What you need to know
Variety is the country’s culinary hallmark, but it doesn’t help the Chinese pin down exactly what it means to be Chinese.
“Even in the seemingly trivial matter of food and drink, I have implemented the Confucian doctrine of loyalty and consideration,” reads a line from one of Yuan Mei’s (袁枚) works. The much-revered 17th-century poet and gastronome had a knack for capturing the eccentricities of Chinese cuisine as well as the poor repute in which most of the country’s cooks have been held. Even today, food preparation is often seen as a lowly pursuit, and a favorite quip of many Chinese is that of Confucius’ most famous disciple, Mencius: “A gentleman should keep away from the kitchen.”
Ironically, food lies at the core of Chinese national pride, and most see the country’s cuisine as one of the world’s best, even the pinnacle of human gastronomic achievement. You might say food has become a politically correct issue as well: Last year’s Michelin Guide to Shanghai’s restaurants was condemned by many locals who did not accept that Western palates could accurately judge the subtleties of Chinese cuisine.
Our pride in Chinese food justifies the assertion of distinguished anthropologist Sidney Mintz, author of the influential work “Sweetness and Power,” that food preferences lie at the heart of human self-definition. According to Mintz, “People who eat strikingly different foods or similar foods in different ways are thought to be strikingly different, sometimes even less human.”
Undoubtedly, food helps to draw the boundary between “us” and “them.” In China, food contributes to a dualistic vision of “China” versus “the rest of the world,” where “the world” is almost always defined as “the West.” In fact, all non-Chinese dishes in early 20th-century Shanghai were referred to as “xicai (西菜)," or “Western cuisine.” At the Cosmopolitan, one of the city’s most historic restaurants (its Chinese name literally means “Great German Western Cuisine”), a popular form of xicai used to be Japanese beef casserole.
However, even if food helps us determine who is not Chinese, it does not satisfactorily answer the other, more important question of self-definition: Who are we? When overseas Chinese scorn Western food and think back fondly on cuisine from home, nostalgia rarely draws them back to so-called national dishes. Instead, they are more likely to focus on their respective local delicacies. The immensely popular documentary TV series “A Bite of China” would be better off called “Bites of Different Parts of China,” since the variety of specialties on offer have so little in common that they can hardly be viewed as uniformly Chinese.
The fact that we have such a diverse culinary culture implies that Mintz’s words apply within China’s borders as well as outside them. Should soft tofu be salted or sweetened? Which dumpling should be served on the winter solstice: the flat, boiled "jiaozi (餃子)" made of wheat flour and stuffed with ground meat, or the sweet, round tangyuan (湯圓) made of glutinous rice flour and stuffed with red bean paste? Fiery quarrels like these recur year after year, between northerners and southerners, from province to province, even among individual ethnic groups.
The difficulty in defining Chinese cuisine cannot be simply attributed to the fact that China is large and complex. Cooking and eating is never totally private or apolitical. It actually addresses a key political issue: identity. The etymological root of the word “identity,” the Latin word “idem,” means “the same.” Indeed, a primary mission of modern nation states is to build “sameness” within their boundaries while emphasizing their differences from others. Controlling and manipulating our lifestyles — from the languages we speak to the way we style our hair — has been an effective way for modern states to impose a united national identity. Food is not immune to this process. No one can live without food; it is the basis of our daily routines. National cuisines, therefore, are fundamental to a common lifestyle and a common identity.
This is not to say that governments intentionally create national cuisines. But the emergence of food defined as “national” often goes hand in hand with the formation of national identity. Japan’s premodern culinary diversity, according to Leiden University scholar Katarzyna Cwiertka, “was eventually replaced by a truly ‘national’ cuisine … in many cases, [as] a consequence of modern imperialism.”
Though China witnessed similar stories in other social fields, such as the spread of Mandarin as a common language, it seems that the role of cooking and eating in national identity has long been neglected — except perhaps for the unsuccessful people’s communes of the 1950s, which forced citizens to eat in communal kitchens and forbade them from private cooking. The Chinese have numerous cuisines based on diverse historical experiences and varied modern lifestyles. How do we define Chinese identity when our diets are so different? Is it something we can only conceptualize when faced with the foreign “other?”
The issue of Chinese cuisine is deeply embedded in the obscure question of “Chineseness.” When we look at it long enough, it becomes almost impossible to decide what the major features of Chinese food actually are — aside from the richness of its ingredients and techniques. The absence of a clear self-definition in the culinary realm parallels our elusive notion of having a “national character.” If we think of Americans as “free” and the French as “romantic,” what, in a word, are the Chinese?
Our confused culinary and national character explains why Chinese cuisine failed in its bid to be included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Having a unique identity is an essential prerequisite for culinary items to be placed on the list. As chef Alain Ducasse stated, “Talking about cuisine — French cuisine — is also talking about joie de vivre, delicacy, optimism, and pleasure — ideas that are all crucial to the image of France.” No single food or cuisine so sublimely represents the Chinese nation. Defining the national cuisine, like the national identity-building, remains an unfinished journey.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.
Editor: Olivia Yang