed to be tonic foods, too.

Moving along in an alphabetic way, the carp is a symbol for those most likely to succeed. The word for carp is li, which also sounds like advantage. This underwater creature is on the wall of many a business. Why, because the carp jumps out of water, and li expresses the wish to jump over ordinary things. The carp also stands for vigor, endurance, and power, and as do all fish, it speaks of prosperity. Meals, festive or family, end with a steamed fish (the head pointing to an honored guest); and those who live far from lake or sea will serve something on a fish-shaped board to symbolically assure prosperity for all.

Did you ever visit a Chinese friend and find a male chicken or two gracing their walls? The cock, if red, says the home is protected from fire; if white it is protected, too, chasing away demons. The cock or tenth creature in the Chinese zodiac, is rarely if ever, eaten in China. Like the bat, this animal if often depicted in groups of five. The purpose, however, is different, it serves as a reminder to all fathers to educate their sons.

Pictures of a deer may be found on another wall hanging, probably with the God of Longevity riding its back. The word for deer is lu and not only is long life symbolic here, but so is the other meaning of the word, namely, 'good income.' Deer are valuable for another ride, their horns beloved as tonic for virility; however, the ride is a bitter one down the gullet of the consumer.

The dog is the eleventh creature in the Chinese zodiac. Dogs represent westerners, some say that is why this pet is eaten in some parts of China. If it is, it would only be in fall or winter. Black cats in this country bear bad tidings. In China do not be called a black dog, if you are, someone knows you are running after every woman you see.

The donkey, for Chinese (and others), is the symbol of stupidity, the duck symbolic of fidelity and connubial affection. Enjoying Peking Duck (always earlier in the meal than fish and often just after the cold dishes) is the sign of a special meal. Duck shaped amulets are not to eat but valuable when worn to ward off drowning. In some parts of China one never utters the word for duck which is ya. In the east it means 'homosexual,' in the north it is a word for 'penis.' But should that duck be a mandarin duck, saying ya is fine, as that particular duck stands for 'marital happiness.'

Eggs are special in every culture, Chinese no exception. For them, they are the perfect balance between Yin and Yang. Babies have a special birthday at the age of one month (and people rarely have any other birthdays until they reach the age of sixty). At that first month's end, the mother is released from her bed, the bother of not washing her hair, and the boredom of visitors, all family and female.

A party might ensue, but more likely the infant is just ready to be shared. Everyone is sent red eggs; they symbolize the baby's arrival, also mother's liberation, new life and hope and energy for both mother and child. Along with the eggs come tortoise or peach-shaped buns. An odd number indicates birth of a boy, even numbers a girl. Recipients are supposed to return a gift of rice noodles and eggs, wishing luck for the little tyke.

Another use of eggs are in their role of fertility. In one province at least, they are rolled down the bride's breast when she is sitting down, falling into her lap for blessings of babies. In yet another area, they are cut open and used for fortune-telling; the shape of the white and yolk tell the tale. Eggs are also important, though not red, to eat at Chinese New Year; here they are on the table as Tea Eggs, marvelously marbled as a batik of the animal world. Eating a whole one, though done is rare, usually each person gets a quarter or a half, wishing life for the person who doffs it down.

Fish offer more meaning than already mentioned. They are a symbol of freedom and emancipation, also of harmony. In ancient times many fish in the sea meant a good harvest would follow. Should you find a pair of fish on plate or painting, they speak of a sexual union; some weddings serve two steamed fish, sometimes with pine nuts strewn about sending a message for a union with many offspring.

Overall, geese were deliverers of messages; they even appear on the Chinese postal flag and stationery. They have another meaning, too, should you get or see a wild one depicted. Know that that message can be matrimony. The goose, you may know, takes but one partner; so goose is a valuable engagement gift; wild geese or pictures of them make wonderful wedding gifts.

In ancient times, elderly Chinese men carried cages of singing birds, they and younger ones had others filled with grasshoppers or crickets. These are sport for gambling; they symbolized courage. People who write about symbols also said that in paintings and poems these insects said it was summer.

The leopard, an expected symbol of bravery, speaks of marital ferocity. Though geese are loved, prepared very much as one does Peking Duck, leopard, singing birds, grasshoppers, and crickets are not common foods. Nor was the magpie who, should it build its nest near your home, be offering a good omen compared to that of crows, who tell of bad times ahead.

Symbolically, there are three senseless creatures, the monkey who always grabs at things, the deer who is always lovesick, and the tiger who is always angry. There is good in the monkey who is supposed to bestow prosperity, protection, and well-being, and monkeys drive away any evil spirits.

Other animals, eaten rarely, have cultural significance. For example, do not give anyone you care about anything with an owl on it; this bird is a harbinger of death, its hoot the sound of the digging of a grave. If you are married and get a parrot, it is a warning to remain faithful. If unmarried, and the gift is a peacock, you have selected a husband.

What about the panda, called bai xiung or white bear? It is a favorite of children of all ages; it symbolizes happiness, perhaps because it has no predators. Fabled animals mean things, too, and the phoenix, one of China's mythical creatures (others are tortoise, unicorn, and dragon) symbolize many things including beauty, longevity, and everlasting love.

Alphabetically moving on to other beloved animals, quail not only represent courage but also poverty. Snakes, the fifth animal in the zodiac, are courageous and clever, but symbolically represent much that is negative. Why do the Cantonese love to eat these reptiles? Because they are supposed to cure all, be it impotence or the opposite; and believing that like cures like, the gall bladder of the snake is touted to heal diseases in or caused by man's gall bladder, the liver of the snake able to repair that in the man that consumes it, and so forth. Snakes have other symbolic meanings, they are supposed to be sensual and they make fine gifts. Keeping a snakeskin some believe can bring you riches.

Do not forget the turtle, a very special tonic food, but do forget their eggs; some say they are a curse if you get them (called wang potan), the words are equivalent to someone referring to you as a bastard. Last there is the unicorn, whose grandeur and very being is legendary, but whose very presence symbolizes longevity and illustrious offspring.

Though A and Z and other letters are omitted, you have tasted of the meanings of real and fabled animal foods. Some are not popular, but no prohibition exists against eating any of them. After all, to the Chinese, all foods are good for your health if prepared properly, and served with others that are the correct balance.

From armadillo to zebra (neither indigenous to China), meat is the tsai to flavor the fan or rice and other grains, it is savory and savored, used to celebrate everyday and special meals. Every meal with food on the table is a celebration. Meat is so important that Buddhists prepare many foods to look like meat; it is not eating meat that they abhor, it is the taking of life.

When you eat what once was a life, make preparing and consuming it the celebration that it deserves.

                                                                                                                                                       
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