In 1832, the American diplomat Edmund Roberts visited Guangzhou. He described the residents as “gross gluttons,” saying that “everything that will supply the place of food, whether of the sea, or the land, and articles most disgusting to other people, are by them greedily devoured.” Conversely, the Chinese have always found it difficult to understand why foreigners insist on depriving themselves of so much great food.
The Chinese have never harbored many taboos when it comes to eating and drinking. Even things that in other societies have been traditionally strictly prohibited for religious reasons have historically not been treated the same way in China.
One of the major reasons for this scarcity of eating taboos stems from a lack of religious commandments permeating the Chinese conscious. Chinese society is not particularly religious, and long ago established a social order based around secular political leadership.
However, for social groups in which religion plays a more dominant role, there almost always appear stringent taboos around eating and drinking.
In the Old Testament, God sets out what is prohibited to eat — pigs are just one in a long list of forbidden mammals, fish, invertebrates, reptiles, and birds. Likewise, the Quran specifically bans any food that isn’t halal.
Similarly, alcohol control also falls under the grip of religion, and has been consequently avoided by many societies. In Christianity, wine symbolizes the blood of Christ, and carries important metaphorical weight. Bans from alcohol in the Western world have often come from religion.
One such example is the theologian John Wesley in the 18th century. As society became increasingly urban and industrialized, he worried about social disorder and came to see alcohol consumption as a debauched and harmful habit associated with the moral decline — alcoholics were too drunk to receive the glory of God’s teachings. Alcohol was also banned in many Islamic countries since it was prohibited by the Quran.
Although there have been occasional government bans on food or alcohol throughout Chinese history, these have usually been temporary and implemented to achieve a specific purpose at the time.
It was forbidden to hunt or eat carp during the Tang Dynasty, but this was simply because the Chinese word for “carp” was homonymous with the family name of the emperor. Several dynasties sometimes did not allow people to butcher or eat beef, but only because of the need for cattle for plowing — not stemming from a belief of cows being sacred, as is the case in India.
In the Jin Dynasty, imperial officials called for the ban of tea because it was damaging the government’s fiscal resources.
In 1123 one provincial official reported to the emperor: “Now, in each one of over 50 prefectures across Henan and Shaanxi, 20 sacks of tea leaves are consumed every day. As each sack costs two taels of silver, over 300,000 taels are wasted in this way per year.” Although the official was incorrect in his calculations — it should have been 730,000 taels — it is clear that the ban was pursued on economic, not religious grounds.
Similarly, many dynasties have banned Chinese alcohol for short periods. However, most of these were implemented to preserve the grains needed in the brewing of alcohol during times of famine. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century onwards that, according to Chinese historian Liu Wennan “against the backdrop of notions of temperance popular among adherents of Anglo-American Christianity, criticism of alcohol and other addictive substances such as opium and tobacco started to express itself in strong moral terms, like one’s individual character, will, and moderation.”
The impression the Chinese often give off is that we will eat or drink practically anything. This is perhaps owing in some part to the country’s large population and frequent natural disasters — meaning a certain degree of flexibility is required in the approach to food.
But this view does not explain how many societies that lacked food, like India, would choose to starve rather than become as omnivorous as the Chinese. It also does not explain why, even in times of peace and abundance, rich Chinese are happy to carry on eating chicken claws, offal, and duck’s blood — often considered peasant dishes in other cultures.
I believe the most accurate explanation is that Chinese people have never let their appetites be affected by religious commandments, and instead have taken a flexible and realistic approach to nourishment.
The result has been to make Chinese cuisine far more rich and diverse than other culinary traditions, and helped promote and maintain a social balance, providing long-term support to the world’s largest population.
(A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.)
(Header image: A seller holds fried scorpions at a food festival in Linan, Zhejiang province, March 16, 2013. Hu Jianhuan/VCG)