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Chinese Palate and Its Pleasures, The

by D.W.Y. Kwok

Food in History

Summer Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(2) page(s): 11,12, and 15

Gao Zi, a philosopher some two thousand three hundred years ago, had something to say about the pleasures of the Chinese palate when he said, "Appetite for food and sex is nature." This is probably the most repeated aphorism when mentioning Chinese approaches to the world of the senses.

Wise indeed this short phrase of only four Chinese characters; it points to the fundamental nature of food and sex, and suggests the abiding imagination and sensuality that human nature lends to these two activities. K.C. Chang, in his Food in Chinese Culture volume published in 1977, begins with this quote from Gao Zi, but finds much more variety in food than sex. One does not have to agree or disagree to realize both, as wise Gao Zi intended, they belong together to the imaginative and sensual pleasures of life.

During the historic visit of President and Mrs. Richard Nixon to China in 1972, an episode illustrates how the imaginative and the sensual are in Chinese cuisine. Every word in Tiananmen Square and every step along the Great Wall were followed with avid interest. Some might remember the tidbit about Pat Nixon's visit to the chef after an elaborate banquet. Many dishes, indeed the Chinese culinary tradition itself, received her praise. But one dish she liked above all else was some kind of meat dish braised and simmered in soy sauce. This turned its skin smooth and with glistening red-brown color; it had a marvelous aroma. The translation for this dish, as recorded in one national weekly was 'Lady's quivering buttock.' How interesting, as the dish itself is unisexual.

"We eat crabs by choice and (tree)bark by necessity," Lin Yu-tang characterized Chinese culinary sophistication, practicality, and variety. This felicitous turn of a phrase and thought, but one part of the expression, has led to a misleading assumption. That is, the variety of food items in the Chinese diet can be traced too much starvation and marginal living in the land, as the eating of treebark would suggest. This notion is misleading because, if starvation were indeed the mother of culinary inventiveness and variety and maybe even sophistication, then there would be more major culinary traditions in the world of unrelieved famines.

Having said this, however, we must also accept the truism that there is infinite variability and variety in eating and preparing food in the world. In addition to these differences, people express pride and prejudice on this vital matter differently. At the center of the host of reasons and explanations of this variability is the palate--the arbiter of taste. National traditions and reputations rise from palate. They also fall from it. To cite Lin Yu-tang again, "The French eat enthusiastically; the British eat apologetically.

Let us explore the enormous complexities characterizing the Chinese palate. I offer a few thoughts on the Chinese way of eating, or the pursuit of taste, which in Chinese is wei, meaning "taste," "flavor," and "meaning" itself.

Eating is a part of Chinese life, it almost dominates, permeates, and perhaps, explains it. Much can be learned from watching Chinese people gathered around a table--most often round, sometimes square if the partakers believe that they are the Latter--day Eight Immortals. Be it laden with delectable from the mountain and the sea or with the simple doudu, spinach, and salted fish, the Chinese come alive with a spread in front of them. This is the moment of high sociability and conviviality, a moment of great personal yet shared reward. Everyone is cook, chef, gourmet or gourmand at that one table. The conversation most likely is about the next meal or some remembered culinary splendor.

Chinese everyday speech shows the primacy of eating in the culture. To eat is to chi. Therefore: 'chiquo le meiyou' (or have you eaten?) is used for 'How are you?' Also, ni chi nai yihang de? (or what mode do you eat? for 'What work do you do?') Chilkui (eat loss) means 'being taken advantage of,' chijing (eat tightness) or 'being hard-pressed,' and chi xiang (eat fragrance) means 'being in someone's favor.'

Other related phrases include 'a stomach full of books' to mean 'educated,' and 'lots in the stomach' meaning 'learnedness.' There is also the Daoist classic Daode Jing which declared that "one should rule a country as one would fry a small fish." This is generally translated to mean 'do not magnify things,' 'don't be too serious,' and 'keep it light and easy,' and a well-known Beijing saying, 'of all that fly in the sky, the kites we do not eat, of all that have legs on earth, the wooden bench we do not eat.' These few examples indicate the vastness of the Chinese world of eating--the mundus edibilis Sinicus.

How does one explain this preoccupation with food and eating? Psychology, aesthetics, geography, starvation, abundance, and a host of other reasons do the explaining. I see the foibles of the Chinese way with taste--wei-- in context of the Chinese view of the cosmos and civilization.

The traditional Chinese world-view entertained a balanced cooperation of all substances in the universe, there because of an external authority. Or were they parts of a hierarchy of entities forming a cosmic and organic pattern, obeying the internal dictates of their nature? This fundamental assumption explains the feeble cosmogonic (creation) elements in early Chinese thought. At the same time, it accounts for a preponderance of concern with the workings of the universe (cosmology). Scholars such as Joseph Needham (cf. Science and Civilization in China) have done much to link people's orientation in space and time to other historical aspects of culture.

Such cosmological assumptions produced for the Chinese, a world watched over by 'heaven,' an impartial cosmic order for the human order to emulate. This world is without sin, at least without the Judeo-Christian notion of sin and hence spared of its consequences. It is an organismic view with no place for wrongful parts. Order presumes rightful constituents, disturbances and malfunctions are only temporary.

Thus, unlike much of Western tradition, evil for the Chinese has no fixed role or permanence, nor is it personified. Human errors were human in origin, social in character, and reparable in human and social terms. Aligning the moral order with the cosmic is the therapy for evil because evil is but a temporary malfunction of the natural process. It is not viewed as a wronging of a personal god. It is as if the Chinese Garden of Eden were first populated by the Cantonese, and the snake simply put in the broth!

The pervasive influence of cosmology on Chinese culture is evident in the very notion of culture and civilization itself. Unlike the root word civis in the Western use of civilization, which suggests urban citizenship, the Chinese word wen (a root word when used in connection with others) connotes the following: refined not coarse, smooth not rough, composed not agitated, civil not militant, elegant not vulgar, cultivated and polished not unformed and jagged. The root meaning of wen is pattern, as in foliage, rocks, water, birds, and the myriad of the cosmos.

From this root meaning, wen developed in two directions: wen of the birds and trees become markings, then adornment, then art; wen of the myriad things that become pattern, then symbol, then writing, then literature. The two developments eventually combined to mean culture (wenhua) and civilization (wenming), literature and the arts (wenyi). Thus the slow but steady fire in cooking is quite aptly named the wenhuo, the wen fire.

Subsequent Chinese accomplishments trace ultimately to this cosmologic interest in the workings of the universe, an organismic approach to cosmic functions unimpeded by personified sin and guilt, and a rational expectation of order, pattern, and harmony in the processes of life. The world of thought and the realm of the senses, meet in the palate.

The Chinese approach food and eating much as they view culture and civilization--they look for the meaning of the patterns. Here the controlling notion in wei. We have encountered it as taste, flavor, and meaning. Wen is to civilization what wei is to food and eating. Wen has given rise to literature and art; wei has given rise to rich lore of Chinese cuisine-art. Mencius said that many know how to eat and drink, but few can tell taste. Thus, is it any wonder that in this universe, wei is often likened to poetry and poetry to wei? Throughout Chinese history, wei has been savored again and again in literature.

For example, Sikong Tu (837-908 CE) of the Tang dynasty said to a poetic friend:
"My opinion is that one cannot begin to speak of poetry if one has not learned to tell taste. In the south, when considering anything that is palatable, if it is xi, it is merely sour and no more; if it is co, it is merely salty and no more. Our people who eat merely to fill the stomach know only what is sour and what is salty, and not what perfection requires...but if your (poetry) is truly perfect, it is because it contains the meaning beyond taste (weiwai zhi zhi)."

Since then, this weiwai zhi zhi, taste beyond taste (or meaning beyond meaning) has tantalized both poets and chefs. The modern scholar, Miao Yue, praised the use of food similes in the poetry of Huang Tianjian (1045 - 1105 CE), the Sung poet singling out the following two lines:

Peaches, pears, the spring breeze and a cup of wine
Rivers, lakes, the evening rain and the ten-year lamp.

The first line is clear in the food references. The second line is oblique. By rivers and lakes means the ordinary offerings of fish and foul, by evening rain the transformative art of cooking, and by ten-year lamp, the long-lasting lingering taste.

Huang's poems have been likened by another Song dynasty scholar-statesman-gourmet Su Dongpo (1037-1101 CE)

Marine crabs and scallops, all possessing lofty
character. One can consume a whole plate, leaving none.

Miao Yue also said:

Tang poetry is like eating lychees, one in the mouth and
the sweet fragrance suffuses the cheeks. Sung poetry is
like eating olives, an initial astringent taste leaves assuredly
a lingering sweet after-taste.

The Japanese scholar Yoshikawa likened Tang poetry to wine, and Sung poetry to tea.

Then there is the pork made famous by Su Dongpo. But notice the place of bamboo and bamboo-shoot in the landscape and in the recipe. Su wrote:

One can get on without meat,
one cannot live without bamboos.
Meatless one becomes thin,
bambooless one becomes vulgar.
A thin person can become plume,
a vulgar one is beyond cure.

Later, this poem took the form of a ditty:

One can't live without bamboos,
one can't live without meat.
Bambooless one becomes vulgar,
meatless one becomes thin.
To avoid being vulgar and being thin,
every meal let the bamboo shoots accompany the meat.

Thus was born the Dongpo pork and bamboo dish, copied the country over from Sichuan to Hangzhou. That recipe appeared in this magazine's Volume 3(1) on page 13.

The mystique of taste continues to intrigue the literary palate, and it is nowhere more evident than the very first poem with which Cao Xuegin (1715 - 1763 CE) began what has been hailed as China's greatest novel--The Dream of the Red Mansions, or the Story of the Stone.


Pages and pages of idle words,
uttered amidst embittered tears.
Everyone thinks the author beguiled,
Who can really understand the flavor within
(sui jie qizhong wei). There it is again, the flavor or wei within. Message and flavor, purpose and taste. They are interchangeable. Generations of scholars of the Dream of the Red Mansions have been tantalized by Cao Xueqin, and continue to decipher the dream. What is plausible is that it is food and taste of Jiangnan (south of the river) that Cao pined for. There are no less than 197 specific names of dishes in the novel. From the most exquisite (such as Duck Web in Wine-lee of chapter 84) to such ordinary delights as Five-spiced Doufu. Cao was pining for the salubrious life which nurtured his youth and as his senses!

We encounter similar literary and culinary cross-metaphors in the West. Dorothy Canfield once described reading Dinesen's novels as biting into some extraordinary fruit, its flavor indescribable. And Paul Valery likened the hidden meaning of poetry to the nutritional value of fruits, the flavor within.

The degree to which food is celebrated in Chinese literature and associated with the lives of scholars is perhaps unmatched by other civilizations--Caesar Salad, Oysters Rockefeller, Beef Wellington, and Steak Diane notwithstanding! This cultivation of the imaginative and the sensual becomes simply part of life as it is lived by the high and the not so high alike.

There is a vast lore of lyrical praise of the simple and unadorned, though carefully produced, foods in China. Poetic imagination and prandial expectancy excite each other to make treatment of food as art not technology, alchemy, nor chemistry. Of all the uncountable treatises, notebooks, essays on food and eating, none is really a book of recipes. Menus, yes, but only to mark memorable occasions. Assembling ingredients is much like composing a poem--seldom can it be just jotted down. One works at it. A Tang poet likened the writing of poetry to peeling walnuts. The taste comes after three layers!

So it is the spirit of food and its ingredients that challenge the imagination, and the philosophy of food and its assemblage that engages the senses. Strange, though, for a culture with so much emphatic demand of and from eating, there never arose a personal code that says, "I eat, therefore I am--Edo, ergo sum."

Yet the enjoyment of food, as a form of sensuality could lead to depravity if it becomes excessive. And Chinese observers of life are well aware of this. Cosmology and philosophy, literature and folk tradition all handle this with sobriety and humor. For sheer stark realism, listen to the two lines of the compassionate Tang dynasty poet Du Fu (712 - 770 CE):

Beyond the vermillion doors wine and meat decay;
Out on the streets frozen bones litter the way.

And Bo Juyi (772 - 846 CE) said:

Proud to be invited to the Governor's feast,
one gallops as fast as the clouds.
The cups are filled with the nine spirits,
from the land and sea are gathered the eight treasures.
Peeling tangerines from Dongting,
savoring carp from Heaven Lake,
our minds are at ease when we are full,
our spirits stirred when the wine is pleasant.
The same year there is drought south of the river;
In Quzhou, humans are eating humans.

But then, there is a good deal of humor, focusing on gluttony and overindulgence in both meat and wine. Instances abound of parody, of contrast between greed and sober rectitude. The Rulin Waishi or Unofficial History of Scholars, written in the middle of the 18th century, is full of episodes of scholars scoffing at the salt merchants. A wedding feast of the pretentious Lu family first has a rat falling into the Bird's Nest Soup and then the cook, in trying to kick a dog, lands his shoe in a dish of Pork Dumplings and Wrapplings made of goose fat and brown sugar. Hedonism simply could not thrive on its own!

When all is said and done, when we take leave of the savoring of taste in the literary muse and return to palatal appeasements, we note that without the chef there is no cuisine. And if a cook does not know how to handle fire-power--houhou as the northern Chinese call it, and the wokhei as the southern chefs would have it--this cook will never become a chef.

Fire-power is at the core of the Chinese cooking art. It regulates the temperature within the pot and without--the two temperatures are not the same, but intimately related. There was a restaurant in Canton (now Guangzhou) which one selected the head chef by asking the applicants to do scramble eggs. The seemingly simple is often the most complex.

So it is this chef who has given, for example, Sichuan cuisine more distinctive tastes than any other region in China. In addition to the usual five of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and peppery, the Sichuan palate discerns in addition the aromatic and the roasted-nutty--collectively known as mala. Sichuan, with its natural resources and a year-long growing season, with its frequent historical experiences being almost a state within a state on account of its isolated geography, has produced an enviable cuisine. In addition to its famed tidbit eating, along with the Cantonese tradition, it has mastered the tradition of the state-banquet.

The pleasures of the Chinese palate are indeed endless as they are tantalizing. Yes, the lady's quivering buttock may be an East-China speciality, when it comes to appreciating fine renderings of good food--to get at the taste beyond taste--perhaps what matters most, is a quivering palate.
Dr. Kwok is a professor of History at the University of Hawaii. This article appeared in slightly different form and under a different title in a 1991 issue of Free China Review on pages 46-51.

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