Many Chinese people believe that food can be used both to satisfy hunger and to treat disease, and numerous traditional sayings attest to the health benefits of the food we eat. Got a cold? You should boil yourself some pear soup. Feeling angry? You’ll feel fine after a cup of chrysanthemum tea or a slice of bitter melon. And who needs apples to keep the doctor away when you have radishes and ginger root?
In China, the idea that food and medicine share a common origin goes back 3,000 years. The Zhou Dynasty, which rose to prominence during the first millennium B.C., created the position of imperial nutritionist, who held a distinct post somewhere between those of the emperor’s cooks and his doctors. Nutritionists — not the kitchen staff — oversaw the daily dining of the imperial court.
Surviving records from an ancient text titled “The Rites of Zhou” show that two imperial nutritionists were charged with “balancing the tastes of the four seasons.” The text goes on to say that “the imperial nutritionist handled the emperor’s daily culinary arrangements and formal banquets”; the latter were spectacular affairs, with frequent feasts and large-scale banquets including six different types of food and drinks, a hundred delicacies, and a hundred sauces.
“The Rites of Zhou” set exacting standards for imperial nutritionists’ approach to their jobs. Steamed rice had to be “as gentle and mild as a spring day”; the soup they boiled had to “have the heat of summer”; sauces and pickled vegetables had to be “cool like the autumn”; and beverages had to “have the chill of a winter’s day.” As if that wasn’t enough, springtime meals should be slightly sour, summertime meals bitterer, autumnal meals spicier and more fragrant, and winter meals saltier. In reality, though, these demands were intended more as abstract flavor concepts rather than literal interpretations.
Philosophically speaking, both the five elements theory and the yin-yang theory both inform traditional Chinese beliefs about food and medicine. The former assigns all worldly things an elemental quality — wood, fire, earth, metal, or water — to describe their relationships to other things. The latter divides the universe into two seemingly contradictory forces to show how ostensible opposites may actually be complimentary and interdependent. These theories have been applied to individual foodstuffs and medicinal treatments.
The theory of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) built on the above theories, defining the possible characteristics of food as cold, cool, warm, and hot. Proceeding from these notions, TCM practitioners guided people’s diets, medical treatments, and health regimens.
For example, a blue-green color is traditionally associated with the wood element, the direction east, and the liver. In the culinary sphere, blue-green was also linked to sweet foods with smooth textures, including long-grain rice, beef, and jujubes. Therefore, if your liver was considered deficient, eating more of these foods was thought to restore it to full health. (For those of a flatulent disposition, sweet foods have the added benefit of staving off gassiness.)
In summary, the ancient Chinese believed that consuming a range of foods served a dual purpose: satisfying hunger while treating disease. Even today, many Chinese people still base their diets around the medicinal effects of food.
Chinese language learners who have discussed the weird and wonderful world of TCM with local friends will probably be familiar with the somewhat self-congratulatory claim that while Western medicines are able to zhibiao — treat the symptoms of a disease — they often fail to zhiben, or address the root causes of it. This phrase reflects the emphasis that traditional Chinese culture places on preventing disease over curing it.
Exceptionally skilled TCM doctors, for example, will take preventative measures the moment a patient reports feeling slightly under the weather. They are hailed for their ability to adroitly take nine pulse readings on each wrist and prescribe treatments almost immediately. Lesser doctors, however, might wait until the illness has progressed and visible symptoms have appeared before making a diagnosis.
This valorizing of prevention over cure is reflected in the popular Chinese folk story about Bian Que, a famous physician from the Warring States period of the fourth century B.C. During a visit to the Wei Dynasty court, King Wen asks Bian, whose two brothers also specialize in medicine, which of them is the best. Bian replies that his eldest brother is the best, followed by his second brother. He is the worst of the three.
Somewhat taken aback, King Wen then asks why Bian is the most famous. Modesty personified, Bian responds: “I treat diseases only at their most critical moment. Most people see me inserting needles into the skin to drain blood, applying medicine onto the skin, or performing major surgery. They think highly of my medical skills, and that’s how my reputation has spread throughout China.”
China’s philosophy of health is perpetuated through the views that food is also medicine and that prevention is better than cure. Even though these notions deserve to be protected and studied, it is clear that many claims are spurious. Scientific developments in recent years show that Chinese ideas about health are often unempirical and unsupported by experimental science.
The five elements, five colors, and five flavors espoused by traditional thinking elicit criticism from modern health professionals precisely because they lack the backing of modern medical theories. Though the link between good nutrition and good health is long-established, traditional Chinese links between food and medicine will eventually have to distinguish between truth and falsehood and strike a balance between scientific experiments and historical evidence.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Wu Jun/IC. Graphics: Foods bringing health benefits to various organs, according to the ‘Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor,’ a 2,000-year old Chinese medical text. By Liu Zheng for Sixth Tone)