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TOPICS: Chinese Dietary Therapy; History of vegetarianism; Other dietary suggestions

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Newman's News and Notes

Fall Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(3) page(s): 18 and 19

CHINESE DIETARY THERAPY: Many questions have been asked about Chinese diet, health issues, and practices. It is clear from them that some background is in order. Called TCM or Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chinese Dietary Therapy deals with foods and their properties. Prevention is of foremost concern, and it is believed that ancient Chinese healers really meant to use foods first to maintain health, then to treat illness thereafter. In Sun Si Miao’s Qian Jin Fang (Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold) written circa 650 CE, the properties of animal and vegetable foods were discussed in terms of their applications and their properties. This book is considered by some to be the foundation of TCM.

Of course, there are earlier records. In the Zhou Dynasty (from the 11th Century to 771 BCE), there were dietetic professionals in the kitchens of the royal court. In Chinese medicine’s Nei Jing (Internal Classic) written bu Huang Di or the Yellow Emperor, there were theories about dietary therapy.

Chinese wolfberries and other foods were popular in the Han Dynasty (25 - 220 CE), and some foods were said to improve health and delay aging. More recently, in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1129 CE), prescriptions in books dealt with diet recipes. Thus, it is clear that TCM’s diet therapy has had an active and long history passed both orally and in written form.

What items are most important? Nature and taste were the most important food properties. Yin and Yang and cold and hot were important and actually referred to in several texts as the Four Natures. Hot and cold were further divided into Hot, Warm, Cool and Cold. Foods also had these properties, and they had channel properties or means of reaching the various body organs. For example, persimmon can nourish Yin, ginger can promote appetite, etc. Then there is yet another perspective that pertains to Qi, known as energy or wind. These properties are reported in foods, in health conditions, on organs in the body, etc. There are dozens upon dozens of books and even many more practitioners who treat people according to their Qi, their Yin and Yang, and their channels.

TCM is different from Western medicine because Chinese dietary therapy is more than just weight loss, calories, protein, carbohydrate, and the like. Chinese dietary considers foods for their flavor, their energies, and they are further defined and delineated. There are five flavors including: Sweet, sour, pungent, salty, and bitter. Sweet, for example, acts on the stomach and the spleen and impacts digestion. If your digestion is weak, sugars can neutralize the toxic effects of other foods. In addition, bitter foods reduce body heat, salty foods soften hardness, and sour foods such as lemon check diarrhea.

There are also five food energies to consider. These five, not to confuse you, are the four natures already mentioned and an additional one, called 'neutral.' The way these are used can best be explained citing a examples: When a person suffers from rheumatism, a cold condition, it is good for that person to eat foods with warm or hot energy; if someone has skin eruptions made worse in the hot climate, then cold or cool energy foods are prescribed. Now, channels are important as foods move outward or inward, upwards or downwards. Foods believe to have inward movement can ease bowel movements and abdominal swelling.

What does this all mean? It means that the TCM diet therapy professionals suggest foods of various flavors, energies, and actoson the spleen whilebeef is neutral and sweet, and doeslikewise. Spinach is cool and sweet, it acts upon the stomach. The Chinese believe that when a person is ill, they should think of visiting a doctor. They should do more than that; to use TCM diet therapy correctly, they need to visit a specialist before one gets sick to keep one’s Qi and one’s nature on an even keel and in balance.

There are books that can help. Henry Lu’s Chinese System of Food Cures or Liu Jilin and Gordon Peck’s Chinese Dietary Therapy come to mind. The former has an engineering approach with numbers (plus and minus) to help balance one’s body, while the latter lists foods, properties, applications, preparations, and nutritional information. Both advise that carrots have sweet flavor, are neutral, and have propensity for spleen and lungs. Lu offers recipes of sorts. One such is to “Bake the peel of carrots until they appear burned. Eat the peels while hot to relieve....” In contrast, Liu and Peck offer more general notes such as “to take carrots cooked with lard, or in soup cooked with pigs liver.”

Can these books help? I do not believe that any person should practice medicine without a license, be it on self or others. While these books and dozens upon dozens of others are making large profits for their authors and publishers, they may be good for economic health but are not prescriptions for cures. They need to be studied and they need to have their ideas tested beyond the anecdotal evidence found in them. We do need to learn more about TCM and do as the Chinese have said for years; Eat a balanced diet be it in foods with carious flavors, energies, and organic actions and foods selected according to needs and physical conditions. I do not know if my constitution is hot or cold, dry or damp, deficient or excessive. But I do know that by Chinese or Western tradition, I eat a well-balanced diet...do you?

VEGETARIANISM, SOME HISTORY: Other questions received in large numbers have to do with queries about Chinese and other vegetarian diets. This issue is heavily laden with vegetarian topics, books reviewed included. Some background is in order here, too, as follows: Hesiod seems to be the earliest vegetarian I could find. He was a poet and a moralist on the 8th Century BCE. Pythagoras, two centuries later is called the father of modern vegetarianism. At his time, certain sects within Hinduism were truly vegetarian, as well.

For the Chinese, vegtarianism began when Buddhisn did, about the first century after Christ. From its inception, Buddhists treated all animals with compassion and the killing and eating of them violated their basic ethics as well as that it created negative psychic thoughts. Some say that Chinese Bhuddists became the strictest of all vegetarian groups.

Numerous Buddhists temple sprung up along the Silk Route and they served to move the Buddhist mission form monks to a more secular society. In 386 CE, the Northern Wei Dynasty was established and the Turkic Toba Emperor, Tai Zi, together with most of his people embraced this belief called Buddhism. The advanced ethical vegetarianism then became the normal way of life. Nearly a century later, Emperor Wu Ti continued the propagation of Buddhism and he banned every type of meat from his Imperial table, forbade the use of animals for medicinal purposes, and did likewise with reference to animals for ritual sacrifice.

It was, however, during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 906 CE) that Buddhism and the widespread observance of a vegetarian diet reached its zenith in China. However, the longer Buddhism prospered in China and the more significant it became, the more its influence declined. Chu Hung, a Buddhist reformed in China, became the great apostle of ethical vegetarianism, gave it a new life even though by his time, it had minority status. Chu Hung emphasized the importance of vegetarian banquet feasts commemorating the dead, and vegetarian feasts on festival days, Buddhist and otherwise. He also extolled people to find and release animals readied for the table.

Matteo Ricci, in the late 1500's, initiated considerable controversy between Buddhism and Christianity. He took the position that like vegetables and fruits, animals were for man’s use. His philosophical perspective further weakened both Buddhism and vegetarianism in China, but it did not eliminate it.

Despite its continued minority status, Buddhism and vegetarianism among Chinese living in China and those living elsewhere remains both a living religion and a real practice. Vegetarianism remains the rule rather than the exception among Chinese Buddhists and there are many devout lay people. Vegetarianism, called Chia, uses feasts as important aspects of social/religious life, and Chinese Buddhists continue to propagate these practices.

Some three years ago, some of my colleagues in Shanghai wrote that during the East Asian Olympic Games, their temples were diosplaying vegetarian dishes and inviting folks to special meals and sampling sessions. The letter I received told of a monk I had met a few years earleir; it advised that he still wanted to get people to eat more than two vegetarians means each month.

See Wonona Chang's article titled: 'A Pure Vegetarian' to understand how one family, hers, followed Buddhism in Sumatra. Also visit the Chuang-Yen Monastery, at 2 Route 301, in Carmel, New York to see the Great Buddha. This recently completed statue is the largest Buddha in the Western Hemisphere. It recently opened to the public; so go there and get enlightened. While there, visit Kuan-Yin Hal and see the world’s largest colored porcelain statue of Kuan-Yin, enjoy the Thousand Lotus Memorial Terrace made to look like an outdoor auditorium, glean knowledge from the Woo Ju Memorial Library with its over seventy thousand volumes and other literature, and learn about all different religions in the world.

The Institute for Advanced Studies, begun at Stony Brook University on Long Island, moved to the monastery in 1991. While there, also enjoy the tranquility of the Seven Jewel Lake with its paths, red bridge, garden, gazebo, and more. Although private, the monastery is open to the public year-round. There is a large dining hall that serves guests, week-ends only–and they do request a donation of at least five dollars for a wonderful vegetarian lunch. For information, call them as (914) 225-1819 or fax them at (914) 225-0447.

OTHER DIETARY SUGGESTIONS: I am often asked if a food or a recipe is good or bad, should one be a vegetarian, what should one eat if...and related questions. I do not know if you should be a vegetarian, for me it is not right, even though I eat less meat than I did a decade ago. But I do think there are some serious Chinese considerations you might want to adapt including:

1. Stop eating before you are full. Chinese parents advise their children to leave the table 80% full; you should too.
2. Enjoy eating. Relax when so doing. Chinese dietary philosophy believes that it is better not to mix food and work, and that you should not be tense when consuming yours. Take this to heart.
3. Chew your foods well; this helps your digestive enzymes do their job.
4. Eat your main meal early and fill it with considerable roughage; this assures food's rapid passage through your system.
5. Balnce your meals to suit the needs of your body and do trust your body to tend to your lifeforce.
6. Consider using moderate amounts of warm and pungent spices with your cooked food; they support your body's digestive processes.
7. The body prefers a little warm fluid with its meal; too much fluid dilutes actions and weakens digestion.
8. Excesive use of raw or chilled foods weakens the digestive fires that Chinese literature refers to.
9. Maintain a positive attitude; there are no bad foods nor good foods because all foods made well are worth eating; just watch how much you eat of them.
10. And remember, that when you are healthy, anything in moderation is good for you; excess of anything is excessively the opposite.

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