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Early Chinese Food History

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Winter Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(4) page(s): 21 and 23

Historians agree that two thousand two hundred to three thousand eight hundred years ago, China had a fully developed cuisine. They do not agree nor do they even mention what the cuisine was or what specific foods were in use.

In the 11th century BCE, The Middle Kingdom, as China is and was known, was no more than one-sixth the size it is today. In small separated communities, Beijing and the Yellow River delta were where people lived. By the fifth to third centuries BCE, the population had both concentrated and expanded. More food was grown in central areas, more animal husbandry practiced in the west and north, and more fisheries developed in the east. The country was one-quarter the size it is today, the west was near the midpoint of the country or just above where Xian is today. Sichuan and Hunan were not part of China and the piquancy of foods associated with those provinces had no part in the country's early food history.

In these centuries, many grains were used, the literature inconsistent as to what they were. Historians simply call this 'the period of five grains' and in all probability mean two kinds of millet, soybeans, wheat, and rice.

We think of rice as a quintessential Chinese food, yet early in their food history little was known and very little consumed. It did not come into common use until the first century BCE, perhaps because the area around the Yellow River produced very little of it. About two hundred years later, rice moved south and gained popularity; climate and geography enhanced availability and use. Climate and concentration of people affects foods grown and consumed. People eat what is locally grown along with foods they can hunt, fish, or forage for.

Until 500 BCE, there was no reports of organized system of how the Chinese cooked their foods. The sage Confucius, who lived between 551 - 479 BCE, gets credit for developing protocols of cutting, cooking, and eating. His rules remain intact because there was limited contact to impact them.

Foods and related foodways changed when communities make choices among possible foods and cooking techniques in a given geographic environment. Increased population and need for additional land expands communities and contribute to food migrations. As travellers move from place to place, they talk about foods seen, they even serve them when they return home. Thus foods of different areas slip into and become localized fare.

In China, from the time of the building of the Grand Canal, ingredients and preparation variations moved. Emperor, Chin Shih Huang Ti, build this first contour canal, called the 'Grand' or 'Magic Canal,' to connect waterways of nearly eleven hundred miles (the equivalent of New York to Florida) to supply his troops on the move. On the canal's connected pair of rivers, each flowing in the opposite direction, he ordered the shipping of grain supplies and other foods for the troops. This movement of foods, brought rice to the north, and wheat, millet, and sorghum to the south. This interchange was regional food co-mingling of the grandest proportion.

China's early trade with the Philippines and Indonesia, and in 260 CE Syria and beyond, brought items from outside the country to the countryside infiltrating areas around seacoasts first. Broken Chinese porcelain on the beaches of Tanzania and Mozambique attest to things moving in the other direction in exchange for fruits and other foods. Tea is a good illustration of a food on the move. Before the time of the Three Kingdoms and during the reign of Sun Hao in 264 CE, tea was reasonably unknown. By the 4th century CE, some say it became China's universal drink. Others believe that in the late Tang period, 618 - 970 CE, tea was still new and exotic, probably brought by Buddhist monks from the Burma-India border-country. In either case, tea was originally imported and it became the national drink. Today, it is common throughout China though not always considered the number one beverage.

Mongolian influences, circa 1125 CE, moved northern ideas, northern foods, and northern food preparation techniques southward. Specific illustrations include grilling and hot pot cookery. Hot Pot is now considered both a northern and southern delicacy. This period of Mongol influence was unidirectional, north to south.

From 1386 to 1398 CE, Tai Tsu also known as Ming Emperor Hung Mu, moved thousands upon thousands of people westward to resettle unpopulated areas. His reign and that of others in the Ming dynasty, 1368 - 1644 CE, limited movement of foods westward. Some years later, Manchu rulers and their subjects adopt, adapt, and incorporate foreign foods and cooking techniques moved northward. These new foods and preparation techniques, acquired from trade with the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and French. One example is a food not indigenous to China, the sweet potato; it migrated all over the country. This tuber entered southern ports, became popular near the end of the 15th century, and made its way to every region of China as a common winter food. It can be found in Beijing, Xian, Chengdu, and Shanghai roasted and sold as a street food.

Cuisine, culture, and people are not static. The movement of people and food make for continual culinary melting pots. The one billion Chinese, just over one-quarter of the world's population, still use grain as the basis and majority component of their diet and they supplement it with old or new foods that look, smell, and taste like Chinese food. Their changing foodways are expressions of cultural continuity over time.

If you want to learn more about early and more recent Chinese food history, I suggest the following three sources:
1. Anderson, EN. (1988). The Food of China. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
2. Chang, KC., editor. (1977). The 'Introduction' in Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
3. Latourette, KS. (1962). The Chinese: Their History and Culture. New York: Macmillan.

There are these and more; and there is also considerable information in Chinese cookbooks. You can read about early ones annotated in: Newman, JM. (1987). Chinese Cookbooks: An Annotated English-Language Compendium/Bibliography. New York: Garland Books. In addition, as editor-in-chief of this magazine, she has published dozens upon dozens of articles and spoken on three continents about Chinese food and food history and about the Chinese food habit research she has conducted in seven countries.

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