China Food Updates

Chinese Food Updates

E. N. Anderson


Historic sections: History, then ecol and EB, then actual food, then poems and such.

Modern: by province, then ethnic group; then country in that chapter


Many years ago I wrote a book, The Food of China (1988), intended as a modest contribution to a cultural ecology of east Asia.  This book has remained one of the few accessible studies of Chinese food, and as such has achieved a rather undeserved status as a reference book.  It is now far out of date for such a purpose.  In particular, archaeology has made enormous strides since the 1980s, dramatically pushing back the dates of Chinese agriculture, and greatly increasing our knowledge of early millennia.

Many readers of the earlier work became captivated by descriptions of wonderful food, and missed the fact that I was largely concerned with describing a highly successsful agricultural system, and crediting its success to the billions of anonymous farmers and food workers who created it.  The world now needs more than ever the insights of traditional East Asian agriculture. 

I have written several obscure publications on Chinese food since 1988 (notably Anderson 1990, 1991, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2011a, 2011b, 2013a, 2013b), and a book that brings together recent findings and old data on early and medieval Chinese food (Anderson 2014).  The present posting adds stray notes, especially on Chinese food ethnography—an area that has progressed considerably.

In the period since The Food of China appeared, serious studies of Chinese food have greatly increased.  My book was soon followed by Frederick Simoons’ encyclopedic Food in China (1991).  Meanwhile, several brilliant studies by the great French scholar Françoise Sabban brought a whole new level of sophistication to the field. 

Then, with the new millennium, came several truly magistral syntheses of selected areas.  Hu Shiu-Ying, an amazing ethnobotanist whose career spans over 70 years of research, produced her own life synthesis, Food Plants of China (2005).  Dr. Hu passed away in 2012 at the age of 102—surely a testimony to the virtues of Chinese food and medicinal herbs.

H. T. Huang’s life work on Chinese fungal and fermentation technologies reached fruition in the enormous volume (Huang 2000; Dr. Huang passed away in 2012 at the age of 95).  Chinese ferments also received their fair share of attention in Sandor Ellix Katz’ The Art of Fermentation (2012), another truly magistral work. Fermented foods can now boast that perhaps the two best books in world food literature are written about them.  Lillian Li completed a similar life project in her definitive study of famine in Chinese history (Li 2007). 

The French scholar Georges Métailié (2015) contributed a long volume on the history of botany to the Needham series, Science and Civilisation in China. It discusses food plants along with other works, but is focused on the history of plant books and bencao (“basic herbal”) literature, so has little on food.

The German sinologist Thomas Höllmann has written a fine general introductory book, beautifully illustrated, translated as The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural Hisory of Chinese Cuisine (2014).

A pleasant and accurate new history of Chinese food is The Emperor’s Feast, by Jonathan Clements.

Environmental history of China, once an arcane topic left pretty much to Mark Elvin (1973, 2004a, 2004b; Elvin and Lui 1998) and me, has exploded as a field, with major works coming out literally every day. Elvin’s morbid assessment of long decline in the environment and the welfare of the people and my own more upbeat analysis is well balanced by Robert Marks in two superb studies (1998, 2012; see also Marks 2009). His careful accounts show indeed a rapid and depressing environmental decline, but also China’s success in feeding a rapidly expanding population. None of us disagrees on the facts; the difference is that Elvin and Marks are more impressed by the loss of biodiversity and environmental riches, while I am more impressed by the success of a huge, diverse empire in feeding its people reasonably well without totally destroying its entire life support system. Europe coped with rising population by conquering weaker lands, genociding or enslaving their inhabitants, and exporting millions of people to them. China did not have that option, except for relatively quite small migrations from southeast China. I have discussed these works at more length elsewhere (Anderson 2014, 2019).

More recently, a valuable environmental history of China into the Han Dynasty has been provided by Brian Lander (2021), and Kathryn Linduff and coworkers have produced an excellent analytic history of China’s early intereaction with neighbors (2018).

All these works note the incresingly rapid decline of large wild mammals, and this has been put on a solid footing with dates, maps, and numbers by Shuqing Teng and associates (2020) and Xinru Wan and others (2019). They record the disappearance of elephants and rhinoceroses (once common), the near disappearance of bears and tigers, the reduction of wild camels to a tiny handful (now threatened by roads; Yang et al. 2019), the loss of most deer, and other sad losses. These declined along with the rise of human agriculture, but the rhinos, were hunted into extinction even before that got out of hand. Even the little muskdeer is about gone, doomed by its valuable musk, a scented oily compound in a gland on its back. On the other hand, Père David’s Deer has been reintroduced. It survived in Qing only in royal parks. From here it went to England, surviving there in parks. It died out in China. (It is properly milu in Chinese, but often called xiangsi, “resembles four,” because it looks like a mix of deer, horse, donkey, and goat—or sometimes other animals.)

Among more specialized recent works we may count David Pietz’ Yellow River (2016) and Ruth Mostern’s The Yellow River, A Natural and Unnatural History (2021). Both biographize this center of China’s history. The river heads high up on the Tibetan plateau, then flows through mountain and desert country, making a huge bend around the Ordos Desert. It then flows south through the loess plateau, then turns east, cuts through mountains, and opens onto the North China Plain. Here it is blocked from flowing directly to sea by the Shandong mountains, so it must turn north or south to get to its fate in the ocean. Over time, it has shifted back and forth, with catastrophic effects in the historic period. Mostern provides an amazing array of graphics, from her own beautiful color photographs to charts and maps of every period’s management, settlements, and disasters. The book is not only a historical account, but an atlas.

The river became “China’s Sorrow” after the deforestation or grassland destruction for agriculture of the loess plateaus along its middle course, a process well begun by Han and catastrophic by Song. Earlier, much of the country included in the Great Bend had been rather fertile, with lakes (cf. Fan 2018 for even earlier good times). In Tang it deteriorated, especially during and after the great rebellions. Brushy and dry in cold dry periods, forested on higher ground in warmer and wetter ones, the loess plateau became more and more damaged by human-caused fires as well as agriculture from about 3000 years ago (Mostern 2021; Tan et al. 2018).

The wars of Song and Yuan led to violence and chaos, which, among other things, led to massive deforestation to build fortifications in the loess region, a center of violence and strife. In Song, the North China Plain also became devastated. The river broke its banks in 1048 and cut a whole new channel, debouching north of Shandong. Then in the 1120s came enormous floods (Zhang 2016). In 1128, the local governor, Du Chong, made what may be the most disastrous mistake in all military history: he opened the dykes to flood the land in a foolish and hopeless attempt to stop the southward advance of the Jin forces. The river cut a new channel again, moving south, and devastated millions of peoples’ homes and farms. The loss of life reached astronomical figures.

The Yuan briefly tamed the river, during a period of mild weather, but renewed rains and storms broke it out again. Ming saw not only more and worse flooding, but an earthquake in the Wei River area killed an estimated 830,000 people (Mostern 2021:185), many buried when their homes, caves excavated into the loess, collapsed. Enormous famines and other disasters from then till the mid-twentieth century are chronicled by Pietz (2016) and Mostern.

Many excellent understandings of the problem were aired, and many good ideas on fixing it were written up. Some were even tried: distributory channels, dredging, canals, multiple levees, dams. The problem was insuperable in preindustrial times. Only late 20th century technology could do the job, by a combination of big dams, small dams, reforestation, terracing, levees, diversion, and rechanneling. Even now, erosion is a problem and flooding is a danger. The dams are rapidly silting up, so the problem will be as bad as ever in the near future. Diversion of water for irrigation, however, lowers the river significantly, such that it sometimes fails to reach the ocean, so extreme floods are less serious than once.

The silt load has been reduced more than 90% recently, however, by a combination of checkdams, reforestation, reservoirs, and diversion of much of the water for irrigation upstream from the loesslands (Y. Liu et al. 2020). This may or may not be sustainable. The river carries less and less water—now only 3% of China’s overall fresh water—but still irrigates 13% of China’s cropland (Y. Liu et al. 2020). 

More local are studies of lakes. A saline one in far north China shows cooling at 8.2 thousand years ago, dry at 6.9-5.9, and—like almost all records from the northern hemisphere—cooling at 4.2-4 (J. Li and Y. Liu 2018). Solar forcing is responsible for these widely-seen changes. Another case is Lake Bosten at China’s far northwest corner, almost in Kazakhstan. It gets its precipitation from the Atlantic, not the monsoon. A large fish-rich lake with much cultivation around it, it was a farming center from Han, and even supported wet-rice agriculture in the wetter times of Ming (Fontana et al. 2019; the Little Ice Age forced the Atlantic storm tracks south, leading to more rain for China’s far northwest). Another local lake study concerns Kunming Lake, at Kunming, Yunnan, which flourished as a rich, productive, beautiful lake with incredibly fertile shores through much of China’s history, but shrank due to encroaching farms, and finally has become polluted beyond all measure (Hillman et al. 2019).

Endymion Wilkinson’s monumental Chinese History, A New Manual (new editions every couple of years) contains a long section, “Agriculture, Food and Drink” (in the 2012 edn., pp. 433-466), which covers the basic historical, anthropological, and culinary literature very well.  It is followed by a section on “Technology and Science” (467-479), but this section is brief and concentrates on modern times.

The sociology of Chinese food has also advanced.  A number of Chinese scholars have devoted time and energy to interpretive studies, revealing the social and cultural complexities of food, eating, and food ideologies in the Chinese world.  Among these are Sidney Cheung, Rance Lee, Ambrose Tse, David Wu, Yan Yunxiang, and many others.  Western anthropologists such as Sidney Mintz and James and Rubie Watson (Watson 1997; Watson and Watson 2004) have also contributed greatly.  The medical aspects of Chinese foodways have received much attention, with outstanding work by Elisabeth Hsu, Vivienne Lo, and many others. 

Jacqueline Newman has not only contributed introductory works, but has also done yeoman service editing the food journal Flavor and Fortune.  Dr. Newman has chosen a “popular” approach and style, but her scholarly knowledge of Chinese food is orders of magnitude greater than that of many scholars who write in proper academic style.  Newman (who has given her collection of over 4000 Chinese cookbooks to SUNY-Stony Brook) has edited for many years a journal, Flavor and Fortune, which though popular in tone is scholarly in content and standards.  She has described regional cuisines, as have many contributors to the journal. She finally retired in 2021, but expect further writings from her.

Historian Miranda Brown of the University of Michigan has a food blog at that introduces her highly original and thoroughly researched findings. She is emerging as the United States’ leading scholarly historian of Chinese food.

Chinese food has to be served on something, and from earliest times the ceramics and metalware of China have been famous as among the most beautiful in the world. Rose Kerr and Nigel Wood (2004) wrote a history of Chinese ceramics for the Needham series, and it is arguably the most thorough and sophisticated volume of them all. Ceramics connoisseurship included beliefs about the value of certain wares for protecting the food as well as for highlighting its beauty.

In 2005 I had the opportunity to teach a short course on Chinese food history at the Universita di Scienze Gastronomiche, Pollenza, Italy.  This made me try to catch up somewhat on the explosion of information since 1988.  In the years since The Food of China appeared, I drifted away from Chinese studies, because of pressures in my department (Anthropology) at the University of California, Riverside.  I came to rest in Native American studies, doing research first on the Northwest Coast and then for over 25 years with the Yucatec Maya of Quintana Roo, Mexico.  This is a group whom I have come to love, and many of whom have become literally family (through Maya adoption practices).  Even so, with retirement, I found myself drifting back toward Asia.  Partly, I am simply getting too old for field work in the Quintana Roo rain forest (not the least harsh environment on the planet).  Mostly, however, it was encouragement by many China scholars and food-lovers who have proved wonderfully forgiving of my drift away from the field for so many years.

Some Basic Background

            China’s food and everything connected with it depends heavily on the monsoon. It, in turn, depends on the winds and sea currents around, Intertropical Convergence Zone, the place where southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere winds and waters diverge from a hot, fairly calm equatorial zone. The ITCZ can shift well to the north of the equator, and when it does China gets more rain, from the hot, wet air that rises from the heated seas and is driven north. Hadley cells evolve as the hot air rises, flows north, and then sinks again. In most of the world, this sinking air produces deserts at the edge of the tropics; the air dry now but still hot. In China, however, it just flows on, driven by the massive heat engine of the South China Sea, and gives out only over north and northwest China (Beck et al. 2018; Clift and d’Alpoim Guedes 2021). It still produces most of what little rain comes to Gansu. North and west of there, other air currents cut in: far west China gets the last feeble dregs of the Atlantic storms, especially when the Atlantic is cold, driving the storm belt south (Anderson 2014). North China gets winter rain from Siberia, and even Hong Kong can have miserable cold winter drizzles from north winds that pick up further water from the China Sea.

            The Himalayas block the monsoon, making northeast India and Bangladesh incredibly rainy but Tibet extremely dry. When Tibet is cold, it depresses the temperature and rainfall quite widely over China. More sun in north China is also costly, heating the land and reducing the monsoon (Beck et al. 2018).

            Another factor is the Walker circulation, the grand pattern of circulation over the oceans. It gives us, among other things, the alternation (erratic, every 5 to 50 years or so) of El Niño and La Niña. The latter is normal. Trade winds (from the east) blow warm water from the rest of the Pacific to its western area, especially just south of the Equator, which causes cold water to well up on the west side to make up for it, one reason for the California and Humboldt Currents. La Niña makes for a dry east (California and the coasts of Peru and northern Chile) and a wet west, mostly in Indonesia and Australia but also a bit of support for the Chinese monsoon. El Niño occurs when the warm water sloshes (technical term) back to the east, giving California and sometimes even north Chile some rain but causing drought in southern Indonesia and in Australia.

            Lately, global warming has added to the picture, giving Australia historic droughts and China slightly more reliable rain but also heat and flooding.

            China’s climate has had massive ups and downs over time: warm and wet till 6200 BCE, somewhat cooler and drier, then sharply cooler and drier in 2200-1800 BCE, with coolness marked till 1500 (B. Yang et al. 2021). The far northeast, which gets winter rain and snow, remained wet till 3100 (X. Liu et al. 2019). Long dry periods alternated with warm, wet ones during the period from the decline of the Ice Age glaciers to the dawn of agriculture (Weiwei Sun et al. 2019). These track the release of vast amounts of cold, fresh meltwater as glacial lakes drained. Such events affected especially the north Atlantic. Warm water, and thus warm air and rain, were forced south. The Atlantic Meridian Overturning circulation, which causes a huge percentage of the climate and weather in the northern hemisphere, was weakened. Even the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) moved south. Even the Indian monsoon weakened at such times. Other than these periods, which included especially the Younger Dryas, the entire time range was warm and wet in China.

            The climate turned warmer and wetter during the Han Dynasty, turning worse near the end of Han—probably a major factor in that demise. Then volcanic eruptions elsewhere in the world led to a terribly cold and dry period after 536 CE and especially after 550, lasting till about 650 and clearly affecting the rise and fall of Sui. Climate improved sharply,  climaxing in the Medieval Warm Period of 900-1200 or 1300, which gave very good times to the Song Dynasty, except for a cold wet period in the early 1100s that greatly damaged Song rule (Zhang 2016). The MWP allowed the rise of the Mongols, as their subarctic habitat got warmer and wetter. They took China, but the rise of the Little Ice Age after 1300 caused cold and flooding that helped end their rule there. However, they were by then established in warmer parts of Asia, and continued rule over central and western Asia for centuries.

            The Little Ice Age hit China extremely hard, hurting Ming and probably encouraging the Manchus to move south and take China (Pei 2021). The modern period went with warming after 1800, and of course the recent extreme warming due to release of greenhouse gases by human action—including vast amounts of coal burning and some oil and natural gas use by China, as well as release of methane by rice agriculture (Anderson 2019; Pei 2021). The role of climate in Chinese history and prehistory is usually best seen as an accelerator and trigger for events that would probably have happened anyway (Anderson 2019), but sometimes seems to have really caused things that would not otherwise have happened, such as major damage to Northern Song (Zhang 2016) and the timing and violence of the Sui-Tang and Ming-Qing transitions (Pei 2021). A more detailed study shows that the Little Ice Age was particularly cool in the northeast and east, and was wetter there; it was drier in the west, and sometimes even a bit warmer than usual, as in the Tarim area (Xuecheng Zhou et al. 2019).

            Taiwan, unusually for China, gets considerable winter rain, especially in the north. This is directly a result of the winter north winds blowing over the China Sea, but more remotely it is connected with Arctic sea ice, and thus increased with cooling weather in the last 3000 years (T. Lin et al. 2021), especially the Little Ice Age.

            Tibet had similar dynamics. One study (C. Liang et al. 2019) of vegetation near the great Qinghai lake shows  rapid change from 10,500 to 9000; increase in amount and diversity to 6500; decrease to 4000, then increase to 1500, then fluctuations after that as people become numerous. The increase at 4500 to 1500 is dramatic, with a real crash around 1500. There was a fairly even balance of grassland and evergreen forest (pine, spruce, etc.). This tracks temperature and precipitation, but not very well; note the increase after colder times (4000-4200 BP). Vegetation cover drops suddenly about the time of the 536 shock but then never recovers, thanks to human pressure (overgrazing and overharvesting of fuel).

            In China’s far western deserts, similar things were happening. They were even drier than usual some 6000 years ago. Glacial melt after the Little Ice Age led to much more water for a while in the last couple of centuries (J. Liu et al. 2019), but now all is drier than ever. Faunal changes confirm the broad contours of climate change there (T. Zhang and Elias 2019; X. Zhang et al. 2018). The extreme northwest corner of Xinjiang, in the Altai mountains, is under the influence of the Atlantic and gets its rain on the westerly winds from there, thus contrasting dramatically with the rest of China. This area was warm and dry in the early Holocene, then cool and wet 8000-6300 years ago, then warm and dry till 5500, cold and wet till 4000, warm and dry till 2500, colder and wetter till a thousand years ago, then gradually warmer and drier. This tracks Atlantic temperature shifts, but is nothing like the rest of China. Note the key shift at 4000 that made the rest of east Asia cold and dry, but made the Altai warmer (Y. Zhang and P. Meyers 2016; Y. Zhang and P. Yang 2018).

            In the farthest northeast, sediments from a lake in Heilongjiang reveal that the area was warm and wet 13,400 to 8700 years ago. It was warm and dry for a while after that. A cooler dry period set in 8200 years ago, but the Intertropical Convergence Zone shifted north in that period, which spared this area. The 4200-4000 BP event was more dry and cool, with the ITCZ shifting south and making everything worse (S. Zhang et al. 2020; Zuo et al. 2018).

            Later, a cave record from south China shows fairly consistent good monsoon till 860, then a dry period, followed by a very dry one 910-930, a dramatic rise in monsoon activity to 980, high rainfall till 1020, then sharp drop 1340-1380, and weakness till 1850, with extreme minimum 1580-1640. It then rose and stabilized. The correlation with dynastic events is obvious; note especially the dry periods at the fall of Tang, Yuan, and Ming.

            In the tropics, the Little Ice Age was wetter, as the ITCZ contracted and concentrated the rainy monsoon there (W. Zhang et al. 2018).

            China’s flora now reaches 31,200 vascular plants as of 2017 (M. Lu et al. 2017; W. Xu et al. 2018), with 26,978 that can be analyzed as to timing of origin, with many still to be described. Famously, China includes such “living fossils” and the ginkgo and dawn redwood, in the east and center, but evolution has been rapid, especially in the west and especially for the non-tree species (Li-Min Lu et al. 2018). The breakdown as of 2018 is “2308 ferns, 2105 annual herbs, 12,721 perennial herbs, 2295 climbers, 5690 shrubs, 3642 trees” (W. Xu et al. 2018).


Languages and Prehistory

Proto-Tibeto-Burman (Proto-Sino-Tibetan) has words for rice, the millets, and beans, and perhaps even a word for wheat reconstructs (Bradley 2011), though early borrowing would guarantee that wheat words spread through the language phylum. The Tibeto-Burman (or Sino-Tibetan) phylum is more and more clearly derived from original stock of some sort spoken in the central Yellow River drainage and possibly as far south as Sichuan, in or just before Yangshao times (Sagart et al. 2019; Menhan Zhang et al. 2019). Stories among some South Chinese Tibeto-Burman minorities record a homeland in mountains to the northwest, a perfect fit for the mountains of Shaanxi and Gansu. The phylum has picked up astounding linguistic diversity in its far south and southwest, especially in the northern Indian subcontinent, but this is largely by mixing with local languages, many now lost. The main Tibeto-Burman stem, largely in China (broad political sense), is a fairly coherent group with many words for agriculture (Sagart et al. 2019).

In earlier works, I dismissed the “Altaic” language phylum as unproved and dubious, with existing evidence against it. Marina Robbeets has recently made a powerful case for it, as her “Transeurasian” grouping: the Turkic, Mongolian, Tungus, Korean and Japanese families all deriving from a common source (Robbeets et al 2021). She reconstructs words for sowing, millet gruel, pigs, and other cultivation words. In her major article (Robbeets et al. 2021) she provides an enormous list of words cognate to all or some of the languages. (Alas, it is available only to the fortunate few who can call it up online; it is “supplementary material” to the major published document.) She also traces the origin of the phylum to the Liao River drainage in northeast China. The list does provide compelling evidence for the initial unity of at least Tungus, Korean, and Japanese (the Tungus-Korean link was already well known), and for a homeland where she pinpoints it. The connections of Turkic and Mongol to each other and to the wider grouping are certainly credible, but early borrowing cannot entirely be ruled out.

Some Russian linguists argue further that these languages relate onward to the Indo-European, Uralic, and even Semitic and Caucasus languages, in a giant “Nostratic” or “Eurasian” phylum. This is definitely pushing the evidence—the few similarities could be pure chance—but it cannot be ruled out.

Genetic evidence runs strongly counter to the above scenarios. There is no genetic commonality (besides generic Asian) between the Liao farmers of ca. 3000 BCE and the Mongolian and Amur peoples of the time. On the other hand, Robbeets’ ideas are confirmed for Korea and Japan: they are today overwhelmingly descended from (or at least closely related to) the Liao farmers. I suspect the Tungus are also in this category, and the unrelated Amur people known archaeologically spoke a different language, possibly Gilyak (a language of uncertain relationship spoken on the Amur today). At least, the Russian “Nostratic” phylum is almost impossible to square with the enormous genetic diversity of modern and archaeological Eurasia. Sharing of a single language group across vast stretches of genetically unrelated people is a feature of modern armed military conquest; it is hard to imagine it happening any other way.

 Soon after this, people genetically like modern Tibeto-Burmans (as far as Nepalese Tibet) expanded rapidly from the central Yellow River area (C. C. Wang et al. 2021; S. Q. Wen et al. 2016). Also, people with western Eurasian genetics moved in from the west; at least some of them were probably Indo-European speakers. Interesting is a boy buried about 2000 BCE in far west China is fully east Asian genetically, but the burial goods all represent the Afanasievo culture, a west Eurasian one often assumed to be carried by Indo-European speakers. In general, central Asia at that time was as wildly mixed as it is now. The famous mummies of the area were light-haired and dressed in western-style clothes, but at least some were genetically East Asian.

The Silk Road, then as now, was a whole complex of routes carrying all sorts of commodities; silk had probably not been invented at that time. Among other mysteries, the two or three Tokharian languages, Indo-European languages distantly related to Germanic and Balto-Slavic, entered at some point, probably from Yamnaya and Afanasievo cultural backgrounds. They are historically attested from Xinjiang, but the languages died out in early Medieval times.

Evidence continues to pour in confirming the progress of Austronesians from south China to Taiwan, and then later the radiation of the Malayo-Polynesian branch to the whole Indo-Pacific region, from Madagascar and East Africa (see Beaujard 2009, 2012) to Oceania. Genetics confirm massive mainland migration to Taiwan from before 1300 BCE till many centuries later; they were genetically like modern Austronesians, but also a good deal like Tai and “Austroasiatic” (presumably Vietnamese and Cambodians), showing a good mix of early rice farmers (C. C. Wang et al. 2021). They also show similarity to a very early northeast Chinese genetic strain that exists today only in dilution, as a component of east Chinese genomes. A thorough review of the early evidence shows an earlier occupation, not known to be agricultural, but possibly so.  Then came the Austronesians, farming rice and millet.  They apparently came from the Pearl River area, which is known as one possible area for rice domestication and differentiation.  The Austronesian sites in Taiwan are now very numerous and cover all the island (Hung and Carson 2014). Conversely, Neolithic people of Fujian show close relationships to the Austronesians, but later Fujianese are largely descended from migrants from farther north (M. Yang et al. 2020). In general, the migration of north Chinese to the south is classically a world-scale demographic shift, but there was also some migration from south to north in southern China (M. Yang et al. 2020), possibly involving Tai and Vietnamese people.

Modern South Chinese are rather poorly studied genetically, but appear to be an amalgam of ancestral Tibeto-Burman (Sino-Tibetan), Tai, and other peoples, including Austroasiatics moving up from southeast Asia. Tai customs and loanwords survive in Cantonese culture today, and the Cantonese and Vietnamese tonal systems appear borrowed from Tai. (“Tai” here represents the Thai languages, related to the obscure and now rarely-spoken Kadai languages of south and central China; these two branches had a common ancestor around the time of the rise of rice agriculture, and presumably spread with it, as Tai/Thai was certainly doing in historic times.)

Katy Hung, a Chinese investigator working in Taiwain, has found that the Saisiat, an Austronesian group of Taiwan, has a legend of “little black people” living there before the Saisiat came in from the south (which fits with the Pearl River origin).  The “little black people” taught them a good deal about agriculture (Katy Biggs [Hung], Facebook postings and emails, Nov.-Dec. 2014).  It seems likely that the pre-Austronesians of Taiwan were related to the Philippine Negritos and other small, dark peoples of south Asia (such as the Andaman Islanders), and were absorbed by the taller, lighter-skinned Austronesians; this is what has happened, but only partially, in the Philippines and southeast Asia.  If the Saisiat are right, the Austronesians did not introduce the first agriculture to Taiwan. Recent work casts doubt on the whole question of migration of agriculture from the mainland and its association with proto-Austronesians. The basic model still works, but inevitable complications have appeared.

New Syntheses on the Neolithic and After

            Excellent reviews include Gina Barnes’ Archaeology of East Asia (2015).

            Gang Deng’s major opus The Premodern Chinese Economy (1999)chronicles the long process of developing a rural economy based on free small-scale farmers and an agriculturally conscious and sensitive state that did a great deal to aid that sector. He chronicles the successes of many small landowners in passing civil service exams, thus allowing upward mobility, but also documents the enormous number and seriousness of famines. Like others who have written histories of Chinese agriculture, he sees the steady shrinking of farm sizes, forcing harder and harder work and innovation by the farmers just to stay at the same level.  The government was willing to help, possibly all too willing, since it trapped farmers in an endless cycle rather than giving them other opportunities. I must register opposition. I agree with most historians that the reason for the trap was increasing government autocracy, and thus hidebound reaction, in Ming and Qing, rather than a structural matter.

            Brian Lander’s The King’s Harvest (2021) stands out as an insightful synthesis of the development of the Chinese state and its environmental policies from the Neolithic through Qin. Lander has also done thorough studies of the animals of the Neolithic (Lander 2020; Lander and Brunson 2018).

            A very thorough up-to-date review of the transition from hunting and gathering to early agriculture has been provided in a two-part paper by Shengqian Chen and Pei-lin Yu (2017a, 2017b).  They cover all major sites, crops, pottery and stone manufacture, and related concerns.  They point out that intensified foraging preceded and merged with agriculture.  Hunting was important in the north, but plant use always dominated the center and east.  A good brief review of paleolithic China is provided by Bar-Yosef and Wang (2012).  Little new is offered, but it has details on sites, fauna, and possible foods.  I have updated my coverage of the earliest Chinese food in my book Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China (2014).  There is still much more to be done on food in early Chinese ritual, as more and more tomb materials allow us to test reports in the early writings (such as Xunzi; Tang and Yue 2013:5). 

A thorough overview of the origins and rise of agriculture, best in its coverage of prehistory, is found in Clift and d’Alpoim Guedes (2021).

Pottery from ninth millennium BCE in Henan is associated with pre-agricultural settled communities (Wang et al 2015).

Basic Archaeology

I generally begin my accounts of China with the rise of agriculture, but cannot here resist flagging a Paleolithic site in Henan that is 30,000-40,000 years old, because of the list of fauna there: tapir, rhino, cheetah, deer, raccoon dog, lynx, fox, etc. Presumably people were eating many of these. Wild millets of both common types were being harvested and processed by 28,000-24,000 years ago, along with wild roots and tubers (Li Liu et al. 2018).

Pottery was first invented in China, and later, independently, in the New World and possibly elsewhere in the Old. Pottery up to 19,000 years old, possibly 20-21,000 (Sato and Natsuki 2019), has been found in China. By 16,000 years ago it was common and widespread, and moving out to Korea and Japan. By 17,000 it was in the far northeast and what is now neighboring Russia but was historically part of China; here it had an uneven course, with local abandonment by hunting specialists who had little use for it (Terry 2021). By 9000 years ago they were firing it up to 1050 C in Cishan and Peiligang (Barnes 2015:93, 102). They thus must have already invented the simple ancestor of the “dragon kiln,” a kiln built up a hill slope at a carefully calculated angle, such that high caloric value firewood burned at the bottom, with a vent that sucks in oxygen as the wood burns, will produce extremely hot air that flows upslope at an even rate. I saw such a proto-dragon-kiln at Banpo, the neolithic village near Xian, in 1978. It was dug into a slope, extended several feet up, and would have done the job. Dragon kilns later produced enough heat to melt iron, allowing the Chinese to invent cast iron (in Zhou, by the 8th century BCE; Barnes 2015:145-147), long before anyone else could get such heat. It requires over 1500 C.

A famous traditional dragon kiln still operates in Okinawa. I saw it in full cry in 1966, when it was simply one more old kiln producing standard traditional pottery for the town. I assumed it was closed long ago, but it is still operating, as a living museum, producing the old classic Okinawan styles for avid tourists.

            The warm post-Pleistocene “thermal maximum” or “optimum” gave good rain even to Inner Mongolia (M. Jiang et al. 2020). It came to a sudden but not widespread or dramatic break at 6200 BCE. Far more serious, in fact a major worldwide shift, came at 4200-3800. Climates widely turned colder and drier. These two changes were evidently a major shock to Neolithic populations, forcing them to work harder and smarter for a living. Shifts in the direction of increasing and intensifying agriculture appear in local records (Barnes 2015:121; Anderson 2014).

            Charcoal from archaeological sites reflects choice. A revealing study by Hui Shen et al (2020) shows that in the Guanzhong Basin in Yangshao times it ran to elm, oak, tamarisk, and jujube. From the eastern plateau, basically Shanxi, in Longshan, there was much oak and Prunus (peach, possibly mei, and others). In late Longshan and after, there was more maple, also willow, pine, fir, Rhamnus, etc. and some bamboo. More northern sites in Longshan had pine, oak, elm, sumac, Prunus. Later, in the early dynastic period, there was pine, oak, hackberry, elm, sumac, willow/poplar, etc. Western areas in Shaanxi, including the Majiayao culture of Yangshao times, had considerable spruce, from the mountains of the Tibetan frontier ranges. There was oak and some fir, not too much else. Spruce drops off and oak comes in over early times. Platycladus, a warm-weather conifer, occurs. Increases in oak and Prunus probably show deliberate selection; pine increases where fire became common. Warm temperate to subtropical woodland in the southeastern part of the study area (roughly the Tianshan mountains) grades into dry pine in north and west. This boundary shifted northwestward during mid-Holocene, then back southeast after 4000 years ago. They thus found woodland, where others find grassland with scattered trees and groves; this is due to the sampling method—burned wood from fires. Only trees get much attention. Another group around Hui Shen found evidence of fruit collecting, including Prunus padus (cherry), Pyrus, Sorbus, Cotoneaster (a red berry), from 2300 BCE, wild; then cultivated mulberry (not native there) appears from 1500 BCE—the first evidence of tree cropping in the Xian area.

            A related study by Tao Shi et al. (2022) surveyed the entire frontier zone between farmland and what was historically grazing land, from far northeast Tibet (Qinghai Province) to the Liao River area. Agriculture was widespread in the moister parts by 5000 BCE, but wild animals dominated; pigs and dogs were domesticated, but not heavily used. Wild steppe animals prevailed in the southwestern parts of this transect. The northeast was still dominated by forest and little-grazed grassland. Sheep and cattle came around 3000 BCE, horses and goats around 2300, and these came steadily to dominate animal assemblages in the Longshan period. By then, they surpassed pigs as stock and food.

            On the Mongolian plateau, millet agriculture was already moving in from the southeast by 6500-5300 BCE. Hunting of aurochs, deer, raccoon dogs, and other game was important for food. Drier times after 4000 BCE impacted this rather edenic world (C. Zhao et al. 2021).

            Farther west, near Dunhuang but up on the high plateau above it, the small Tian’E Lake shows wet periods 1270 BC-AD 400, AD 1200-1350, AD 1600-near present, with dry in between. Vegetation there was sagebrush and other desert shrubs, and dryland grass. Spruce was nearby, but not after 1420 BCE. Nearby lakes had similar records, with some minor differences. This is near the extreme west limit of the monsoon and the extreme east limit of Atlantic-origin rainfall, so it is not only extremely dry, but the rainfall is erratic (Jun Zhang et al. 2018).

            In central China, what is now the Yangtse Delta was drowned by rising sea levels at 9000 BP. Sea levels fell enough by 7000 to begin exposing it again, and a paradise developed (L Li et al. 2018). River deltas, especially subtropical ones, are high-energy, high-nutrient environments that maximize food production, especially with the moderate and fluctuating salinity, which maximizes production of such food factories as oyster beds. The land continued to grow, and still does so; Shanghai was open ocean a very few thousand years ago.

            The Luoyang area near the Yellow River had broadleaf deciduous forest 9230-8850 BP (not BCE), steppe-meadow 8850-7550, steppe with sparse trees 7550-6920. The floodplain stabilized after 8370. Millet-based agriculture arose in Peiligang, 8500-7000. The Yangshao period peaked 7000-5000 in this area (Junna Zhang et al. 2018).

By the 3rd millennium BCE, huge settlements had arisen in north China. They tend to be in rather unexpected places, cold and dry. Perhaps the need to secure a lot of food, for emergencies, led to such early cities. Hongshan, a huge site with a major temple and blue-eyed goddess figure, flourished around 3000 BCE. Much bigger towns arose soon after. Shimao in the northern loess plateau of Shaanxi flourished from 2300 to 1800 BCE, covered 400 ha, had a huge wall and palace, was beginning to work with bronze, and was in every way a city except for lack of writing or other record-keeping. The other great city of the time was Taosi in the Jinnan valley of Shanxi, at 280 ha, which, among other things, developed a musical ensemble of alligator-skin drums and suspended chimestones (lithophones) that lasted into Zhou (M. Li 2018:126). It was conquered by Shimao in 1900 and ceased to be important (Jaang et al 2018). Wars of conquest at considerable distance were obviously a major issue of the time. Erlitou, the capital of the Xia dynasty, rose a bit later than these early cities.

Prehistoric Agriculture

In at least some parts of central north China, broomcorn millet dominated early periods, from the dawn of agriculture around 8000 BCE to perhaps 4000 (see Lander 2021).  It was apparently domesticated in the dry northwestern loesslands, not the Yellow River valley or plain (Hunt et al. 2018), though this requires confirmation. It spread to Mesopotamia by 1100-1500 BCE (Rutgers University 2022).

Broomcorn millet yields in 45 days, and is the fastest-maturing and most water-efficient of grains (Hunt et al. 2018).  It has been a great crop to raise by nomad tribes.  It also makes a fine catch crop if a major crop fails.   It spread from China over Central Asia from 2500 to 1500 BCE, its characteristic isotope signature (presumably of C4 metabolism) appearing in bones by then (Hunt et al. 2018; Spengler et al. 2016).   This helped develop multicrop agriculture in cooler areas (Popular Archaeology 2015), since, though the plant is very tolerant to heat and prefers hot conditions, it will grow in a very short summer.  Its use declined slowly over time, then rapidly with the coming of the New World starch crops, especially maize.  It still is useful in central Asia (Wang et al. 2016:333). Early broomcorn millet from northwest China is genetically close to samples from India and Europe, showing where they originated (C. Li et al. 2016).

Foxtail millet rose to dominance after civilization started; it was a clear leader by Shang. It is somewhat resistant to salt as well as drought, though not as drought-tolerant as broomcorn millet. An interesting insight into the rise of millet agriculture is that wild cats and rats by the middle 6th millennium BCE had been eating a great deal of C4 food, the only common ones in the area being the millets. The rats had been raiding fields and stores and the cats had been eating the rats (Barnes 2015:124).

On the eastern North China Plain, the Houli culture grew millets and had possibly-wild rice and domestic dogs and pigs from 6500 to 5000 BCE, to be followed by the more agricultural Beixi culture (5000-3900), which added more pigs. At this time much or most food was still gathered: acorns and hazelnuts, grapes, jujubes, wild cherry (Cerasus japonica), water chestnut, euryale, elderberry, wild soybean, perilla, Physalis alkekengi, crabgrass.

These cultures preceded the better-known and fully agriculture-dependent and rice-farming Dawenkou (4100 to 2000) and Longshan (2900 to 1900) cultures. Beixin seems to have invented the tripod dish, a constant of Chinese art from humble ceramic beginnings in Beixin to the spectacular cast bronzes of the early dynasties (G. Jin, Chen, et al. 2020; G. Jin, Wagner, et al. 2019). Rice made it to the middle Yangzi only about 3000 BCE, and to Hainan Island by 2600 BCE (Yan Wu et al. 2016).

By 3000-2000 BCE, a pattern of broomcorn millet in the driest northwest and foxtail millet, with increasing rice, in moister areas arose in north China (Sheng et al. 2018).

A major synthesis of the development and spread of agriculture from north China to central Asia was presented in a special issue of The Holocene (Spengler et al. 2016). Wheat and barley spread from the west at about the same rate they did in Europe, a kilometer or so a year, reaching China 3000 (northwest China)-2000 (north-central) BCE. Millets spread the other way, but more slowly, reaching India and Europe around 2000 BCE or later. Agriculture came very slowly to the northern central Asian reaches, where the climate is hostile. Flax came to China from Europe, but not until the Han Dynasty. Going the other way, peaches and apricots reached northwest India and Pakistan by the second millennium BCE, having been domesticated in China perhaps as early as 4000 BCE (Stevens et al. 2016).

Rice came a bit later than millet. As of 7000-5000 BCE, people of the south China coast lacked agriculture, and lived mostly by fishing and seaside foraging where possible (Zhu et al. 2021). Wild annual rice grew in natural seasonal marshes and ponds, as I always thought; wild perennial rice has wider habitat preference.  The annual was the type domesticated, beginning around 8000 BCE (Huan et al. 2021) but not fully domesticated for a couple of further millennia (Clift and d’Alpoim Guedes 2021).  At first it was grown wet (presumably by decrue agriculture, as in west Africa later), then dry or wet. At the Xiaohuangshan site in the lower Yangtze Valley, rice was eaten from 7000-5000 BCE, but was just coming into possible domestication, and competed for attention with root foods and acorns (Ling Yao et al. 2016).  A well-preserved rice paddy has been excavated at the huge and long-occupied Chengtou Mountain site in Hunan (Facebook posting by Chinese Archaeology—the Tiger Meets the Dragon, Jan. 26, 2022). Wet-growing developed as paddy fields became more general in the 5th through 4th millennia BCE (Weisskopf, Qin, Ding, Ding, Sun and Fuller 2015; Weisskopf, Qin and Fuller 2015). 

Rice spread from two centers, Hunan and the Yangzi Delta, and these may represent independent domestications.  It spread throughout East and Southeast Asia at a speed averaging .8 km/yr (Cobo et al. 2019).  This rate implies strongly that most of the diffusion was by farmers actually spreading into new territory, rather than by hunter-gatherer groups picking up the art (Cobo et al. 2019).  The centers and timing are right for proto-Thai-Kadai spreading from Hunan and Austronesian from the lower Yangzi, as Cobo et al imply by noting the spread of those linguistic groups in later times.

            Since 8500 BP, with a strong monsoon, rice flourished north to lat. 36, in the Peiligang (8500-7000 BP) culture. Acorns were more important than cultivated foods at that time. Wild foods stayed important into the Yangshao period (7000-4500, contemp w Qujialing, 5300-4500, elsewhere, and roughly with Dawenkou in the east). Miaodigou with its beautiful pottery is a middle phase of Yangshao, Majiayao (5300-4000 BP) a late phase (Li Liu 2021). Majiayao was succeed in the west by the Qijia culture, running about 4200-3500 BP; it was in this time that horses, sheep, and goats enteresd the area (Womack et al. 2021).

            Rice agriculture was trimmed back by the 4200-4000 BP event during Longshan (4500-4000) to lat. 33.29.  But after that the rice and farming methods improved and it expanded north again.  It was at least present, possibly through trade, in the early dynastic Erlitou (3800-3500) and Erligang (3600-3400) periods. Over time, rice grew along rivers, in low basins; foxtail millet dominated on pediment plains; broomcorn dominated in high valleys  (Jia et al. 2021).

Rice agriculture may have led to China’s famous communalistic yet individually responsible philosophy of life (Talhelm et al. 2014), because of the need to work together while still remaining individually responsible for one’s share. South China shows more communalism, the north more individualism. Small farms managed by independent farmers but requiring a great deal of cooperative labor would strengthen this idea of the proper society. However, Ruan et al. (2014) cast serious doubts on this, pointing out that the study used thin sampling, straw-man alternatives, and rather little awareness of traditional Chinese views. In fact, the basic communalist-individualist philosophy is straight from Confucius, and he lived in a millet-dependent area where rice was uncommon.

Millets reached the south coast by 5500 years ago, an expectably early date (Dai et al. 2019). However, much of the coast resisted agriculture, apparently because they were doing fine as mobile fishers and foragers. On the Fujian coast and Taiwan, agriculture barely made a dent before 3000-2500 BCE, when presumed Austronesian expansion brought advanced rice agriculture. Before that, people lived on fish and seafoods, sago, yams, Job’s tears, acorns, Cordia fruits (still popular), arrowroot, and Canarium nuts (Hung et al. 2019).

Inner Mongolians were consuming millets, beans, nuts, and yams at the same time and even earlier (Guan et al. 2021). Strikingly different is the finding from a site in the Chengdu Plain that shows no occupation at all until 2700 BCE, when millet agriculture appears (d’Alpoim Guedes et al. 2013).

Rice was locally present by 6000 BCE, and remained rare but available (C. Wang et al. 2017).  A very early site in Shandong had rice by then, as well as millets. Probably still wild were soybeans, perilla, and chenopods (Crawford et al. 2019).

By contrast, the more nomadic area of Goukou in Xinjiang subsisted rather steadily on meat, dairy foods, millets, and some wheat and barley from the Late Bronze Age right through the Tang Dynasty (W. Wang 2017). 

At Dadiwan, an early site (5500 BCE), many bones were reported as chicken bones, but turned out to be local pheasant (Nuwer 2020). So did the “chickens” reported from other Neolithic sites (Peters et al. 2016). The chicken had apparently not gotten that far north yet. It is native to far south China, and linguistics strongly implies that it was domesticated by ancestral Tai-Kadai, since the Tai word for it, kai, has gone worldwide. (Cantonese kai; Mandarin ji, derived from kai.)

Deng (with Fuller et al. 2019) has also reviewed archaeological finds of wheat. Wheat and barley were delayed in acceptance for quite a while, because of local preference for boiling grain into porridge (Archaeology News Network 2020); wheat is terribly slow and hard to cook that way, and barley not very tasty or nutritious (though barley gruel was a staple of old Europe). They were present, and used, by 2500 BCE in northwest China (earlier in east Central Asia, later in central China), possibly popularized by the harsh climate of 2000-1800 BCE, which would have made them popular as a winter crop alternating with the summer-grown millets (Cheung 2019). Millets came late to western China, but wheat and barley were fairly early there, established by 2000 BCE (Xinying Zhou et al. 2016). However, wheat and barley did not take off as foods till the introduction of superior milling technology in Han or slightly earlier (Anderson 1988; Lander 2021). Central China did not really adopt wheat till 1500 BCE (Barnes 2015:417). Cold, dry periods inhibited their spread, after warmer times before the 2000 BCE event helped them (d’Alpoim Guedes and Bocinsky 2018).

New Shandong and Liaoning Peninsulas data show wheat there by 2600 BCE. There is no data from Gansu until 1900. It reached the middle Yellow River and Tibet by1600 (Long et al. 2018). It was probably in Xinjiang well before 2100-1700.

Rice appears as a wild or semiwild food by 8,000-10,000 BCE, but cultivated rice may not be older than 6000, with abundant cultivated rice before 5000 (Luo et al. 2019, Huai River area; Yangtse dates are a bit earlier). It was domesticated in the middle and lower Yangtse valley, spreading rapidly to the Huai and much more slowly to the south. In warmer periods it spread north to Shandong. The dry period around 4200-3800 years ago hurt rice farming, but caused it to spread and be adopted more widely, as other sources of food dried up. Early impacts on vegetation were low, but soon became visible. A series of papers by Ma Ting and coworkers have traced its relationship with climate in east and central China (Ma, Rowlett, et al. 2020; Ma, Tarasov, et al. 2019; Ma, Zheng, Man, et al. 2018; Ma, Zheng, Rowlett et al. 2016). Rice agriculture was strikingly slow to spread to Taiwan (around 3000-2000 BCE) and Japan (only a few centuries BCE), leading Qin Ling and Dorian Fuller to maintain that “rice farmers don’t sail” (Qin and Fuller 2016). A bit exaggerated—the rice did get to those islands eventually—but their explanation, the difficulty of getting out of the paddy and sailing with rice and the needed skill package, rings true.

Oats came to China from western Asia by 3400-3000 BCE (Barnes 2015:417), but remained an extremely minor and obscure crop in the far north and northwest (see Buck 1937). Elsewhere, millet outcompeted them as a high-protein, easily boiled grain.

Best of all, beer (more technically ale) residue and brewing equipment have been recovered from the Qiaotou site at fully 9,000 years ago (Dartmouth College 2021). It was made of rice, Job’s tears (a grain still used for beer locally in southeast Asia), and roots (unidentified). The pottery in which the residue was found was painted red and white—some of the earliest painted pottery in the world. Ale then occurs Mijiaya site at 5000 years ago (Wang et al. 2016), as well as from the better-known Jiahu site.  Broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears and tubers were fermented together.  This is the oldest barley in the traditional lands of China, though equally old barley has turned up in what is now Chinese Central Asia.

            Li Liu, one of the top archaeologists of China, has done a major study of brewing in the Yangshao period (Li Liu 2021). Neolithic farmers brewed using what is now called caoqu, “herbal starter,” of herbs and moldy grain. Most important as a fermenting agent was our old friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is most diverse in East Asia (there are fascinating ancient strains from Hainan I.). She looked at brewing of millet ale with sprouted wheat or maize starter in steamed millet flour, and found mostly that species. She gives a quite amazing list of ingredients in 19 Neolithic beers, almost all including snake gourd root, often other tubers, and sometimes foxnut (Euryale). Barley shows up late, but Yangshao at 5000 BP is the oldest known in China. Many of the Yangshao vessels look almost exactly like Mediterannean amphorae (and are called so in this paper). The narrow necks are easy to seal.

            All the Neolithic ales are made from millet, except the rice beer of Jiahu; often Triticeae also appear. Glutinous broomcorn millet was preferred because the amylopectin has a higher conversion to ethanol rate. (Modern millet ales generally use foxtail.)  She quotes a late Han source on stages of fermentation (from a commentary on the Zhou Li). She has photographs of modern Qiang doing zajiu, a ritual that involves drinking with straws from a communal jar. (This is also very widely found in modern Southeast Asia, among highly traditional small-scale societies.) Few drinking cups occur in Yangshao, so she suggests they used the communal-straw ritual then, and she found marks on amphora necks that look like rubbing by straws (with their silica granules). Zajiu is mentioned in the Huayang Guo Zhi of 348-354 CE. Some modern groups have associated dances similar to ones shown on Yangshao bowls. At some point that red Monascus ferment came, probably from east, and spread with rice—even in western China, rice and probably the associated semisolid ferment technique were used.

Ale has also turned up at the great late-Neolithic town of Shimao, in the loesslands of northern Shaanxi. It was made with millet, plus snake gourd root (Trichosanthes kirilowii), rice, lily (possibly L. lancifolium) bulb, ginger, some sort of barley-like grass, and beans (yes, all in one lot). It was served in pitchers, whence residue was recovered for analysis. Shimao survived the 2200-1800 BCE cold dry event, but finally gave way at the end of it, and was abandoned. However, the ale went right on. It survives today as hunjiu, rather porridge-like, made from barley and broomcorn millet, and using a yeast called Pichia kudriavzevii along with the familiar Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Y. He 2021).

It should be repeated that ale is fermented but not distilled grain-based alcoholic liquor. Beer is the same with hops or other additives to protect it from spoilage; and wine is fermented, undistilled alcoholic liquor made from fruit, flowers, roots, or the like. All are covered by the Chinese word jiu, which then expanded to include distilled alcohol when that came along (probably in the Tang Dynasty). Jiu includes any alcoholic liquid, even tincture of iodine. Sinologists love to mistranslate it as “wine,” and even get defensive about this flagrant error. This could be excused as a “cultural” thing, since ale in old China had the association with song and romance that wine does in European lore, but unfortunately mistranslation is an infuriatingly regular thing in Chinese studies, and carries over from bad biology to mistranslation of basic philosophical and social concepts (“peasant” for free farmers, “caitiff” for villainous enemies, and so on endlessly).

Red yeast remnants have been found in a Peiligang culture site, from around 8,000 years ago—by far the earliest evidence for this classic Chinese fermentation source (posting by Keith Knapp on Facebook, Dec. 23, 2021).

Peach pits showing evidence of cultivation go back 7500 years in the Yangzi Valley (Griggs 2014).

Archaeological records of canarium use have been reviewed by Deng, Huang, et al (2019). One wonders. This tropical tree barely reaches south China and was rather uncommonly used in historic times.

Hemp, a.k.a marijuana (Cannabis sativa), originated in China, though the Indian form (var. indica) may be an independent domestication (see Metcalfe 2019, but his claimed domestication date of 12,000 years ago is preposterous; the truth may be closer to 7,000). A huge amount of it was found in what was suspected of being a shaman’s grave from 700 BCE (Nature 2015b).

The rise of agriculture came slowly in China, especially in areas with rich nut tree forests, because acorns were easier to get. This was even more true in Japan. Agriculture spread surprisingly late there. The reason was the extremely successful adaptation to a tree-nut and fishing economy. Forests of chestnut, acorn, hazelnut, and similar trees were drawn on from earliest times. These were obviously being managed (I assume by selective burning, and clearing undesirable seedlings) in the Jomon period (Barnes 2015:112). More evidence is accumulating that there was also management of, and some planting of, annuals. There was also intensive fishing and shellfishing; by analogy to the Pacific Northwest Coast, the shellfish too were probably being intensively managed. All this kept the Japanese from bothering with serious agriculture until massive immigration from Korea brought the joys of rice agriculture around 1000 BCE, with the first known rice paddy from the 10th century (Barnes 2015:271; see also Graeber and Wengrow 2021 on Jomon’s deliberate avoidance of agriculture). Cultural and skeletal remains had already made the Korean immigration clear, but DNA has fixed it beyond doubt (Robbeets et al. 2021).

            Brian Lander and coworkers have written a history of pigs in China that extends from the Neolithic to today (Lander, Schneider and Brunson 2020).

Pigs were exceedingly important in China from earliest agricultural times onward.  A recent study by Ningning Dong and Jing Yuan (2020) shows that they rapidly increased from their first appearance at Jiahu in 8600 BP to the difficult period from 4200 to 3800, when the climate turned cold and dry, largely due to volcanic action.  This was probably the worst climatic period China faced from the end of the Ice Age up to 536 CE.  Up to that point, agriculture had been rapidly developing in north China, with Yangshao sites recording up to 90% pig bones among all animal bones, as at Xipo (5800-5500 BP).  From 7000 to 5000, the pigs show more and more C4 diet, i.e. millet feeding as opposed to just foraging. 

At Liangzhu in the lower Yangzi Valley, where towns almost reached urban size, pigs show the expected increase from 5500 to 4300, but then a decline sets in because of climatic deterioration, with the Liangzhu culture drastically shrinking down by 4000.  What was left was buried by a flood around 3800. Liangzhu produced much ale, ancestral to modern jiu; other cultures of the time produced a great deal too(M. Li 2018:62ff).

Liangzhu covered 300 ha, and had perhaps 23,000-35,000 people, as well as dams, rice paddies, levees, canals, and in general a managed landscape (B. Liu et al. 2017; L. Xie et al. 2015). It may have been the source of the Austronesian migrations that reached Taiwan and the south coast of China—or it may not. Alas, buried rice paddies do not speak, and inferring language from them is a dubious endeavor.

By contrast, north China flourishes up till 3800 BP, after which centripetal tendencies concentrate development more and more in the central Yellow River area, where full civilization begins, pigs and all.  Yuan Jing and collaborators (2020) review the data.  The West Asian domesticates had providentially come in just in time to save the north from collapse.  The animals in particular—sheep, goats, and cattle—supplemented the pigs, while wheat and barley slowly became visible, though never common until the rise of urban civilization.  The cattle soon became heavily C4 in diet, indicating grazing in millet stubble and probably being fed on millet hay.  The relatively enormous and very complex sites of Shimao and Taosi flourished during the worst climatic time of all, 4300-3800 BP (2300-1800 BCE), in northwest China, at the same time that the previously more impressive Liangzhu culture was collapsing. (Taosi may have collapsed by 3900.) Shimao at 400 ha was by far the biggest site in east Asia up to those dates; Taosi with 300 has was in the next bracket. Both were in the loesslands, and depended on the usual millet-pig base. Food animal bones recovered from Shimao were 20% cattle, 44% sheep or goat, 28% pig. Taosi was much more pig-dependent (52% of bones), with many dog bones, indicating use as food (as in many other early sites), and had 9,000-15,000 people (Campbell et al. 2022).

            It now seems even carp aquaculture can go back 8000 years (Archaeology News Network 2019; Nakajima et al. 2019). A lot of common carp (Cyprinus carpio and C. longzhouensis) up to 75% larger than normal have been found at Jiahu in central China. The local carp is mostly crucian carp (Carassius sp.), a different species, so somebody was raising those common ones, probably from fingerlings caught and transferred to a rearing pond.

            For further notes on early domestication, including those carp as well as cats, see Dodson and Dong (2016). Dodson et al, (2022) have also covered the dawn of agriculture and its later intensification in far northwest Xinjiang. Wheat, barley, and west Asian domesticated animals came by 5000 years ago. Agriculture got considerably more serious after the harsh weather of 4200-3800 years ago. The central Asian Andronovo culture brought very early bronze. The same group has found agriculture back to 3400 years ago, expanding after that, in the Qinghai area; this is the highest agriculture on record at that time (Dong et al. 2016). The usual crops and animals appear: barley, wheat, millet, sheep, other animals. It is worth noting here that barley varieties kept migrating to China throughout history, with some coming by sea or via the Silk Road in fairly recent historic times (Jones et al. 2016).

Earliest History: Xia and Shang

            Yu the Great tamed the Yellow River by diverting it into many channels and shoring these up, thus eliminating extreme flooding; he then founded the Xia Dynasty. Extensive flooding at the time he supposedly lived confirms at least that part of the story, and the rest seems a greatly exaggerated but not unreasonable story. One assumes that various unsung leaders tried hard to do what was alleged, and their stories were combined into one superhero (see Li Min 2018:400ff for the latest information).

            More and more evidence goes to confirm that the Erlitou culture was indeed the Xia Dynasty, with Erlitou itself as capital.  The Central Plains Metropolitan Tradition was born.  Erlitou depended largely on pigs and millet, but already had much rice, as well as “small quantities of soy and a few wheat seeds” (Jing et al. 2020:912). A woven grass basket from the time produced residue of soured milk—either yogurt or cheese (Xie et al. 2016). Fruits were known, probably including peaches and cherries.

            “The presence of large, dangerous game such as tigers, rhinoceros and water buffalo suggests the practice of elite hunting known from later Central Plains Bronze Age sites” (Jing et al. 2020:911). Brian Lander (2021) chronicles the enormous amount of hunting in neolithic China and the steady reduction afterward, with game getting scarce by Xia times. Sika deer, hunted with abandon in previous eras, were more carefully managed, with only adult males being taken—partly because their antlers were prized, for tools and probably for medicine (C. Zhang 2021). They were evidently getting rare enough to make hunters more careful about killing females and young.

            Erlitou was the first city and period to cast bronze ritual vessels, which dominated Chinese art and monumental display for centuries. The city had an inner royal quarter with extremely lavish royal tombs—an ancestor to the “forbidden city” of later times. The city was no larger than the huge late-Neolithic sites, but had 18,000-30,000 people. High-quality kaolin clay was brought from the nearby site of Nanwa, showing that local trade in important materials was well established (Campbell et al. 2022).

            The first city of the Shang Dynasty was Zhengzhou, which still continues as one of the greatest cities in China. The ancient city is under the modern center, making archaeology difficult. One memory I can never stop repeating is from my seeing and photographing beautiful ash-glazed pottery kettles with three small, stubby feet in the marketplace there in 1978—then going to the city’s Shang Dynasty museum and seeing the same kettles, literally unchanged in 3500 years. When you get something right, don’t change it! Population estimates for Shang Zhengzhou run from 39,000 to 65,000 or even more (Campbell 2022). After a brief time in another city area, the capital moved to Anyang, much more available to the modern spade and now one of the best-known ancient cities in the world. It served as capital around 1250-1050 BCE. It grew even larger, covering 30 square km and reaching 100,000 people. There were many specialized craft areas. Trade flourished; spiced millet ale was identified with merchants. Royal tombs included many sacrificed human victims, totaling many thousand over the term as capital (Campbell et al. 2022). The Chinese city was set in a pattern that lasted for centuries, and, without the sacrifices, for millennia.

            The Shang oracle bones allow a good, if unbalanced, ethnography of Shang China, and the great oracle-bones scholar David Keightley provided one (Keightley 2000). The oracles were often taken in response to disasters, from floods to locusts. Typically, one of the former Shang kings or royal family members had been slighted in the latest round of sacrifices, and was causing trouble to send a message; put another way, the oracles were good excuses to rack the farmers for more food to sacrifice and consume in elite feasts. The focus on disasters led Keightley to conclude that the Shang “may have been nature worshippers [sic]—or, more precisely, worshippers of certain Powers in nature—but they were unlikely to have been nature lovers” (p. 116). On the other hand, many oracles simply asked about hunting, rain, crops, and other mundane and more nature-loving concerns.

            One king, Wu Ding (1250-1192), did not speak for three years, meaning that communications to and from him were written, leaving us with an enormous record of the time (M. Li 2018:276).

            Officers of the court included a Many Horses Officer and a Many Dogs Officer, in charge of the royal stables and hunting hounds. The latter title was duochuanshi (in modern Mandarin), using an Indo-European term that may have still been recognized as an elite foreign word. (Chuan from something like *kiwon in early Indo-European, the source of our word “hound”; the indigenous Chinese word for “dog” is gou. Both are probably meant to represent the sound of a bark.)

            Jiu of the time was sometimes flavored with such things as peach, plum, jujube, sweetclover, and jasmine; more interesting perhaps was jiu infused with cannabis (M. Li 2018:285-286). By this time, jiu was enormously important in society. From the early Neolithic on, it had grown in importance and ceremonial use. Li (M. Li 2022) has studied the libation ritual as it grew from late Neolithic times into Shang and Zhou. It was the all-important unifier of Bronze Age rule, bringing together the king and the elite. His landmark study draws on contemporary research into food and drink sharing in ritual contexts to produce a major work of alcoholic-beverage research.

Further lore on early foods is found in Adam Schwartz’ study of Shang sacrifices (2019).  The vast majority are the usual domesticates, as well as turtles, but wild boar are noted, and—more strikingly—chi, a term later referring to a mythical creature, but here considered to refer to ling, Tibetan antelope and gazelle (Schwartz 2019:40-42), largely on the basis of stylized but identifiable representations on Shang bronzes; the taotie monsters on those bronzes are modeled after real creatures, and some display the long, thin horns and long, thin faces of the Tibetan wild fauna. Bulls were sacrificed, leaving the cows, who had to do the heavy work (M. Lin 2022).

Sika deer were heavily hunted in Shang, but no notable decline was evident, showing the hunt was more or less sustainable (Y. Li et al. 2021). Later loss of the deer may owe more to deforestation than to hunting (see Lander 2021; Mostern 2021).

Cheese dating to about 1615 BCE has been discovered in the Taklamakan Desert, in association with mummies.  The material was excavated years ago, but only recently tested.  It is a low-lactose cheese made with a bacterial and yeast starter, not rennet (Archaeology, online, Feb. 26, 2015).

Chopsticks have been found in Yin Xu, capital of the Shang Dynasty, dating from later Shang, over 3100 years ago (Warrant and Honten 2008). Chopsticks now have a full, detailed, excellent history of their own (Q. E. Wang 2015).

Zhou and Warring States

            Of the common people:  “Those with constant means of support will have constant hearts, while those without constant means will not have constant hearts.”  Mencius 3A/3, p 97 in Lau; there is muchmore in that story.  “The common people cannot live without water and fire, yet one never meets with a refusal when knocking on another’s door in the evening to beg for waer or fire.  This is because these are in such abundance.  In governing the eampire, the sage tries to make food as plentiful as water and fire.  When that happens, how can there be any amongst his people who are not benevolent?”  7A/23, p. 187 in Lau

            “One adept at learning is like the king of Qi who, when eating chicken, was satisfied only after he had eaten a thousand feet; if he were still unsatisfied, there would always be another chicken foot to eat.”  -Lü Buwei, from his Lüshi Chunchiu, ca. 220 BCE (Lü 2000:129).

            “The lord said, ‘Are harmony and unison different?’ Yan Ying replied: ‘They are different. Harmony is like a stew. Water, fire, jerky, mincemeat, salt, and plum vinegar are used t cook fish and meat. These are cooked over firewood. The master chef harmonizes them, evening them out with seasonings, compensating for what is lacking, and diminishing what is too strong. The noble man eats it and calms his heart…. Thus, it says in the Odes,  There is a well-harmonized stew….’” (Durrant et al. 2020:217-218).

            Xunzi gave us a terrific definition of nature (ben xing, lit “basic inborn”): It “is what is impossible for me to create but which I can nonetheless transform” (Xunzi, p 199).

            The philosopher Mozi advocated frugality and thrift, and could be downright puritanical about such matters as wine, meat, and feasting in general (Mozi 2010). I have always been struck by the difference between China and the old-time United States. China rejected Mozi, with even the relatively abstemious Confucians arguing that eliminating grand feasts would also eliminate society as they knew it. Feasting, or at least good food, were necessary for hospitality and good fellowship. America’s Puritan tradition had discouraged good eating when I was young, and I found the debates around Mozi to be quite liberating.

            In eastern Zhou, in the central Yellow River plain, women ate more of wheat and barley, still a bit strange and uncommon, while men ate more millet and meat (Y. Dong et al. 2017). The significance of this is obscure; no difference has been noted from earlier periods. 

            Roel Sterckx’ book Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China (2011) has a self-explanatory title; it covers religious uses of food and philosophical issues deriving from those in the Zhou period.

            Sterckx, with Martina Siebert and Dagmar Schäfer, have edited a major work, Animals in Chinese History (2019). It includes data on sacrifices, cats (probably new in Han), pigs, and other animals, but most of the articles are on cultural issues, not food. An interesting exception is David Pattinson’s article on bees (2019). He notes that bees and wasps were lumped as feng in old China, species were not differentiated. The larvae were eaten. Honey was poorly known. It became known around Han times and popular since Tang, possibly under Buddhist influence. Bees were (and are) known as mifeng, “honey wasps”; significantly, mi for “honey” is an Indo-European loanword, cognate with miel in French. Honey became important medicinally, but has never caught on as a major food, though China now produces much of the world’s honey. The native bee Apis cerana has been domesticated for the purpose, but I think (but do not know) the standard west Eurasian A. mellifera dominates today.

            Francesca Bray, later in the same volume, notes that domestic animals figure less and less large in Chinese agricultural manuals and similar books throughout history, showing an increasing shift to dependence on vegetable food. There was a “golden age of animals” between Han and Tang, when north China was dominated by Turkic and Mongol peoples, with their fondness for animal-keeping and animal foods. Thus the Qimin Yaoshu has considerable material on this. Beef avoidance was popularized by Buddhism, maintaining an uneven but notable role from Song (Bray 2019b). Many people still avoided beef to at least some extent when I worked in Hong Kong in the 1960s. Japan almost totally avoided it until very recently.

            Critically important is a new tea find: 2,400-year-old tea, a good lump dried up in a cup from the capital of Zhu (Jiang et al. 2021). This shows tea was definitely known and drunk long before Han, and the connection with the southwest is probably significant. Tea shows up in tombs in Tibet and near Xi’an by early Han (Farrer 2017).

            Armin Selbitschka (2018) has contributed an exhaustive and extremely important study of food sacrifices in tombs in Zhou and early Han times.  He finds that the usual assumption that food was for the individuals’ consumption in the afterlife is too simplistic.  Food was indeed offered for this reason—typically, small amounts, or even empty but labeled vessels, were left, evidently with the assumption that they would turn into an endless supply in the other world.  Sometimes, food was simply sacrificed, either to feed the spirit or simply to placate or console or pay respect to it.  Food was apparently both sustenance for the dead and respectful homage to their spirits.  Sometimes food was explicitly offered to other deities, those that guarded or were otherwise involved with the dead.  What does not stand out is any evidence for feasting at or in the tombs.  Food in tombs is neatly placed in proper vessels, rather than being the litter from a feast.  Feasts may have been held outside the tombs, but there is only thin and equivocal evidence for that.  There is also no good evidence for sacrifices outside the tomb.

            Production of food was also complex in ideology.  “Overgrown courtyards and tilled fields” occur as a frequent image in Warring States texts, and Tobian Zūrn (2018) has found that the more Daoist-leaning texts tend to use these as symbols of proper rule.  Mengzi uses carefully tilled fields as a frequent symbol of civilized life and good governance.  The Zhuangzi material includes some cynical comments indicating preference for a more anarchic, wild, unmanaged state.  The Huainanzi, predictably enough, combines these: the good ruler is removed and “acts inaction” (wei wuwei), stabilizing the universe by his presence but acting as little as possible, even to allowing his courtyard to be overgrown with brush and weeds.  The common people, in this idyllic near-anarchist state, will till their fields with great care and diligence.  (Recall that the Huainanzi, an amazing and until recently a most underappreciated work, was compiled by the group that very likely put the Zhuangzi in a largely final form, at the court of Liu An in the middle early Han.  The Zhuangzi got its final editing by one Guo Xian [d. 312 C.E].  The same group seems to have done the same for the equally underappreciated Guanzi material.  What might have been the beginning of really serious science in China was cut short by the rebellion, or alleged rebellion, of Liu An against Emperor Wu; see Sima Qian 1993:321-346.)

            Monica Zipki (2018) has shown that the goddesses important in the Chu Ci, an early song collection, lost ground steadily as male commentators reduced them to commoner or mere symbolic status; the male deities suffered no such demotion.  The Chu Ci, “Songs of Chu,” originated from a state probably heavily Thai in culture, far less patriarchal than the Chinese.  They came up against a “Han Confucianism” that “consistently elevates yang over yin, heaven over earth, the ruler over the ministers, and male over female, and tends toward strong gender essentialism” (Zipki 2018:345). This connects to food via the intense absorption with foods, tastes, flavors, scents, and sensations in the poems.  On a more general level, Han Confucianism remained the ideology of empire, and still colors Chinese thought today; any insights into its role in distorting older ideas are welcome.

From the early Zhou Dynasty comes a bronze vessel from around 800 BCE with a fascinating inscription that records the myth of Great Yu and goes on to record ideas about filial piety, virtue (de), the Way of Heaven, and resulting blessings of longevity and blessings (Chen 2013, esp. 153-154).  These ideas later became foundational in Chinese philosophy; apparently they were already foundational that early, and in remarkably “modern” phrasing.

Taxes were low, but not as low as they often became in later times. Mencius held they should not go as low as 5% of agricultural product, since that level was too low to sustain much of a government (Li Feng 2013:193).

Eastern Zhou infant feeding has been studied by archaeologists, focusing on the site of Xinzheng, a city near Zhengzhou. They found a shift toward more introduced grains, notably wheat, and the tendency of men to eat more millet and meat while women ate more wheat. Teeth show that breastfeeding was universal (in their sample, and probably in general). Weaning was gradual, and at different ages in different individuals. Children, like adult women, ate more wheat and other foods (possibly beans), less millet, than adult men. One suspects that the preference for wheat among women and children indicates that flour milling was already important, since if the grain was being made into whole-grain porridge, millet would surely have been the choice, since it cooks much faster and becomes softer and easier to eat and digest.

Meanwhile, in Yunnan, where civilization was just beginning and spectacular bronzes were coming into style, food was rice, millet (probably foxtail), acorns, and some water plants, barley, and beans (N. Zhang et al. 2017).


            I spent considerable time in Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China (Anderson 2014) discussing the brilliant and underappreciated collection of political-economic works assembled by Liu An (notably Liu 2010). It seems worth repeating the emphasis here. These works should be restudied. Just as an example of wry wisdom, I quote one line: “when people are in the majority, they eat wolves; when wolves are in the majority, they eat people” (p. 650). It should not escape the reader that the wolves are not necessarily the four-footed kind.

            Starting from Han but continuing through Qing is a record of famines, assembled and analyzed in the Chinese literature and recently analyzed by Yan Su et al. (2018). They found 4186 famines in the 2117 years of their study—about two per year. The famines were slightly worse in colder areas, but nobody escaped. Cold areas were more than twice as likely to report economically depressed years, partly because they depended heavily on one or two species of millets, usually reliable and tough but vulnerable to bad years. Far more famines were reported in bad harvest years, but even the best years had a few local ones. Periods of sharp improvement (from famine to good times) were 70-90 CE, 580-590, 1140-50, 1280-1300, 1400-1410, 1680-1760 (note that the last is much longer, but after it conditions steadily deteriorated). Good governance was almost as important as climate in making a decade good. Note, however, that all but one of those recovery periods come shortly after a major cold spell (536-580, 1120s, 1300s, early and mid 1600s; see Anderson 2019). The exception, 1280-1300, was an exceptionally warm period. Cold years were deadly.

            Liu Lei, according to legend the founder of the lineage that later became the Han royal one, not only raised dragons but made fine stews from them (Cook 2013:76). 

            The cynical and realistic Han thinker Wang Zhong provided some insight into Han food in a line about not wasting effort and skill on minor matters: cooking mallow pods with onions does not require Yi Di or Yi Ya, and “to the Village Mother one does not sacrifice a whole ox” (Wang 1907:69, as “Wang Ch’ung,” translation by Alfred Forke). The mallow pods with onions would be the most humble side-dish imaginable; small mallows (Malva verticillata complex) were the coarse but flavorful and nutritious food of the very poor, and I remember nibbling on the pods when I was young. The Village Mother was also a humble and rustic deity, deserving of a small pig at best. The insight into animal sacrifice is worth note: Han continued the vast sacrifices of earlier times, but was beginning to realize they were an awful waste, and cut back. Human sacrifices, already on the wane in much of China, became infrequent.

An entire genre of rhapsodies on imperial hunting parks developed, with famous writers like Sima Xiangru, Pan Yue, and Yang Xiong contributing. These were collected in the Wen Xuan, an anthology dating around 530 CE (Knechtges 1987). These give long and much exaggerated accounts of the beasts and birds in these parks, the enormous size of kills from hunting, and the variety of trees. Imaginary beings reminiscent of the west’s phoenixes and unicorns appear. More to the point is the fact that the writers condemn tying up so much land and resources for sheer luxury, and praise the emperors whenever they release land for farming. Thus Yang Xiong writes in praise: “He opens the forbidden parks, Distributes the public stores…releases pheasants and rabbits, Stores nets and snares; Elaphures and deer, fodder and hay, He shares with the common folk” (Knechtges 1987:135). A later, beautiful ode on a ruined city laments the replacement of exotic luxury items like ostriches by “marsh moss…wild kudzu…snakes and beetles…deer and flying squirrels…field rats, wall foxes,” and overgrowth by poplars, grasses, scrub (Knechtges 1987:257). These poems exhibit what Karen Laura Thornber (2012), in writing about more recent Chinese literature, calls “ecoambiguity”: love and appreciation of the wild, but seeing the need and moral rightness of taming it when people need food and security. The love of both wild and tame, and the regretful awareness of necessity when the wild is sacrificed, has always characterized Chinese literature, though admittedly the “wild” is often a hunting park rather than a wilderness.

            Han developed the changpingcang, “long-level(ed) storehouse,” borrowed by the United States as the “ever-normal granary” in the 1930s—rather a long lag for a desirable cultural borrowing.

            High-tech wheat milling came to China in Han, allowing the production of dumplings, noodles, fermented wheat sauces, and the like. Wheat noodles appear around 100 (Huang 2000).

            Some “mispronunciations” turn out to be more interesting than they seem.  Sharp-eared foodies may have noticed that wolfthorn berries, now so popular in the western world as an antioxidant “nutraceutical,” are called either goujizi or gouqizi (American markets sell them as “goji berries”).  This is reflected in, and may in fact come from, the fact that the phonetic element of the character for ji is actually pronounced qi, even though the full character (the phonetic plus the “tree” radical) is pronounced ji.  The linguist David Prager Branner discusses these cases and others (Branner 2011:107).  The same misreading, or perhaps simply a dialect variant that is reflected in the character, affects some other food plants:  qianma “nettle” gets read as xunma, jicai “shepherd’s purse” (a very good cress-like vegetable) as qicai, and pielan  or piela “kohlrabi” as pilan—in all cases the variant pronunciation following the phonetic without the “plant” radicals.

            Speaking of goji berries, they now come from the desert species Lycium barbarum and are produced largely in Ningxia, with rapid expansion, spreading into other dry areas.  There is now even a ceremony for them in Ningxia (Newman 2017b).  L. chinense, the common garden plant of the rest of China,is now grown mostly for leaves.  Goji berries are literal vitamin pills; they have among the highest vitamin and mineral values of any plant material, as well as being high in antioxidants.  They are therefore thrown in handfuls into traditional Chinese strengthening and healing foods.  They expanded worldwide as a major “functional food” in the early 21st century, thoiugh this has leveled off now.  Lycium species with superb berries—some as flavorful as raspberries—abound in the United States, and could easily be domesticated; they grow easily in gardens (personal observation).  They are said to have less vitamin content, however (reference lost).

            Alcoholic drinks were very well known and widely used (Elias 2020), though drinking was not as fashionable as it later became.

            More old tea has just been identified in the tomb of Han Jing Di, 141 BCE (Keys 2016).  It was buried with him, along with some rice, millet, and, oddly, chenopod seeds (not known as a food at that time). Victor Mair (email of Jan. 11, 2016) thinks the tea was there as a medicine.

In Han, a large maritime trade developed, extending to India and thus indirectly to Rome via the India/Rome shipping pathways.  A major terminus was Hepu, on the Guangxi coast, near the Vietnamese border.  It is a good deal closer to the Nanyang than Guangzhou.  But Guangzhou had access to the hinterlands via the Pearl River system, and soon ecliped Hepu.  A number of fine trade beads made from Indian and other foreign stones are found at Hepu (Xiong 2014).  Foods must have been exchanged too.  The Indian Ocean was a very busy thoroughfare by then (Beaujard 2009, 2012).  Boivin et al. (2013) report on a huge range of domestic and wild animals—including pests stowing away on ships—that spread at this time or soon after it all round the Indian Ocean.

A fine collection of papers edited by Isaac Yue and Siufu Tang (2013) is especially good and complete on “wine” (jiu, actually ale, as the writers know, but they follow the common translation that pays more attention to its cultural status—more comparable to “wine” in Europe than to “ale”).  Several papers focus on the rise of drunkenness as an ideal state for the proper sage.  Laozi and Zhuangzi did not have this idea, except for brief references to people whose basic nature was to drink and thus did it in spite of social conventions.  After 250, the conventions changed, and drunkenness was the expected and idealized behavior of poets; the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, Tao Qian, and other poets of the early interregnum started this, and Li Bai perfected it and modeled the sublime drunkard for all time.  Few went as far, even when imitating him—he seems to have been a genuine alcoholic—but later writers from Su Shi to the Korean and Japanese imitators of Chinese verse all immortalized their muzzy states.  One hopes for further work on the social aspects of this; Yue and Tang provide much excellent social history of it. Charles Kwong’s paper in their book (2013) is particularly noteworthy not only for its history but for Dr. Kwong’s translations of drinking poems; he gives us a whole anthology of them, genuinely well translated (Chinese poetry is notoriously difficult to turn into readable English).

            Yue and Tang also draw attention to a fantastic legend about the origin of the word mantou for dumplings.  According to the Three Kingdoms Romance (uncertain Ming date—long after the episodes it describes, or invents), Zhuge Liang intended to sacrifice 49 people to calm a storm.  He was too humane, and made heads of dough instead (Tang and Yue 2013:6-7 quote the whole story; H. T. Huang 2000 also relates it).  Of course the real origin of the word is from Turkic manty, and steamed cakes were well known long before, but a good story is still a good story.  Apparently this particular story arose after mantou had become large and unfilled doughballs; in Tang they were the small, meat-filled ones we now call baozi (large, raised buns) or jiaozi (small dumplings).  Mantou still refers to stuffeded buns in Japan, Korea, and some parts of North China. These filled dumplings became baozi in the center and south. (Katy Hui-Wen Hung, Facebook posts, Jan. 4 and Feb. 2, 2021).

Three Kingdoms and Northern and Southern Dynasties

            To begin on a light note: “When the first emperor of Eastern Jin set up his government in Jiankang, there were no luxuries; when a pig was slaughtered, the neck meat was reserved for the emperor, the ‘forbidden fillet.’” (Stephen Owen, in footnote on Du Fu’s collected poetry, Du 2016, vol. 5, p. 391).  So the emperor was happy with pork neck bones—the stereotypic black poverty dish (along with chitlins) in my childhood!  I love them, whether Chinese-style or African-American-style.

            Another light note: early in the period, Ge Hong wrote: “It is not that the Dao is located [exclusively] in mountains and forests, but one who would seek the Dao must enter the mountains and forests, drawing near to their clarity and purity, in his earnest desire to distance himself from the rottenness” (Campany 2001:130-131). Strange stories of the period record immortals feeding humans on moutain-goat jerky, sesame seeds, and the like, and note thoroughly shamanistic visions, soul-travels, and transformations (Campany 2015).

            We know domestic ducks were common from the fate of Wang Sengda (423-458), who was fired for shamming sick so that he could go to watch a duck fight (Wallace 2017). Duck fighting was not uncommon at the time.

            More serious was drying up of some west Chinese oases in the 500s (possibly after 536, when volcanic eruptions massively affected the whole Northern Hemisphere) and were not reoccupied till wetter times in the Medieval Warm Period (K. Li, X. Qin and L. Zhang 2018).

Albert Dien’s work Six Dynasties Civilization (2007) discusses tomb finds, including some notes on food (pp. 359-363). As usual, millet, millet ale, greens, and pork dominated. Bread like Persian nan and dumplings similar to mantou were found in a tomb.

The first Turkic record in China is a single sentence of the otherwise lost Kir language, from the fourth century CE (Shimunek et al. 2015). The authors of the study that reports this find suspect that Turkic peoples, not the Xiongnu, were the “Huns” of early medieval Sogdian record, though the word “Hun” (Hunnu) is almost certainly derived from the word now written as “Xiongnu” (with characters giving it an unsavory meaning, as “slaves”) in Chinese.

            A stunning new anthology edited by Wendy Swartz et al. (2014) introduces a great deal of newly-discovered and newly-analyzed texts.  One new analysis consists the famous fu—long, rhetorical poem—on bing, by Shu Xi (263-302).  Bing today means “cakes,” but David Knechtges in his new study and translation (2014) finds it covered all kinds of flour foods in Shu Xi’s time.  Thus Arthur Waley’s famous translation of this poem as “Hot Cake” is too narrow.  Shu Xi walks us through the seasons, with filled dumplings, bread, boiled noodles, flour cakes, and all, and then climaxes with a mouth-watering recipe for making the filling and stuffing the filled dumplings—what were mantou then but would now be called jiaozi.  Shu notes that bing are of recent origin.  Knechtges (2014:449) finds the first reference in the Mozi, but of course the Mozi has had various bits and pieces inserted in it over time, so this could be as late as a Han reference.  Shu lists a great number of obscure flour-cake terms, in obvious parody of the arcane and obscure language of more formal fu.  (He was criticized for his “vulgar” fu, for which he established a style.)  As he says,

            “some of these names originate in the villages and lanes,

            and some of the methods for making them come from alien lands.”  (Knechtges 2014:453.)

            He reports sifting the flour twice (as my mother used to do), and then describes making filled dumplings by chopping mutton with ginger and onions, spicing with cassia and Chinese brown pepper, adding salt and black beans (presumably fermented soybeans), and stuffing this mix into skins.  I have corrected David Knechtges’ botany, but I could not figure out what he meant by “thoroughwort” (coming after brown pepper in the spicing); thoroughwort (Eupatorium)barely occurs in China. A species of the genus occurs, but, like thoroughwort elsewhere, is used as medicine rather than food. Thoroughwort is useless as a spice.  Possibly artemisia was meant; it is still used to stuff dumplings in Korea, and it vaguely resembles thoroughwort. Less likely, but a known spice of the time, is smartweed, Polygonum odoratum.

            Knechtges notes that many varieties of bing were already described in Han, as well as ci, dumplings of rice or millet flour. Shu introduces more of the wheat dumplings and cakes. He notes some come from foreign lands, and a couple have strange names, angan and butou (small dumplings like spaetzle pressed out into strips), that may be loanwords from some unknown source (Knechtges 2014:450). Shu describes seasonally eaten cakes, including what may be pancakes for summer and leavened bread for autumn. Spring is for mantou (then filled, like modern bao). This is actually the first certain mention of mantou. Coming at a time when western influence was strengthening, in a poem with foreign influence acknowledged, this Turkic loanword (Turkic mantu, manti) is not a surprise. Winter brought tang bing, noodles. Shu waxes ecstatic over laowan, meat-stuffed dumplings. These have the spices noted above, and their wrappings were made with meat stock instead of water. They were eaten with hai, fermented meat sauce. Bing were also made in the shape of pigs’ ears and dogs’ tongues, like the “cow ear” cookies of today.

            Another treasure in the book is a festival and ritual calendar (Chapman 2014) from around 550.  It describes all the seasonal festivals, often with the foods traditional at that time.  New Year began with sacrificing chickens, then progfressed to drinking peppered wine, eating eggs, drinking peach soup, and eating teeth-gluing toffee—teeth knocking together might bring trouble (p. 475).  Others prepared the five pungent vegetables: garlic, leek, garlic chives, mustard, and cilantro—Zhuangzi said these opened the viscera, and they apparently protect against bad air.  But Buddhists ban them (p. 476).  Cold Food Day was then two days before the spring festival of Qing Ming (it is now two weeks after new year).  People ate things like malt syrup, sticky rice and barley pastries, and apricot-kernel gruel (477).  On the ninth day of the ninth month, people ate pastries and drank chrysanthemum-flavored wine (481). 

Another area receiving attention has been the mutual mockery of southerners and northerners that I commented on in The Food of China.  Lu Sidao, in the 6th century, was mocked as a northerner; a southern poet taunted him that in the north “Elm trees thrive with the desire to feed men; Grass grows tall so as to fatten donkeys.”  Elm leaves and fruits were and are a famine food in the north.  The south lacked donkeys and apparently found them derisory.  Lu Sidao immediately shot back his own couplet, mocking southern stinginess:  “Sharing the rice steamer but not the rice; Using the same frying pan, each cooks his or her fish”—images of selfishness quite similar to mocking lines I have heard myself in south China.  (The quotes are from Choo 2014:72.)

The Qimin Yaoshu continues to attract attention, but amazingly little considering its importance.  Bray (1984) drew heavily on it for her history of Chinese agriculture. Huang (2000) and Sabban (1988) have examined its fermentation technology.

I have described the cooking of the period, including the Qimin Yaoshu and the Tang dynasty, in a recent article (Anderson ms), and need not redo it here. The Qimin Yaoshu is an enormous agricultural encyclopedia, compiled by one Jia Sixie around 544. The book’s name literally translates as “ordinary people’s needed skills.” It has been variously translated and mistranslated; some translations are so far from the actual meaning as to be surrealistic. The book’s accounts of agriculture are detailed and intelligent. They reveal an incredible amount of highly sophisticated, technical, accurate knowledge, comparable to but rather more advanced than such Latin counterparts as Columella. The book describes making all sorts of pickles and fermented foods, making soy sauce and vinegars, andprovides us with the first account of oil pressing in China (Bray 1984:519), but obviously it was well known long before, since oil is repeatedly mentioned in earlier works. Rapeseed and less often hemp, and perhaps sesame, were the feedstocks.

Francesca Bray’s superb accounts of the Qimin Yaoshu (1984, 2019a) are among the very best studies of Chinese food. She translates a recipe for stir-fried eggs: “To stir-fry (chao) hens’ eggs: break into a copper bowl and stir till white and yolk are mixed together. Finely shred the white bulb of an onion, add a pinch of salt and stir-fry in a mixture of soy sauce and help [sesame?] oil. It smells and tastes delicious” (Bray 2019a:366). This is still an extremely common Chinese recipe. Green onions (scallions) are normally understood. Sesame is “Persian hemp” in Chinese, hence the question about it; it produces a much better oil than hempseed.

The work also tells us a great deal about dairying and various ways of processing milk. At this time, the north Chinese were heavy dairy consumers. Jia lived under the Northern Wei dynasty, ruled by the Tuoba (Tabghach, Taghbach), a central Asian people speaking Särbi, a language in the Mongolian family. They popularized all manner of central Asian cultural forms, including dairy. He gives recipes for brewing ale, including use of 180 bushels of grain for one batch of “spring ale,” making it clear he was writing for large estates. He lived in a world where slaves, serfs, and peasants (low-status, unfree small farmers) abounded. However, there were very large numbers of free yeoman farmers too, and the popularity of his book shows that many of them could read. (The old image of traditional China as a handful of Confucian literati in a vast mass of illiterate people is a cartoon. Already in the Han dynasty, common soldiers were writing and receiving letters on the frontier. Literacy in Wei times was not close to 21st century levels, but was very appreciable.)

Huang (2000) draws heavily on the book for his history of fermentation in China. It describes bean curd, and several types of jiang (fermented pastes), made from beans, wheat, elm seeds (edible and good, from Ulmus sinensis), and meat. Zha, fermented meat or fish ancestral to Japan’s original sushi, is described. Soymilk was known. Artemisia was used then as before to preserve ale and other foods, since its strong alkaloids kill bacteria and insects. (It was also used to line granaries.)


            Those who write about Chinese environmental policy love to quote a poem by Liu Zongyuan (773-819) about deforestation; various translatons are cited in the Needham series, Elvin’s magnum opus (2004), and my own work. A notably better translation has appeared, done by Bill Porter (Red Pine, 2019:45-46) and is too good to miss:

“The court sends woodsmen into a thousand mountains

with orders to choose pillars and beams

in ancient groves they cut ten and keep one

shattering the axles of hundred-oxen teams

blocking roadways with piles of logs

leaving hills in ruins and mountains in flames

and nothing that remains intact

no creek or gorge survives the trampling

and most of the lumber isn’t used

Slopes are stripped and ridges left barren

then there’s an armory or a palace fire

and builders look nervous expecting to be blames

don’t you see

the great trees of South Mountain becoming scarce

and those who care even scarcer”

            The fact that this is a general comment on late Tang governance, not just on forestry, is particularly obvious from this notably literal translation. Tang readers would instantly remember Mencius’ story of Ox Mountain, deforested and ruined, used as a parable of how poor upbringing ruins humans. The ganying (resonance) between forests and people goes beyond simple analogy into a whole philosophy of governance. Indeed, it is from this time that the mixed deciduous and evergreen forests of central China begin to be rapidly degraded (F. Lu et al. 2019, and see Campbell’s account below in Ming).

The indefatigable Tang and Yue quote a strange but very Tang poem I can’t miss here, a description of a pig dish, supposedly written by a monk dressed in purple (presumably a Daoist):

Its snout is long and its coat is short,

With a bit of fat it is raised on mountainous herbs;

It is wrapped in a layer of banana leaf and steamed,

When cooked it is eaten with an apricot sauce;

Its colour is red and it is served on a golden plate,

Its texture is soft enough to be picked apart by jade chopsticks;

To compare it to a dish of lamb,

The lamb is as fitting as the rattan.”

            (Tang and Yue 2013:8.)

I have no idea what the rattan is about.

            One Huangfu Shi (777-835) was highly aware of varieties of jiu. He noted occasions (snow-viewing to flowers etc), colors, and tastes. These, following tradition, were gan (sweet), chun (mellow), ku (bitter), lie (refreshing), bo (light), and hou (heavy). He wrote:

            “As to [the taste of] drinks, those having rich but refreshing flavors and a sweet aftertaste can be compared to the sages; mellow but bitter and with a golden color can be compared to the worthies; sour and light with dark color can be compared to simpletons. [Furthermore], the hosts who intoxicate guests with glutinous rice-based homemade drinks are gentlemen; with millet-based homemade drinks are middlemen; and with unclean ashed drinks bought from the market are villains” (Guo 2021). In modern terms, we might think of Belgian ale, microbrewery IPA, and Coors.

            Perhaps the greatest insight into Chinese food, and everything else Chinese, is provided by a story from the Jiu Tang Shu (Older Tang History) by Liu Xu (887-946). The emperor found that a man named Zhang Gongyi was patriarch of a family with dozens of people, some connected by ancestors nine generations back, living happily and peacefully together in one great house compound. “When asked how his family managed to reside together for nine generations, Zhang Gongyi (fl. 665) wrote on a piece of paper the character ren…more than a hundred times” (Knapp 2003:17). Ren means “humaneness”; like the English word, it is derived from the word for “person” (ren; originally it used the same character, but was early differentiated by adding the character for “two,” to indicate it is how two or more people should act toward each other). Zhang was only more dramatic about it than millions of other Chinese. The value is, by widespread agreement over millennia, the core of Chinese moral culture. Without it, China, including its food system, would have been very different.

            Tang did better than Han in grain production and transport (Z. Wei et al. 2018). This was apparently due to better governance, since the climate was similar.

            Charles Benn, in China’s Golden Age (2002), has provided a thorough account of Tang food. It was simple and bland by modern standards. Millet continued to be the staple of ordinary people, but wheat rose spectacularly in importance, as central and west Asian foodways flooded in over the vast complex of channels rather vaguely lumped as the “Silk Road.” Jiu also diversified, with grape wine imported and occasionally made within China, and distillation beginning to enter the picture. The height of gastronomic delight, judging from the poetry of Du Fu and others, was raw fish, sliced and variously seasoned. Freshwater fish was the usual source, at least for the poets, living along rivers and lakes (Anderson ms).

            What Tang and Yue and Charles Kwong (2013) do for alcohol, Ronald Egan (2013) does for tea in the same volume; he focuses on the Song Dynasty, when tea was particularly favored as a subject for song.  His translations too are fine and readable, often being the best available, and should be duly quoted in any work on tea or on medieval Chinese food (I wish they had been available when I wrote my 2014 book, which was actually completed in 2013).

            On a different note, Han Shan wrote of luxurious recipes in terms that seem quite familiar now—as is his militantly vegetarian condemnation of them for taking life:

            “The unfortunate human disorder

            A palate that never wearies

            Of steamed baby pig in garlic

            Of roast duck with pepper and salt

            Of deboned raw fish mince

            Of unskinned fried pork cheek

            Unaware of the bitterness of others’ lives

            As long as their own are sweet”

                        (Han Shan 2000:173)

            And to continue with poetry: Pi Ri-Xiu, who had been a farmer, wrote a sympathetic piece about a poor woman whose grain had been taken by tax collectors, forcing her to live on acorns:“Deep into autumn the acorns ripen, / Scattering as they fall into the scrub on the hill. / Hunched over, a hoary-haired crone/ Gathers them, treading the morning frost. / After a long time she’s got only a handful, /An entire day just fills her basket.”  The translator, William Nienhauser, notes that the pilgrim traveler Ennin also noted living on acorns (Nienhauser 1979:79-80). 

            A Shiliao Bencao “Basic Herbal of Food Cures,” was written by by one Meng Shen, 621-713. Only fragments exist. Ute Engelhardt (2001) reviewed in an outstanding article what we know of Tang dietary medicine. Nutrition was important and widely studied, but knowledge of it was young and not deep. It was to increase over time.

            An Arab source from 851-852 notes foods that voyagers encountered in China.  The Arabs knew mainly Guangzhou (known to them as Khanfu):  “Their food is rice.  They often cook a sauce to go with it, which they pour on the rice before eating it.  Their ruling classes, however, eat wheat bread and the flesh of all sorts of animals, including pigs and other such creatures [i.e., unclean in Islam].  They have various kinds of fruit—apples, peaches, citrons, pomegranates, quinces, pears, bananas, sugarcane, watermelons, figs, grapes, serpent melons, cucumbers, jujubes, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, plums, apricots, serviceberries [hawthorns], and coconuts….  Their drink is a wine made from rice…. Grape wine is not to be found….” (Abü Zayd al-Sīrafī 2014:37).  It would appear that the ancestral form of the modern Cantonese contrast of fan “cooked rice” and sung “sauce for cooked rice” already existed.  The almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios would have come from the Near East, traded by the seafaring merchants who supplied the information.  Evidently they were common enough in late Tang to seem regular foods in the port cities.  Weirdly, this source says the Chinese for tea is sākh (p. 49). 

            Tang history relates that the Gopi kingdom in India presented “yu gold aromatic” to the Tang court in 647—the first mention of saffron in China (Yan Liu 2018).  Buddhists then took to using it for scenting and purifying. 


Song saw the development of the Chinese agriculture familiar since: intensive wet-rice agriculture with improved varieties; multicropping everywhere; more use of manure; better water control (Feuerwerker 1995:54); more rationalized integration of silk with food production; rationalized, market-oriented production of such local specialty crops as sugar; and intensive urban marketing.  This all led to the development of a middle class with bourgeois culture, and the famous “sprouts of capitalism” (zibenzhuyi mengya) that never grew into capitalism but did grow into a state-mercantile type of economy. Banqueting in this period and later is notably shown in art (Kwok 2019).

A detailed study of agriculture in Fujian, from Song through Yuan, is provided by Billy So (2000). The fast-growing rice from Champa came, but yielded less well than local rices, and thus did not catch on until later. Population was dense, causing people to turn increasingly to the ocean, starting Fujian’s career as a major trading center and a major exporter of people to the Nanyang (Southeast Asia) and later the world.

China fought the Xixia (Tangut) state, with no success until the great statesman, thinker, and outspoken reformer Fan Chengda was put in charge. He quickly forced the government to provide decent armor and resources. He went on to mentor the major political reformers of the following period. He also wrote important texts on statecraft, including agricultural policy, the importance of which he stressed (P. J. Smith 2017).

Joseph McDermott and veteran Japanese Sinologist Shiba Yoshinobu contributed a book-length chapter on Song economy to the Cambridge History of China (2015). They report that this was the time when China truly became a yeoman nation. Serfdom was declining. Bondservants could now own property. Slavery was about gone. Small-scale private landholding was the rule. From this point on, it is even less correct than before to refer to China’s farmers as “peasants.” They were free farmers, not entailed cultivators with limited rights (p. 350f.). 

The shift to the south continued, with some areas registering 1200% increases in population while parts of the north declined up to 10% (p. 330-332). “In 609 the four key northern provinces of Sui dynasty China had held 73 percent of the empire’s populace…in 1290 it was 20 percent” (p. 434).

Population of northern Song reached about 100 million, and the total of southern Song and Jin regained that level after conflict, reaching 110-120 by 1215 (Mote 1994).

Terrible famines occurred widely in north China in 1075 and the 1100s (see also Zhang 2016), often resulting from flooding perhaps associated with northward movement of the monsoon in the Medieval Warm Period. Infanticide is mentioned as a problem for the first time in Chinese history (p. 411). Part of the problem was the famous deforestation for ironmaking and other industrial uses requiring firewood. Tools improved; the modern Chinese plow developed, and harrows, rollers, and other farm implements were widespread (p. 353-355). The fast-growing, high-yielding rice from Champa (central Vietnam) spread rapidly and was an important crop; earlier claims to the contrary turn out to be wrong (p. 394-402).

Some degree of the awfulness of the times can be gauged from the fate of the Imperial family. Of the 183 recorded children of Song emperors, two died in war, 83 died young, 99 survived childhood, and one is lost to the record—an infant mortality rate around 48% (Zhang 2017a). This is probably typical for imperial families, given the number of child emperors and of emperors who died without children. The most prolific Song emperor, Huizi, had over sixty children, none of whom survived. (See Anderson 2019. Modern China’s rate is 1%. The United States is half that.)

One relief came from forestry. Song created enormous needs for timber, because of construction, iron-smelting, and even writing—ink was made by low-oxygen burning of pines (it later was made from vegetable oil). Creative forest communities took to tree-farming, and developed a genuinely scientific forestry, almost exactly like that which Germany developed in the 19th century (McDermott 2013). Cunninghamia lanceolata, China fir, wasthe most valued. It grew straight and clear to 50 mt. A later book, the Nongzheng quanshu (Complete Book on Agriculture), by Xu Guangqi, 1630, tells how to plant and care for them (McDermott 2013:384). This stands as one of the more amazing cases of China long preceding the west in technical achievements. The forests also produced other commodities, including chestnuts and other nuts, medicinal herbs, orchids, wild fruit, wild vegetables, and mineral resources (McDermott 2013:278-279). Second only to timber was tea, rapidly becoming a major crop in Song.

Ian Miller takes up the story in his book Fir and Empire (2020). Tree farming continued, and does so still. This story will be picked up again in the Qing section.

Patricia Ebrey’s detailed biography of Emperor Huizong of Song (2014) has some notes on food.  “1,069 cooks and cooks’ helpers working in the palace.  Feeding everyone in the palace require several thousand pounds of flour a day, and each year tens of thousands of sheep and thirty-two tons of sugar” (pp. 7-8). “One dumpling restaurant had more than fifty ovens and dozens of workers….  Large restaurants might specialize in regional cuisine, such as the Sichuan restaurant that served ‘noodles with meat, noodles with preserved meat; noodles with various forms of meat or vegetable topping, stewed meat, fried giblets of fowl, and rice served with toppings both raw and cooked’” (p. 23; the quote is from S. West in the Hawai’i Reader).           

            In Song, one Zhu Yijong was took on a hermit persona, calling himself dayin weng (great graybeard hermit), and wrote a lot on booze. His instructions for brewing are interesting. Tumi was boiled and mashed rice or similar grain; qu and maybe some wheat malt were added to it; then a sweet rice paste made; then the whole refermented (touru) together. Cocklebur (canger), spicy knotweed (laliao), or golden hop (shema) could be added [presum to keep from spoiling, though the knotweed would flavor it]. He noted that dianle meant failed fermentation (Guo 2021).

In late Southern Song times, Wu Zimu listed the absolute necessities: “the things that people cannot do without every day are firewood, rice, oil, salt, soybean sauce, vinegar, and tea.  Those that are just slightly better off cannot do without hsia-fan [‘food to help get the rice down’] and soup.” (Freeman 1977:151).  Another list says “oil, salt, soy sauce paste, salted fermented beans, ginger, wild peppoer and tea” (Wang 2016:83). Tea may have been “essential” only to well-to-do people in tea-growing areas, but the text does not say that, and clearly tea was widespread and popular.  The phrase hsia-fan, xiafan in Pinyin transcription, is interesting; it was later replaced by cai in Mandarin, sung in Cantonese.  It reminds one of similar phrases worldwide, as in the American “potatoes and with-it,” the Latin cumpanagium (modern Italian companaggio), the Malay lauk, and the modest sentence that a rural cook used when he taught a particularly fine sauce to Escoffier, “it helps the bread go down.” 

Ling Zhang (2016) has examined in detail the problems caused by the Yellow River to Northern Song.  She sees the river as a major actor in a drama; the government frantically tried to control the river, but it proved uncontrollable, constantly flooding and changing its course.  Centuries of deforestation and intensive farming had allowed massive erosion, which led to silt aggradation of the riverbed, filling in and overwhelming of wetlands, and flash floods from the mountains and hills.  At this time, winter wheat was becoming an important crop, but need for irrigation limited its extent in most of northeast China.  Famines were regular and population declined.  The book is a brilliant tour-de-force of analyzing the role of rivers and of human failure in the wake of human irresponsibility.  The Yellow River remains a problem today. Research by Guodong Li and associates (2019) has confirmed her story: the climate in Northern Song was slightly warmer than now, but erratic, with cold periods and erratic flooding.

Wang Zengyu (2016 [1998]) has given a wonderful and thorough account of food in Song times, based largely on literary sources: poetry, literary records, miscellaneous discourses, and similar source materials.  (I would love to know more about one called “Chicken Rib Discourses.”)  The essay is ornamented with copious quotes from these sources, reminding the reader that Song writers were second to none in their ability to report sharp obseravation with literary skill.  One major recorder was the intrepid Fan Chengda, one of the more sympathetic characters in Song history: a far-traveled diplomat and scholar with superb literary talent and a brilliant mind.

Wang finds that millets were still staple foods in north and northwest China, though wheat was widespread.  Rice was the unquestioned staple in the south.  Meat, vegetables, and fruit were as now, except for the lack of New World foods.  (The English version mentions “papaya,” but that is a translator’s error for quince.)  Vegetables included many varieties of Chinese cabbage, as well as lettuce, spinach, ginger, scallion, shallot, chives garlic, eggplant, the usual gourds, taro, yam, burdock root, radish, wild-rice stalk, alfalfa, perilla, seaweed, wormwood shoots, fern, celery, arrowhead, arrowroot, lotus rhizome, and various mushrooms.  Several wild greens were used, and were painstakingly and commendably identified in text (Wang 2016:67).  Pickling preserved most of these, especially the greens and radishes.  Pickles were eaten widely, and were evidently a major part of diet.

Fruit included many forms of apricot and peach, a huge variety of pears (including very large ones), apples, cherries, pomegranates, mei, lotus, loquat, tangerine, kumquat, orange, pomelo, wolfthorn berries, grape, chestnut, hazel, ginkgo nuts, jujubes, carambolas, melons, quinces, torreya nuts, water caltrop, water chestnuts, and the like (Wang 2016:74).  There was a modern-sounding gourmetship of tea and alcohol.  Distilled alcoholic drinks were known (Wang 2016:80; the “not” is a mistake) and included some known today, such as “rose dew” (rose-flavored vodka).  The usual ales were made, but true wine was made from grapes and several other fruits.  Tonics included alcohol infusions of rose, chrysanthemum prickly ash, foxglove, wolfthorn berries, and even vipers (Wang 2016:80); these survive today.  Malt sugar and cane sugar were both widely used and sometimes mixed.  Varied and wonderful sweets were produced. 

Cooking methods were as today.  Court cuisine was famous, and famously expensive.  Restaurants and catering flourished.  Holidays were celebrated with fine foods, as usual. Many have noted that China’s elaborate, meticulous, diverse cuisine began in Song. Tang records show no trace of it; from Song onward it is everywhere. In fact, a self-conscious counter-tradition arose, influenced by Buddhism as well as Chinese thought, that idealized elegant simplicity. Andrea Montanari (2020) has recently written a superb study of simple soups from Su Shi onward in Song thought and ideal. She quotes many poets of the time on the virtues of a simple soup of shepherd’s purse (a tasty but minor roadside herb) and the like.

Wheat foods were important everywhere.  Baked cakes were shaobing, boiled ones (similar to modern year-cakes) were tangbing, steamed ones zhengbing (Wang 2016:60).  Dumplings were already as important and almost as varied as they are today.  Stuffed buns, mantou-like solid breads, wontons, and baozi abounded (Wang 2016:62).  Noodles were particularly creative: wthere were noodle soups with pork, lamb, chicken, bamboo shoots, and others.  Shaobing (a.k.a. hubing, “Iranian cakes,” removing all doubt of their Iranic origin) could be stuffed with anything from pig pancreas to seasame to marrow (Wang 2016:61). 

The custom of feeding sweets to the kitchen god two weeks before New Year, so he would say only sweet things when he went to Heaven to report on the family for the year, was already established; it is recorded by Fan Chengta, the great statesman and writer (Wang 2016:418-419). Duck fighting was common at the time. Somewhat outside the range of food, but important, is the note that, while constructing the town of Pingxia, “residents saw three lizards there and built a shrine for them.” The lizards eventually became the “Marquis of Favourable Resonance, Marquis of Favourable Bestowal, and Marquis of Favourable Protection….. It is certainly beyond modern people’s imagination that three lizards could be apotheosized and given noble titles” (Wang 2016:423).

Pregnancy involved a whole realm of avoidances, to prevent marking the child.  If the mother ate rabbit meat, the baby would have a harelip (a common belief in the west, even within my memory).  If she ate lamb, the baby might be weak.  If she ate turtle, the baby would have a short neck.  If she ate donkey meat, the pregnancy would go on too long (donkeys carry their foals for about 11 months).  And so on (Zhang 2017a:266). After a death, people were supposed to fast for three days, then avoid meat and alcoholic drinks for 25 months—into the third year (Zhang 2017b; he relates a non-ghost story of a skeptical monk who was detailed to guard a house against ghosts, and saw none until a strange creature appeared out of the dark, moaning, and capped by a pottery jar; he soon discovered it was the house dog, who had got his head stuck while foraging in a food jar).

Minorities in the south ate what they could get, especially the usual grains and root crops, and fish along rivers and coasts.  There were already boat people in the far southeast, living on their watercraft and subsisting largely on fish and seafoods, often eating the fish raw (Wang 2016:91). 

The custom of “buying water” from the river, to wash the corpse of a parent, was already established, among the Zhuang (Zhang 2017c:348).  This recalls an experience from my field work in 1965.  We had to purchase water from a nearby pumped well.  When asked the standard Cantonese greeting “where are you going?” I at first said “to buy water.”  I got very strange looks.  Obviously, something was wrong, so I asked my field assistant.  I learned that one uses the phrase “buy water” (maai seui) only when one is obtaining water to wash one’s parent’s corpse!  This now turns out to be a Zhuang custom, carried right over into 20th-century Hong Kong; the Cantonese are basically Sinicized Zhuang, after all.

In Central Asia, the Turpan Depression (where temperatures range up to 49 C and rainfall is less than 2 cm./year) in Tang and Song was consuming wheat, barley, millet, grapes, walnuts, and desert plants and animals. It now raises cotton, melons, sorghum, and jujubes as well, most of those appearing and developing as crops during or soon after Song (Li-Feng Yao et al. 2020).

The Khitan, Jurchen and Tangut (of Liao, Jin and Xixia respectively) ate wheat products and meat, and especially reveled in dairy products. (See Franke and Twitchett 1994.) They did a great deal of hunting and fishing.  The Khitan first-fish rite was famous—a vitally important state ritual.  The fish was a huge sturgeon caught by ice-fishing (Wang 2016:95).  Game meats included deer, raccoon dog, bear, marmot or ground squirrel, and game birds.  Wild fruits and nuts included hazelnuts, chestnuts, poine nuts, cornels, pears, and the like; salt could be used to preserve foods (Wang 2016:97).  Surprising detail exists on Liao and Jin foods and feasting, since Song courtiers often traveled to and from their courts, recording useful or interesting lore.

Crabs were the subject of two foodie works, Monograph on Crabs in 1060, Discourse on Crabs in 1080; neither has recipes, alas, but Jacqueline Newman has made up for it by providing a huge number of wonderful ones in her article noting those books.  She also notes a Song work, Records of Home Cooking by Mrs. Wu of Pujian in Zhejiang, as the first cookbook by a woman (probably in the world); it does have crab recipes (Newman 2016a). 

Soy sauce begins to appear, remaining a specialized product, most popular in the lower Yangzi, till modern times (Leung 2021).

            Lu You has a poem about eating sheep yogurt with cherries in Hangzhou (Miranda Brown, Facebook posting, Aug. 28, 2021).

            The Nongsang Qiyao, “Needed Knowledge of Agriculture and Sericulture,” was a government manual from 1273, but early editions are lost (Bray 1984:71).

            “Coarse tea and insipid rice” were snubbed by the elite, but praised by some devotees of simplicity and plainness, an aesthetic convention of the time, stimulated by Daoism and Buddhism (Yue 2017).

            Scallops were popular enough to inspire one writer to create a fictional discourse on the world as seen by a scallop. Such perspective-taking is not unusual in Chinese fiction (Mai 2020).


            Population dropped to 60 million by 1290 (Mote 1994), and did not recover unitl well into Ming (Mote 1994:661).

            Stephen Haw (2006) has written a notably well-researched study of Marco Polo. Among other things, it ends forever any serious argument that Polo never got there. Haw notes many details that Marco could not possibly have known without seeing them. I might add that Polo’s descriptions of cranes are perfectly identifiable to species, which would be impossible unless he was speaking from direct observation. The types of “mice” eaten by the Mongols are also described in the travel literature, and I have identified them (Buell and Anderson 2020).

            A social change involved considerable restriction of women, tracking Neo-Confucian thinking in late Song and then Mongol introduction of west and central Asian policies, influenced by Islam and more restrictive. Women lost rights to property, among other things, with ramifying bad effects on food in the coming dynasties; they followed the Yuan code (Birge 2002).

            Yuan loved to compile food and agricultural books. Wang Zhen’s enormous Nung Shu (“Agriculture Book”) of 1313 summarized farming knowledge of China, but has been little studied (see Bray 1984:59-61 for an easily-available account in English). Other works followed.

            Sources on Mongol food have been enormously expanded by Christopher Atwood’s book The Rise of the Mongols: Five Chinese Sources (2021).  Zhao Gong, in “A Memorandum on the Mong-Tatars” (pp. 71-92), describes their staple foods: “They live only by drinking mare’s milk to slake their hunger and thirst. The milk of a single mare can satisfy three people. Whether going out or staying home, they only drink mare’s milk or slaughter sheep for food. [This is flagrant exaggeration; horses foal in spring, the milk must be saved for the foal till it can graze, and then dries up in fall, so mare’s milk is only available in summer.] [T]hey shoot rabbits, deer, and wild boar for food…they have seized as slaves people from China who must eat grain to feel full, and therefore they seize rice and wheat as plunder…Their country also has one or two places where black broomcorn millet grows, and they also boil this to make gruel.” (More exaggeration. The Mongols grew a good deal of it, and had other sources; they always ate a good deal of grain. P. 83.) Zhao also noted that they rarely wash, wiping their greasy hands on their robes. Like the Europeans, he maintains they wear clothes till the cloth falls apart (p. 87). They foretell the future by scapulimancy (p. 90). When he left Mongolia, he and his companions were told by the Prince of State: “Whenever you come to a good walled town, stay a few days longer. If there is good wine, drink it, or good tea and food, eat it, or a good flute of a good drum, blow it or bang it” (92).

            Peng Daya and Xu Ting provided a particularly detailed account as early as 1233, “A Sketch of the Black Tatars,” pp. 93-130. They noted the stock, including the camels, and the dependence on milk—but they are not so ignorant of the variety and processing methods of milks. They provide detailed descriptions of the ger. They did not kill their cattle, saving them for milk (100). They used dried dung for fuel, referring to it as “steppe charcoal” (100). They even used it for lamps, adding sheep fat to make it burn well (101). They called scapulimancy “burning the lute” (108). Those who illegally broke grazing land for cultivation, or allowed fires to escape, were executed (113).
“Those who, when pouring out milk or kefir, empty the vessel completely are said to be cutting off their descendants” (113). They begin to ride at three years of age, a fact still observable in modern Mongolia. Their arrows can pierce armor (114). Ting observed a Mongol woman give birth, wipe off the infant, wrap it in a sheepskin, sling it in a cradle, and go riding off with it (115). For mountain or stony ground, their horses were shod with iron or wood (115).  Stirrups were made carefully to allow full range of motion in the saddle (117). Provisioning the army involved being very sure there would be enough milk; a great deal of detail is supplied on mare’s milk (118-119), with clarified milk for the elite. (From other sources, we know that Mongols traveled to war with a string of milk mares when possible, thereby tending to restrict campaigns to the summer.) They had some grape wine from central Asia (119). Ting describes melons “two men’s arm spans in circumference” (127), which must be a misunderstanding or exaggeration, though watermelons were coming in at the time,  and were strange to north Chinese, who never saw such gigantic melons in the homeland.

            Related is a study of Mongol-era distilling, including of kumys (Luo 2012).

            As was true throughout Chinese history, food was used as medicine. Thus, studies of medicine in the day, including Reiko Shinno’s excellent The Politics of Chinese Medicine under Mongol Rule (2016) as well as Paul Buell’s and my work (Buell and Anderson 2010, Buell et al. 2020), discuss food at great length. In particular, our work Arabic Medicine in China (2021) provides a translation of the Huihui Yaofang, a Mongol-era encyclopedia of western medicine translated into Chinese for Chinese use. (The Chinese text and good annotations are given in Kong 1996.) It did not catch on; almost no influence from it is traceable in Chinese medicine.


            Brook (2005, 2010) has chronicled the development of rice in Ming, including vast construction of polders, even in inhospitable north China. He also provides a thorough account of the disastrous climate events associated with the Little Ice Age that terribly stressed the dynasty (Brook 2010, 2016). The worst was in 1645-1715, the Maunder sunspot minimum that produced probably the coldest weather since the Ice Age. Extreme famines occurred with droughts in 1450 and 1625-50 (Lee and Yue 2020). A final fatal blow was a huge volcanic explosion in the Philippines, which darkened the skies and caused the worst drought in recorded Chinese history, 1641-43 (Chen et al. 2020). Poyang Lake fluctuated wildly in extent, more than at other times, with all these dynamics of precipitation (He et al. 2022). The treeline in Tibet dropped by a huge amount in the Little Ice Age, and has not recovered even now in places (K. Li et al. 2019).

            The timing of the horrible droughts and famines from 1625-50 spans the fall of Ming and rise of Qing, a point whose obvious significance is remarked on by Brook, Lee and Yue (2020), and many others (Anderson 2019). This is one time when weather did have a share in bringing down a dynasty, though Ming was rotting and giving way already, and famine was probably more a last straw than a full cause (Anderson 2019).

            Wars, rebellions, and civil uprisings followed floods, and in wheat areas also droughts (Lee et al. 2017). This is a good time to introduce the team of Harry Lee and David Zhang, who with their students, notably Qing Pei, have rewritten the history of China in the last dozen years, from the point of view of climate and its effects. They have produced an incredible number of brilliant articles and books, showing correlations of climate with famines, wars, and epidemics (see Pei 2021; I drew on them heavily for my book on dynamics of Chinese history, Anderson 2019).

            Beginning in Ming and continuing to the present, the vast Dongting Lake in the lower Yangtse area has suffered increasing loss of area and wetlands, through reclamation for agriculture. Only 5.7% of it was lost by the end of Ming, but now three-quarters of the wetlands are gone, and the lake is reduced to a narrow, dyke-circumscribed shadow of its former self (Y. Li et al. 2020).

            In Ming and Qing, epidemics were frequent, and correlated with famines, locusts, and droughts; all these were notably more common in cool dry times, of which there were many in this Little Ice Age period (H. Tian et al. 2017).

            Li Bozhong has argued (e.g. 2003) that the coming of the famous Champa rice and other new varieties of crops only slowly made a difference. New technology, including better pumps to dry out paddies quickly for crop rotation, had to come in. Yields 2/3 to 1 shi of rice per mu, occasionally up to 2; they rose during Ming from an average of 1 to 1.6 in the Jiangnan region. Population grew after the disastrous Song-Yuan-Ming transitions.

            The Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-1436) imported from Korea many “female cooks to satisfy the emperor’s appetite for Korean delicacies” (Chan 1988:301). 

            Pig-raising and pork-eating in Ming and Qing have been studied and monographed by Chung-Hao Kuo in a meticulous study (2013). Then as now, most of the world’s pigs were probably in China. He notes, though, that pigs rose greatly in abundance, and lamb relatively declined, with the progressive southernization of China after Han.

            The first mention of chiles in China is in the encyclopedic Eight Treatises on Following the Principles of Life, 1591, according to Wee Kek Koon (2019) writing in the South China Morning Post. It is described in that work as having “white flowers and a fruit that resembles the blunt tip of a writing brush.  It is spicy in taste and red in color. It looks very attractive.”   He notes that it was well established in Sichuan and Hunan by the late 19th century.  Little seems know of it otherwise. 

            Yuan Mei’s famous work Recipes from the Garden of Contentment (Suiyuan Shidian) has finally been translated, by Sean Chen (2019).

            See also Gao Lian (tr. by Sumei Yi; 2011) on my website ( His detailed work on medicinal uses of foods includes a long section of Central Asian sweets, including halwa under that name (transliterated hai luo, lit. “sea radish”). Paul Buell and I have used this material, quoting the main sweets recipes, in Crossroads of Cuisine (2020). Diverse and contested attitudes existed toward alcoholic drinks in late Ming and early Qing, ranging from Gao Lian’s purity to Yuan Mei’s more hedonistic take to outright banqueters and revelers.

            Gao Lian called himself a shanren, but one Li Zhi (1527-1602) said the shanren were a bunch of hypocrites. He was not alone. Gao’s Zunshen bajian was thus rather lowly regarded.

            There is a Shiwu Bencao (“Food Things Basic Herbal”) from 1550, with many later editions. A huge work, Nongzheng Quanshu (“Agricultural Complete Book”) by Xu Guangqi (1562-1633), surpassed even Wang Zhen’s earlier work, and includes some new lore from the west; it describes sweet potatoes, on which he wrote a short separate work, now lost (Bray 1984:64-70).

            Of course, the greatest of all herbals was the Bencao Gangmu, by Li Shizhen (2003; Chinese original, 1593-96). In addition to a workmanlike translation by a Chinese team, a more scholarly translation by Paul Unschuld and his group is ongoing. They began with Vol. 9, Fowls, Domestic and Wild Animals, Human Substances (2021, P. Unschuld, tr.) More volumes are appearing. Zhang and Unschuld (2015-18) have produced a dictionary of the work, with their considered translations of Chinese medical and biological terminology.

Portuguese observers added greatly to our knowledge, as recorded by C. R. Boxer (2004, orig. 1953). He quotes Galeote Pereira as writing (in translation from his time)  “the Chins are the greatest eaters in all the world, they do feed upon all things, specially on pork, the fatter that is, unto them the less loathesome” (p. 9).

Deforestation continued, and Aurelia Campbell (2020), in What the Emperor Built, a rather amazing monograph on Ming megalomaniacal building, showed that taking huge nanmu trees (Phoebe nanmu) for the capital opened up the forests, established logging infrastructure and finance, and led to massive deforestation of all sorts in the wake of the imperial despoilers. The conventional wisdom on China’s deforestation is that it was done for agriculture to feed the starving masses, but in fact a great deal of it was done for imperial construction, for ironworking, for ceramics firing, and even for ink (formerly made by closed-in combustion of pines for soot—fortunately rapeseed oil replaced this).

            Drinking was rampant. The following is summarized from Jackson Guo’s superb 2021 article.

                        Later, one Gu Qiyuan (1565-1628) chronicled a whole range of drinks: yellow millet drink (huangjiu) from Beijing, Cangjiu from Cangzhou, yiyi jiu (pearl barley or possibly Job’s-tears liquor)from Jizhou, autumn dew white liquor (qiulu bai) from Jinan, lychee drink from Guangdong, lamb liquor (yanggao jiu) from Fenzhou, wujiapi jiu from Gaoyou, and snow drink (xue jiu) from Yangzhou (presumably white in color, not made from snow), sanbai jiu (three whites—made from wheat, rice, and clear water) from Suzhou, honeyed crabapple drink (milinqin jiu) from Yangzhou, and plain baijiu from Hangzhou. There were several more. By this time distilled spirits—shaojiu, baijiu, alaji (or halaji) were well known and widely appreciated.

            A mid-Ming story tells of a poet, Zhang Yuyuan, who was asked at a banquet to write poems for the peonies. He dashed off 50 and said he was running out of inspiration; the host gave him distilled liquor and he dashed off 50 more. Another mid-Ming drinker, Song Xu, made a cocktail with 40 catties of liquor (apparently distilled), 100 walnuts, 200 red jujubes, and four catties of cooked honey. One Xu Guangqi records making brandy from mulberries—apparently real brandy, not just flavoring baijiu with mulberries. Another record describes fermenting grain and lychees, then distilling.

            Drinking was connected with courtesans and sex, of course, such that globefish were compared to Xishi’s breasts, oysters to her tongue, and both consumed at singing-house drinking parties. This was usually at the opposite end of the spectrum from connoisseurs like Yuan Mei and reveling but elite banqueters like Zhang Yuyuan.

            Not directly connected with food, but too important an insight into Chinese culture to miss, is the journal of Huang Xiangjian (1609-1673). He was caught in Suzhou in the horrors of the Ming collapse. At the time his father was serving at a government post in remote Yunnan. Huang, a filial son beyond even Chinese norms, set off through the horrific chaos of dynastic transition, into an area so wild and remote that even locals barely dared to venture on its roads. A soft city aesthete, he endured travel hardships that would have killed almost any hardened fieldworker. Amazingly, he survived, found his father, and they returned together; his father, in fact, survived him by a few years (Kindall 2016). This is as amazing a record of sheer human toughness as anything I have read.


            Under Qing, China’s population grew spectacularly. It had risen during Ming to about 150,000,000. The fall of Ming came with appalling bloodshed and famine, leaving a population not much over 100,000,000. Under Qing, it rose to the famous 400,000,000 of American stereotype in those days. Readers may recall Carl Crow’s infamously titled book 400 Million Customers (Earnshaw 2008, orig. 1937), which is actually a quite knowledgeable and sympathetic work, but clearly aimed at American businesspeople!

            In late Qing, China became known in the west for its “teeming millions” and “population pressure.” Grave thinkers calculated that famine would simply worsen, as the dense population rose more. They theorized that democracy could never come, or endure, in such a mass society. Today the United States has almost exactly the same population density as late Qing, and indeed its democracy is in desperate shape. Meanwhile, China’s population has more than tripled, and almost everyone is eating well. Democracy, however, does not exist except in Taiwan.

            In any case, the appalling increase in population led to agricultural involution (Huang 1990), as more and more people tried to make a living off less and less land by working harder and harder. Average farms shrunk to the size of an American suburban lot [about 1/6 acre, roughly a Chinese mu) in the most densely populated areas. “Popular wisdom had it that it required 4 mu of land (about two-thirds of an acre) to feed one person. With rapid population growth, this ratio had worsened under Qianlong from 3.5 mu per person in 1766 to 3.33 mu [half an acre]per person in 1790” (Elliott 2009:148). Of course it was even smaller in the 19th century. This forced people to focus on silkmaking and also to export workers to cities (Bell 1997). Mulberry trees to feed the silkworms grew on the levees between rice paddies.

            Desperate hardship ensued, leading to rebellions in the 19th century, and also to emigration from southeast China to southeast Asia and then in the 20th century to the entire world. North China suffered less crowding, but had major famines, partly due to rain-based agriculture (Huang 1985). Lillian Li’s Fighting Famine in North China (2007) is a definitive history. Mallory’s classic China, Land of Famine (1926) remains indispensable. Even difficult climate, including the Little Ice Age in the 1600s and 1700s, did not slow this growth, “owing to the tremendous increase of subsistence brought about by land reclamation policy and the introduction of foreign food crops” (Lee et al. 2016), as well as excellent famine relief provisions, among the best in the world for that time (Will 1990; Will and Wong 1991).

            Lee and Campbell (1997) traced the microdynamics of life, death, and reproduction in northeast China, finding an incredible amount of complexity and resourcefulness instead of the grim tale of inexorable famine and rampant overpopulation beloved of western colonialist observers in the 19th century. Chinese controlled their births, planned for the children they had, coped by diverse and rational methods when famine struck, and lived their lives successfully in spite of all. The Chinese saying “Freezing to death, stand straight and face the wind; starving to death, never bend” (Rohsenow 2002:#D183) sums up their lives.

            At the other end of the socioeconomic scale, the same team researched the demography of the Imperial family (Lee et al. 1993). They found a depressing, even appalling, fact: the infant mortality rate was as high as in the general population, which in old China was extremely high. Even the Emperor was not isolated from epidemics; in fact, the Emperor was at high risk because of the thousands of people that circulated through the court. The Imperial diet may have been luxurious, but it was not well-balanced nutritionally, and if there was any problem with breastfeeding, the baby was apt to be fed on rice congee, a fairly good predictor of quick demise. Also, most of the Imperial children were the offspring of concubines, who got rather cursory care and attention. The tough farmers of the remote northeast could thank their lucky stars that they were better equipped to raise strong children.

            The same group summarized their early findings in One Quarter of Humanity:  Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000 (Lee and Feng 1999, jumping the gun a bit). The key finding is that Chinese controlled their population fairly well and were proactive about food management, famine relief, and expanding food producting, contra the early Malthus and his grim idea of population inevitably outrunning food supply. China was well fed for an agrarian empire in 1700 and a great deal better fed in 2000, in spite of population increase—which itself was under control by then.

            The cause of this huge population growth is under some debate. China had 60 million people by 2 CE, but that was when it controlled much less of the region than now; the total population in what is now China would have been 70-80 million. There were only about 100 million at the start of Ming. The huge increase in Qing seems largely due to peace and order, allowing longer lifespans and more trade and commerce. New World food crops, however, also had a huge role. They may have been the major cause (see e.g. Mazumdar 1999). Maize, sweet potatoes, and white potatoes allowed great expansion of cultivation into previously low-production landscapes. Peanuts, chiles, and various fruits and vegetables added critically important nutrients that had been scarce in many diets.

            Agriculture and agricultural production has been studied in detail by Zhohong Shi in Agricultural Development in Qing (2017).

            Matthew Sommer (2015:160) reveals that in late Qing “a shi [133 lb.]of unhusked rice…cost about 1100 cash,” with an exchange rate of about 750 cash per tael (1.3 oz) of silver.  Silver today (Jan. 2016) costs $14/oz., so a tael would be worth $18.50.  1100 cash would thus be about $28, enough to buy 56 pounds of white rice at today’s bulk-retail prices, and thus several times that much unhusked raw rice, wholesale.  Thus, prices are roughly comparable then to those today.  Sommer notes that a day laborer could work for as little as 50 cash per day (p. 161).  A man would need at least 1 1/3 lb./day to survive, and more than that to do any work.  He would thus need to spend 11 cash for minimal food, plus whatever surcharge there was for husking and milling the rice.  We also learn that a wife (bought from another man, usually in desperate straits) would cost an average of 24 taels, or $442, a low enough price.  A magistrate might get 30,000 taels, a governor six times that (162), but these huge sums were more in the nature of budgets than of salaries, for these officials had to pay many expenses—including paying lower-level staff—out of the sums.

            A huge literature, with many debates, has emerged on the rise of Qing economy, which rivaled Europe’s by 1700, but then fell behind (Anderson 2016; Pomeranz 2000; Wong 1997). Kenneth Pomeranz (2000) held that China still had about the same per capita income as Europe at that period, a claim challenged by others (see Huang 2002) and hard to resolve. Some think China fell behind as early as late Song (which seems extremely unlikely, given all other sources), or in Ming (The Economist 2017). The proper comparison is also debatable, since Holland and England, certainly far ahead of China by late Ming, are much more comparable with the lower Yangzi than with all China: “In Qianlong’s day, Jiangnan accounted for 16 percent of the total agricultural land in the empire, but provided 29 percent of the governments land tax revenue in cash (paid in silver) and 38 percent of its revenue in kind (paid in grain), as well as 64 percent of the tribute grain sent to feed the capital” (Elliott 2009:78-79). A Europe that includes Russia seems much more comparable with Ming or Qing.

            Qing economic thinking also paralleled Europe’s, as shown by Margaret Zanasi in a landmark book, Economic Thought in Modern China (2020). Sophisticated ideas about the free market were close to those of Adam Smith. Economists were aware that consumer spending drove the market, and advocated liberalism at first, but the population increase without much chance of increasing cultivated land led to need for more and more government intervention to deal with famine. Chinese were well aware of the Song historian Sima Guang’s line: “The wealth of heaven and Earth is fixed in amount” (quoted p. 18). Chinese are relatively free of the “limited good” or “zero-sum” view of the world so common in other traditional and modern societies, but they certainly are not unaware of it. A tension between free markets and government planning and aid was always there, intensifying with population growth in Ming, Qing, and after.

            China began to fall behind as Europe conquered and exploited much of the rest of the world. This not only brought riches to Europe, but, more importantly in the eyes of many, stimulated science, learning, and progressive thinking there. It brought little but misery and suffering to the conquered peoples. China certainly fell behind once the Industrial Revolution really set in, but it did not start improving livelihoods till after 1800. James Lee and collaborators (2004) also found welfare often comparable to Europe as late as 1700, but a great deal of desperate poverty, often among widows, who could not normally remarry. Larger farms did not make much difference, since farm size was by this time generally set to keep a small family alive; bigger farms were in poorer areas.

            The Qing did embark on a colonialist program, occupying Tibet, southern Siberia, Mongolia, and above all the area that had been known as “eastern Turkistan” in most of the world. Qing conquered as far as Tang had done, but took over and occupied the whole vast region, rather than controlling only the strategic Silk Road routes and oases. This became Xinjiang, “New Borders.” Qing conquest involved genocide of the Dzungar Mongols, a radical (though not wholly unprecedented) departure from China’s usual policy of subduing and assimilating minorities without exterminating them. The new lands produced vast amounts of fruit and vegetables, from the riverine oases, as well as grain and livestock. The whole story has been told in Peter Perdue’s China Marches West (2005), a classic in Qing studies.

            Zuo Zongtang, the general and statesman for whom “General Tso’s Chicken” was named, was active in Xinjiang in the late 19th century, stimulating agriculture and sericulture (Lavelle 2020). Among many interesting features that now became part of the Chinese food-producing world, we may mention karez, the qanats of the Arab and Persian worlds. These water tunnels were dug back into river outwash fans, where flowing rivers from the mountains disappear into the vast deltas of dirt, rocks, and sand that they develop when they debouch into the valleys. The water is still there, flowing underground, and the near-horizontal wells tap it. Qanats are difficult to make, requiring expertise—one reason they are dying out, now that anyone that expert in engineering can get a good urban job instead of working in the dangerous, uncomfortable qanats. In China, they are especially common in the Turpan (Turfan) Depression. On Google Maps one can easily find the long, straight or sinuous lines of doughnut-shaped holes ringed with guard mounds that provide access to the underground tunnels. Zuo Zongtang, the general and statesman for whom “General Tso’s Chicken” was named, led the reconstruction of many karez in the Turpan area. Attempts to spread the technology more widely failed, because soils in much of the area are crumbly, not strong enough to hold up when tunneled (Lavelle 2020:126-140).

            Qanats used to abound in Iran, central Asia, much of the Arab world, and even (thanks to Moorish occupation) Spain. Converted Moors carried them to Mexico, where they possibly still exist in the Tehuacan Valley. Thanks to immigrants from there, “water tunnels” even made a brief appearance in San Bernardino, California, according to old-timers I have known.

            Relatively good times could be found in the far northeast (Feng et al. 2010), because the former Manchu grazing and hunting lands were opened to cultivation. People had sizable families and populated the realm rapidly.

            Meng Zhang has produced extremely careful, thorough, and interesting studies of the timber industry in Qing China (M. Zhang 2017, 2021). Once again we see Karen Thornber’s “ecoambiguity” at work, with the Qing government trying to save forests while encouraging logging. Some selective logging and silviculture saved small areas. Timber was especially easy to get in the Yangtze River areas, such as up-country Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, and Anhui. Often it was rafted down the rivers. Huge rafts could be assembled, and floated down to lower Yangtze markets. These could be “more than 100 feet wide, hundreds of feet long, with a draft depth of 7 feet” (M. Zhang 2021:116). The raftsmen would live for months on these, raising chickens and even taking some soil on board to grow vegetables. (Parenthetically, I might add that this was done in the early 19th century in the Ohio-Mississippi drainage, chickens and all.) One raftsman even wrote a book about his life (M. Zhang 2021:125). Private plantations and silviculture were ahead of the west until the late 19th century. Collectivization and rampant exploitation under Communism finished the destruction of the forests. However, reforestation has substantially restored them in recent times.

            Tree farming continued, and we pick up again Ian Miller’s story in Fir and Empire. The business by Qing was a multi-million-dollar enterprise.Speculation in tree futures, litigation over rights, feudal-type family holdings, temple and fengshui groves, and other complications entered the picture. This attracted a wave of petty lawyers and sharks, nicknamed “hairpin-brushes” because they held their hair up with their writing brushes. One writer on tree matters called himself (literally translated) “small peach-stream revealer-of-lies mountain-man,” or as Miller translates it “the falsehood-revealing hermit of a small utopia” (p 94). He concludes: “Ultimately, the institutions that emerged were not inevitable, nor were they the simple products of high-level decisions; they were compromises, conditioned by the communities they governed and the repeated attempts of rulers to graft and prune these local forms into a coherent whole” (p. 170). Food enters the picture via tea plantations and other agroforestry.

            Huge rebellions—the Taiping, Nian, and Hui rebellions—devastated China in the 1840s and after.  The Taiping Rebellion devastated central China, leading to tens of millions of deaths, largely from famine due to scorched-earth warfare and destruction of supply lines. The ground was said to be white with bones in many areas, and greatly exaggerated reports of packs of “thousands” of wolves circulated (Lavelle 2020:67-80). An illustration of the time shows not only dogs and pigs, but also rabbits, eating unburied corpses, while gravediggers work to keep up (Lavelle 2020:70). The rabbits not only show that the illustrator had no idea of animal fooways but also give a surrealist, macabre touch to the scene.

            An unprecedently devastating famine in 1876-79 followed, pursuant to the famine-ruined landscapes and a sharp drought (Janku 2018). International attention followed, leading to stereotypes of China as desperately poor, famine-ridden, overpopulated, and ruined by environmental overdraft.

            Common lands still existed, and caused conflict over different use and management strategies. A superb study by Wesley Chaney (2020) records fighting due to different ideas of rights to common lands in the far northwest.

China’s cities were quite “modern,” having active trade and commerce that naturally led to food imports and a wealth of teashops, restaurants, and attendant food-related amenities (see e.g. Rowe 1984; 1989, esp. p. 86; 2002). 

Among the first New World foods to become popular was the chile pepper, whose record has been immortalized by Brian Dott in The Chile Pepper in China (2020). Gao Lian, the Ming health-food writer, was the first to mention and describe it. By 1621 it was in the Shiwu Bencao. It is first mentioned in Hunan in the 18th century, but was surely there earlier. It fit into an already-spicy cuisine, and found a true home; Hunan food makes Mexican seem bland. The Hunanese general Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885) surely deserved the honor bestowed on him when a Hunanese chef in Taiwan named a blazing-hot dish in his honor in the 1950s (Dott 2020:170). “General Tso’s Chicken” is now worldwide, with countless blander variants given imaginative parodies of the name to avoid infringement of rights.

Many varieties soon appeared, but our record of its spread and early use is poor.  Chiles normally get called by some variant of la jiao (hot brown-pepper), but the vernacular name in Taiwanese is huana kiun, “barbarian kids’ ginger.” Katy Hung, the expert on Taiwanese food, assures us that the term huana is not derogatory on that island, but it certainly is in Malaysian Hokkien! In any case, an entertaining name.

Allspice, another newcomer from America, became known as gan jiao, “sweet pepper.”

A debate between free-marketeers and statists developed in the 18th century (Dunstan 1996, 2006), with the statists having the better case and ultimately winning, but not until many modern-sounding free-market arguments had been made, and had had some effect.  The ever-normal granaries (changping cang, lit. “long-leveling storehouses,” i.e. leveling prices over the indefinitely long term) were somewhat scaled down and freer markets locally allowed to flourish in grain and in copper/silver conversion in money.  Hoarding was discouraged by any and every means possible.  Debates also dealt with the quality of rice for salaries: low-level functionaries had to make do with shaky-quality rice (chengse mi) or even “old and suo [low-grade] rice” (Dunstan 2006:65). 

            Business, trade and commerce enormously expanded through the 18th century (Rowe 2009:132ff.).  The old idea of international trade as “tribute”  and internal trade as minor and repressed is largely wrong.  Trade continued to expand after 1800, but, especially after 1840, trade with the west incurred increasing disadvantage.

This was in large measure because of opium, long known but explosively expanding its tentacles in the 19th century.  It was used moderately and reasonably before the 19th century, but then the British began “dumping” it on China in order to get silver and to get a local foothold on trade.  David Bello has recently updated the history of this drug (Bello 2003 and references therein—a comprehensive bibliography).  The Qing Dynasty tried, not without success, to prohibit it, but the western powers—finding little else they could sell at a profit—forced it on China.  By the end of China’s last dynasty, in 1911, millions of Chinese were addicted to this debilitating curse.  The result of the British pressure was a rise in demand and in addiction, and eventually a serious problem, as I had plenty of opportunity to observe in Hong Kong in the 1960s.   The effect on food production was serious, as more and more laborers succumbed.  Attempts to eradicate opium in the early Communist years were quite successful, but, with the opening of the market after the 1970s, heroin and other hard drugs flooded in (Dikötter et al 2002).

            Tea has its own stories.  Robert Gardella (1994) compared China’s smallholder production with the rise of plantations in the colonial world; Qin Shao (1998), in a fascinating article, showed that China vilified teahouses as dens of freethinking and other iniquities—just as Turkey and later Europe attacked coffeehouses, and just as “espresso joints” were attacked as hotbeds of “beatnikism” within my own memory.  Exports of tea to England “grew exponentially, from around 200 pounds eper year in the late seventeenth century…to over 28,000,000 pounds in the early nineteenth century” (Rowe 2009:166; see also Mair and Hoh 2009), with the average English household by then spending as much as 5% of its income on tea.  England at first paid in New World silver, but eventually only opium was valuable enough to trade to offset the buying of tea, porcelain, cloth, and so on.  So opium spawned the famous colonialist wars, which had much to do with “underdeveloping” China.

China kept developing more and more elaborate dishes, and became more and more committed to what we now recognize as “Chinese cuisine”—no more Central Asian and Near Eastern borrowings (Anderson 2005b). 

The great Chinese gourmet Yuan Mei (1716-1798) flourished in Qing (Anderson 1988; So 35-43; Waley  1956).  His birthday, set at March 25 in the western calendar, has recently been declared International Chinese Food Day.  It could be an arbor day, too; he planted a tree on his 70th birthday, saying:

“Seventy, and still planting trees….

Don’t laugh at me, my friends.

I know I’m going to die. 

I also know I’m not dead yet.”   (Tr. J. P. Seaton, 1997:92.)

His cookbook is thoroughly Chinese (Schmidt 2003; So 1986; Waley 1956).  No central Asian or western influences here.  It has finally been translated, in a superb bilingual edition by Sean Chen (Yuan 2019)—a major and long overdue event in Chinese food history. 

Food receives attention in A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule, by Jonathan Schlesinger (2017).  Qing vastly expanded the size the Chinese empire, especially into Siberia—only to lose most of that expansion to the Russians in a series of unequal treaties.  Especially before the loss, the Manchus, Mongols, and Han Chinese mined the Siberian and Mongolian frontiers for steppe mushrooms (Tricholoma mongolicum, Agaricus bisporus, and possibly others), furs of all sorts, game, fish, and other wildland goods.  The Manchus tried to keep much of this realm wild.  Many of their nature reserves and hunting parks are now national parks in China and Mongolia.  Unfortunately, they could not keep from depleting the resources drastically.  They almost eliminated the larger fur-bearers and the pearlshell freshwater mussels.  They almost elminated wild ginseng, to the point of being forced to farm it, producing what was (and still is) thought to be an inferior product. 

While the exploitation was good, they had a fine time.  Before conquering China, Manchu rulers ate “tiger, bear, roe deer, elk, montain goat, boar, wild duck, and pheasant; recipe books record how palace staff cleaned a cut the meat into ig hunks, then prepared it in stews of sea salt, soy sauce, green onhion, ginger, Sichuan peppers, and star anise (Schlesinger 2017:22).  After conquering China, they tried to keep up their habits.  The Kangxi emperor advocated that, and wrote that older Manchu people should eat “’unrefined milk, pickled deer tongues and tails, dried applies, and cream cheese cakes’”; deer were almost totally used, from antlers (for medicine, when in velvet) to tail (Schlesinger 2017:23). A recipe for steppe mushrooms with deer tendons includes, also, soy, salt, hot bean oil, white sugar, distilled alcohol, flavor powder (a spice mix), onion tips, ginger, and starch, the whole to be sprinkled with fragrant oil for serving.  The recipe reads quite like a Yinshan Zhengyao recipe, and shows that Central Asian foodways were still alive (Schlesinger 2017:25).

Game abounded in the 18th century.  Matteo Ripa, one of the Jesuit missionaries, wrote in the early years of the century of the vast amounts of incredible cheapness of stags, boars, pheasants, and fish.  Others added similar accounts, including an incredibly precocious eleven-year-old Manchu boy who recorded masses of deer, boar, pheasants, hares, geese, and ducks, and notes his own fondness for sturgeon and crane (Schlesinger 2017:40-41; the boy’s journal also has insightful comments on the politics and culture of the time; see Schlesinger 2018).  Of course it was all too good to last, and China’s expanding ring of destruction—which has now encompassed Africa—eliminated the cheap game long before 1900.

Fish suffered also. Muscolino (2009) tells the story of declining fisheries. On the other hand, China and its seas still had plenty of fish by 1900. These were devastated by overfishing and pollution by 2000. China now depends on sending fleets around the world, where they are decimating local stocks, leaving nothing for local people.

The great novels, notably The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) and The Scholars (Wu 1957), are full of food images (Anderson 1988).  Classical cookbooks appeared, to be mined in our time (e.g. So 1992).  The Qianlong Emperor loved birds’ nests, though, oddly, Li Shizhen did not refer to them (Rosner 1999:7).

Many Qing scholars developed a surprisingly strong feminist streak in its early popular culture (see esp. Idema and Grant 2004).  Male writers like Cao Xueqin, Zheng Xie and Yuan Mei extolled the value of women, their intellectual equality with men, and their potential.  Yuan Mei not only advocated educating women along with men, but actually educated many of them himself, serving as tutor and mentor to over fifty women—a whole generation of brilliant female writers (Waley 1986).  Cao Xueqin’s great novel The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986) portrays elite women who had the benefit of such education and turned out to be brighter and nobler than the men in their lives. (On these matters see Idema and Grant 2004; Widmer 2006.) Obviously this all had significance to food, since such men were not only gourmets themselves but fully conscious of the trials and triumphs of women as cooks and food providers. This informed their writings.

There were various motives involved.  Cao and Zheng were intensely moral men, were concerned with fairness and ending abuses, but Yuan, who had the mores of a tomcat, made no secret of wanting lovers he could talk to.  Women themselves wrote countless poems, stories, and especially tanci, prose-poetic works thought to be largely a female medium; not surprisingly, tanci routinely portray women as “smart, learned, physically active, and the equal of any man in the examination field, imperial court, and sometimes even in physical combat” (Epstein 2011:7). They also pulled no punches on the cruelty to women that occurred in China as elsewhere. One tanci, Tianyuhua, has a familiar plot: a father who is well-meaning but excessively moral to point of cluelessness and a daughter who is brilliant, beautiful, and winds him around her finger (Epstein 2011).  It will be recalled that women did not get this kind of fair shake in western literature until the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  (Sappho anticipated the trend by a few millennia, but one swallow does not make a summer.)  One wonders, as so often, why China did not go on to parallel the west.  Neo-Confucian morality reasserted itself.

A significant insight into both Qing tolerance for minorities and Qing acceptance of women:  A Muslim Uighur concubine in the court of the Emperor Qianlong in the 1760s and 1770s managed to avoid pork, eating mutton instead, and to eat sweets—probably with a Central Asian flavor (Millward 1994:435). 

Qing toyed with many versions of the “free market” philosophy, including testiness toward welfare recipients and expressions of cold free-market morality (Dunstan 1996).  Old-fashioned Confucian caretaking of the poor prevailed, but was never enough, given the corruption and pigheadedness of much Qing government.  Local officials could be incredibly hard-working at Confucian causes, however, such as Yang Tingwang, who rearranged several rivers to help his district.  In his few spare minutes from flood and irrigation control, he repaired the local hall of learning, so that “the wine jugs, the vessels, round and square, for holding sacrificial rice or millet, the serving dishes for the salted vegetables and meat, and for the pure meat broth..and fresh meat” were all pure and properly arranged (Dunstan 1996:39).  Other officials provided famine relief and memorialized about it to the emperors. (The subject of famine relief in late imperial China is complex and specialized; see Y. Deng 2020. Suffice it to say there was a huge effort, not at all unsuccessful but eventually overwhelmed by the levels of population and catastrophe in the 19th century.)

A fascinating insight into early Qing environmentalism is provided by Wang Hongdu, in “A Record of Comprehending the Essentials of the Yellow Mountains,” translated by Jonathan Chaves in Every Rock a Universe (2013). The mountains in question are in central Anhui, and are among the peaks that are famous through Chinese landscape paintings.  The larger, older pines were so revered that they had traditional names.  Wang lovingly described every step of every trail, every peak, every spring, all with full attention to the spiritual and religious dimensions, from Zen temples and monks to visionary dragons and Immortals seen in the swirling mists. 

Unfortunately, “ignorant woodcutters cut the pines down for firewood or charcoal…. Yes, the unfortunateness of the pines’ fate has reached such a point!  Would one not rather that before the mountains had been opened up, their light could have been sheathed in the primordial beginnings…even if the pines had never come to be known at all” (p. 108).  In other words, better have the pines unknown to the world than to have them cut.  This level of preservationist sentiment is almost unknown anywhere in the world before Thoreau and Emerson, and is certainly rare in China.  Wang also laments the travelers who miss the Yellow Mountains, or who go there but merely gawk without deeply entering into the spirit of the place.  “For human life is like that of a louse living in somebody’s pants.  Few are the good aspects of it.”  We should therefore fully experience the beauty we can find.  “Sirs, if you do not love the place, then either simply cover your mouths and mock, or, if not, hang your heads in shame and depart!  Ah, one wishes they could put aside their petty-mindedness…. What difference, indeed, is there between what they do and exchanging the Black Dragon’s Precious Pearl for a dung-beetle’s dung-pellet!” (p. 130).  This view of the mountains, rooted explicitly in Daoism and Zen, corresponds surprisingly closely to the Romantic view that was to develop in Europe in the early 19th century. Daoism has been described as “China’s green religion” (Miller 2016; see also Miller et al. 2014 for major considerations of religion and ecology in China).

David Bello, in Across Forest, Steppe, and Mountain, chronicles the westward expansion of Qing and its many contacts with central Asians. The Manchus felt kinship with the Altaic and even Tibetan peoples, though this did not stop them from colonialism including the ruthless genocide of the Dzungar Mongols. The Manchu emperors kept huge hunting grounds in northeast China, and had hunting parks in north China too. Ecoambiguity continued; criticism of these parks and liberating them to farming went on (p. 70). Game continued to decrease. Pine trees were being cut down to harvest pine nuts, a behavior condemned then as now, with the Jiaqing Emperor himself intervening in 1796 (104). Expansion of pioneers into the southern mountains, typically poor Han Chinese referred to as “shack people,” greatly spread maize agriculture (185-244). A group of Torghut Mongols fleeing Kazakh attacks settled in Xinjiang in 1771, were directed to farm, and settled into poverty and hunger, not being familiar with the trade (Bello 2018).

Eric Schluessel’s work Land of Strangers (2020) covers some similar ground. The government tried to “civilize” the Xinjiang people, i.e. make them like Han Chinese, without much success; they rebelled instead. The project goes on, brutally.

An odd sidelight into food in remote Taiwan comes from the career of He Bin, an outrageous rogue in the grand tradition of scoundrels (Andrade 2007).  Among other things, he misappropriated the taxes on mullet, very popular common fish that could be caught wild or farmed.  Working for (and simultaneously against) the Dutch, who occupied Taiwan in the 17th century, he managed, among other things, to channel a great deal of the mullet tax into his pockets.  A tax of 10% on mullet and their roe, during the season for fishing them, was charged, and little of it got past He Bin. 

            Wikipedia says the rice polisher was invented by Sampson Moore in 1861 (British). Earlier, polishing had to be done by hand, laboriously, with grinding substances. Moore’s machine and later ones used talc to grind and whiten the rice, hence need in old days to wash rice very carefully. We careful souls still wash it, to get loose starch off, and because in the old days rice often came with a good deal of dirt and insects in it. I still cautiously freeze imported rice to kill meal moth eggs, though modern processing has generally eliminated such passengers.


            Among other things, soymilk was promoted in the 20th century, from the Republic on into Communist decades (Fu 2018).  It remains popular, but cows’ milk is now common and widespread, and sometimes contaminated with melamine and other dangerous adulterants.

            A story that spans Qing and the Republic, and especially the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, is told by Sakura Christmas (2019).  In one of those amazing articles that starts with a tiny subject and expands to comment brilliantly on the world, she describes the fate of Chinese farmers who displaced Oirat Mongols in the 19C.  “The reclamation that had started with Bagmedorje led to a sinking spiral of renting and selling Mongol lands in order to rescue banner finances, but these pastures had been the very source of economic wealth for the area.  Less land meant fewer herds and a diminished income; as debts mounted, so too did the pressure to rent or sell property, and this cycle would begin anew” (p. 820).  The Chinese turned range into soy fields, but the soil was selenium-deficient, and human deficiency problems started showing up.  Then the Japanese took the area and greatlyly intensified the soy farming, almost entirely for export, so the Selenium was lost to the entire system.  Disease then flared up, especially tuhuangshui (“vomiting yellow-water”) disease, an extreme selenium deficiency that leads to death, especially of women and children.  The sex ratio got as bad as 5:1.  People were misshapen and dwarfed from bone non-growth and pathology.  The Japanese tended to see this as mere proof of the degeneracy of the Chinese, and treated people as animals—taking photos including topless photographs of women to show breast pathologies.  Nothing was done; the deficiency was not understood or investigated.  The author makes this a parable of dispossession followed by ecological overdrive, and then colonialism at its worst leading to real system collapse.  The details and ecological awareness in this article are stunning.

            Fei Xiaotong’s great classic work on Chinese farming in the Republic and since deserves quick mention, though I have treated it in detail elsewhere (Anderson 1988) and need not do more than mention it here (see Fei 1992). The great scholar of agrarian times, Li Bozhong, has updated the analysis (B. Li 2020).

            William Skinner’s notes from Sichuan in the late 1940s are now available (Skinner, ed. Stevan Harrell and William Lavely, 2017). He had a terrible time dealing with warring Nationalist and Communist forces; his field work was increasingly hampered and eventually shut down. However, he got much detail on agriculture, and also lists of foods available in local shops, from noodles and dumplings to swan eggs (“heavenly goose eggs,” p. 187).

Traditional Agriculture in the Mid-Twentieth Century.

            I have described in some detail the success of the old south Chinese wet-rice ecosystem at producing incredible amounts of food in a broadly sustainable way. This system lies behind Permaculture and many other modern systems of more or less sustainable. scientific agriculture. (Of course, nothing in sustainable forever—the sun will explode in about two billion years and vaporize the earth—but meanwhile anything that helps prolong feeding people is a good idea.) The traditional system was best at conserving nutrients, especially nitrogen. My friend Hugh Baker, who did superb studies of social structure in old Hong Kong, in a review of my book The Food of China (1988), commented that south Chinese agriculture “must make nitrogen atoms unfortunate enough to be in other parts of the world feel unloved” (Baker 1989). Indeed.

            In Hong Kong I used to visit Deep Bay to see the oyster beds, observe the culture, and eat oysters. Now the oyster industry has received a superb, comprehensive, wonderfully detailed historic study by James “Woody” Watson (2021), covering its development and practice as far as he could trace it along the Guangdong coast.

            Francesca Bray et al. (2015) have updated us on modern production and trade of rice.

            This may be the place for some rustic proverbs:

In a melon patch don’t tie your shoes; under a plum tree don’t adjust your hat (Rohsenow 2002:G167). The instruction here is to do nothing that will arouse suspicion.

Better one mouthful of heavenly peach than a whole basket of rotten apricots.  (N50)

When people hit bad luck, a mouthful of cool water will get stuck in their teeth. (R31)

If the country has no muddy legs, in the city starvation kills the oily mouths. (S35; no farmers, no eating rich food in the city.)

One day no work, one day no food.  (Y254; the classic Zen monastery commandment.)

Communist Period

            Mao initially bought the Marxist line about the innate backwardness and hopelessness of peasants, which Marx memorably compared to potatoes in a sack (Mitrany 1951). IN spite of his farming background, Mao called Chinese farmers “peasants” (which they are not), and initially dismissed them. Fortunately for them, he came to learn better, but still never developed very rational views about them or how to revolutionize them (Day 2013). Overly fast collectivization led to the disaster of the Great Leap Forward. More recent Chinese scholarship does not fully correct the mistakes of the past, in spite of due hostility to such western economic bad ideas as xin ziyouzhuyizhe (neoliberalism; Day 2013).

            Among many excellent new ethnographies of Communist China, we may mention Mayfair Yang’s Gifts, Favors, and Banquets (1994), for its description of the political uses and manipulations of those acts, and her more recent Re-enchanting Modernity (2020) as a stunning and very detailed description of how religion—including its feasting and foodways—survives despite irregular and erratic Communist persecution. The regime blows hot and cold on religion to keep it cowed and manipulable. Directly relevant is her editorship of a collection of papers, Chinese Environmental Ethics (2021), with many exceptionally good studies. Most go well beyond the trite “China’s concepts of nature are different from ours” and such pearls to discuss actual events in anthropological perspective. A paper by Jeffrey Nicolaisen (2021) notes that Han Chinese may have eaten parts of Taiwan Aboriginals in the old days, on the theory that they were not human. In any case, Taiwanese certainly sacrifice and eat pigs, even Buddhists who are otherwise vegetarian (pp. 48-49). Other papers discuss problems with trees and groves in today’s contentious world.

There is an important new history of the Great Leap Forward, Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone (2012).  He calculates 36 million died, a minimal figure (Dikötter 2010 calculated 45 million, a much more likely sum). Harrell (2020) has also weighed in on the mindless bureaucratism that shored up Mao’s wild ideas, and turned disaster into total catastrophe. Part of the problem was that Mao ordered families to stop cooking their own foods and to eat in canteens, in 1958. This led to theft, cheating, and other problems.

Worst problem for the whole nation was the constant overestimate of production, because Mao wanted to hear only high figures. Food fell more and more short. People resorted to bark and other famine foods. The canteens have been re-created in a perverse outbreak of nostalgia, or perhaps shuddery tourism (Wong and Thuras 2021:123). Science was not wholly banished, as shown in detail by Sigrid Schmalzer (2016), but it took a back seat.

The “struggle against nature” (Shapiro 2001) that almost succeeded in destroying China was fortunately stopped. (Nature has all the cards in that game.) Bryan et al. (2018) record in detail the reversal of Mao’s insane policies and the recovery of much of the country since. The article is too optimistic; there are still enormous problems with coal-burning, desertification, pollution and poisoning of soil and water, wetlands loss, and biodiversity loss (see R. Smith 2015, 2020).

At least the country is actively moving in a better direction. Reforestation is especially impressive (personal observation in China and on satellite images), but sadly balanced out by China’s plundering of Southeast Asian and African forests. They are outsourcing their deforestation. As of 2021, China uses 32% of the nitrogen fertilizer in the world, allowing a 44% increase in crop production between 2000 and 2018. Even so, China still imports a great deal of its food, notably 83% of its soybeans. These come largely from Brazil, and have led to massive deforestation there, including destruction of the unique and biologically super-important cerrado areas. China uses 13% of the agricultural water (i.e., basically irrigation) in the world, at 48% efficiency, far less than Europe’s (H. Zhao et al. 2021). China spares water in the north by bringing more and more rice and other food from the south, where water is abundant for growing it (X. Zhao et al. 2015).

China continues to try to be green yet affluent, but sorely underinvests in preserving natural capital (Ouyang et al. 2016). Sensible environmental measures, such as local recycling, conserving water, and keeping food safe, are common (Schmitt 2016), but still far from universal.

            An important collection of papers on the environment, including excellent studies of food production and land cover, was assembled by Abe and Nickum (2009). Robert Marks’ study of the formation of the Pearl River Delta is particularly valuable for food studies; he assembles meticulous detail on the vast extent of land extension by creating polders (sha tian, Cantonese sa tin, “sand fields”), shellfish farms (which slowly fill in), and other devices. A further study by Ma Jianxiong et al. (2016) adds much detail. Many of the polder creators were former boat-dwelling fisherfolk. These boat-dwellers were often the descendents of shoreline farmers who lost their land; from Qing on well into the 20th century, they began to get it back, or rather to create new land for themselves.

            Chinese counties and districts continue to exaggerate their agricultural production, sometimes up to 100% (G. Liu et al. 2020).

China’s water is depleting. Rampant withdrawal of groundwater goes on in the dry areas and is not being replaced. Dalin et al. (2015) recommend giving up irrigation entirely in areas where it depends on groundwater overdraft, notably around Beijing and in Inner Mongolia. China spares water by importing water-demanding products like beef from elsewhere, but its dryland areas are still facing collapse.

One lake, Dianchi in Yunnan, was totally ruined by mismanagement and pollution, but a monastery saved the golden barbel, a choice fish worth more than $100/kg, while other agents saved a few other items such as some mussels and the edible water plant Ottellia, making restoration possible (Stone 2008).

China surpassed the United States as the leading greenhouse gas producer in the wrold a few years ago, with dismal results, but, again, much is being done to change this (see excellent collection of articles in Fang 2018).

Like many other countries, China wastes about ¼ of its food (Nature 2021).

            Schneider, Lander and Brunson (2019) bring us up to date on pigs in China, with discussions of the pork factories of modern China, where American-style factory farming has unfortunately taken root. China’s wonderful, tough, flavorful landrace pigs are being replaced by western varieties that put on fat and meat fast but have low quality. Dairying is rationalized similarly: Mongolian milk is sealed in tetrapaks and sold as “green,” though current policy is destroying the grasslands and the Mongolian way of life (Tracey 2013).

Western pests have invaded China in vast numbers, just as Asia’s worst pests (such as the chestnut blight and the emerald ash borer) have devastated American trees. America’s pine bark beetles, for instance, are now working through forests there as they have destroyed millions of acres here (Qiu 2013).

Biodiversity continues to decline. The other freshwater dolphins are following the white-flag dolphin into extinction. The Yangtse giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) was down to three individuals, all male, in 2019, and is now extinct or doomed (H. Liu et al. 2019). Other riverine life forms are in similar danger (Jian Wang et al. 2021), including many other turtles (Jun Wu et al. 2020) and the Chinese alligator. Fishing was banned in the Yangzi River in 2020. The Chinese paddlefish is extinct and catches were down “from 420,000 tons in 1950s to less than 100,000 tons now” (Science 2020). The five species of giant salamanders, the world’s largest amphibian, are disappearing. They are apparently tasty, and thus depleted in the wild; an extremely ill-advised plan to collect wild individuals and farm them has failed (they grew but would not reproduce), leaving them in desperate shape (Yong 2018).

Even the Baer’s pochard duck, an ordinary, formerly common duck that has no exotic requirements, is down to a very few hundred birds, thanks to drainage or marshes and local hunting (Tong 2020). Many mammals, birds, and reptiles are about gone. Measures are worthy but inadequate.

Under Xi Jinping, moves toward liberalization were sharply reversed. Hong Kong was crushed—a leading democracy turned into a highly repressed and unhappy city. On the other hand, Xi has had the sense to realize that China was committing suicide, and not just in the long run, by destroying its environment, and he has done a great deal to reverse Mao’s insane policies (Esarry et al. 2020 and Glover et al. 2021 are collections of excellent, important accounts). The problem is that autocrats, so far, have usually fallen into a trap of believing they are infallible while also striving for short-term gains. Making enormous environmental mistakes is thus normal for such regimes, from Brazil to China and from Trump’s America to Stalin’s USSR. The future is thus dusty indeed.

The Qing genocide of the Dzungars is being reprised in the genocidal campaign against the Uighurs (Roberts 2020). Many killings have been reported, but worse is massive cultural suppression: destroying mosques and historical monuments, destroying whole neighborhoods of traditional houses, banning the language quite widely, and massive “re-education” campaigns to force Han Chinese culture on this Turkic Islamic minority. China is very quiet about it, but someone got access to the supply orders for the “re-education” camps, and discovered massive orders for spiked clubs, handcuffs, cattle prods, and other torture implements (SBS News 2018).

The Chinese Communist constitution guarantees protection of minorities and forbids this sort of discrimination, but protests have been brutally suppressed. Genocidal suppression of Tibetan and Mongol culture is only a bit less dramatic; actual genocide of Tibetans was widely known in the 1950s.

            The Portuguese sinologist Gonçalo Santos has summarized almost 30 years of research, including years of field time, in northern Guangdong province, in an important book, Chinese Village Life Today (2021). The village is slowly depopulating as more and more working-age people are forced to move to cities, or to farming areas close to cities, to make ends meet. Food is urbanizing in consequence. Popular influences have arrived. Breastfeeding is less long-continued, being reduced to 2 years or less from 2 to 3 or even 5 before (p. 140; I saw the same thing take place over years in Hong Kong).

            In the meantime, Western astrology has caught on in China, and many believe it, and Virgo got associated with the downvaluing of virgins above marriageable age in China, so now women Virgos are shunned and not dated. This proves that development and propagation of negative stereotypes can happen without any reality or traditional belief behind it (J. Lu et al. 2020). The application to food is that human foolishness is boundless, and lies behind countless food beliefs new and old.

Modern Lore

            China manages to feed itself—almost—by combining traditional, modified traditional, and new agricultural methods.  Aquaculture has exploded, producing most of the world’s aquacultural production.  China has also maintained the traditional silk-fishpond, rice-fishpond, lotus pond, and other water/land interface methods, so unique and brilliant.  A beautiful, detailed, but thoroughly propagandistic article by Janus Dongye Qifeng (2019) gives the Chinese government view, including some gratuitous and dishonest swipes at Tibet—said, for instance, to have subsisted entirely on milk and meat till the Chinese got there and brought vegetables.  The article fails to mention the fact that massive intensive agriculture is unsustainable as currently praticed, due to the huge pollution it generates both from chemical inputs and from agricultural wastes such as pig manure.  Even so, the article is worth investigating for the photographs alone.  Some statistics there:  China eats 45% of the world’s consumed seafood—65 million tonnes (metric tons; 1000 kg) a year; 50 million of these are from aquaculture, including shrimp, crabs, fish, shellfish, and so on.  China produces 66% of the world’s farmed fish.  The integration of silk-raising with water fields (mulberry trees grown on the dikes, as of old) allows China to produce 84% of the world’s silk.  Much of the power is solar; China produces 25.8% of the world’s solar energy.  China also produces 90% of the world’s lotus rhizomes (miscalled “roots” in the article), unsurprising since almost no one but Chinese eat them.  China produces 22% of the world’s rapeseed (this presumably includes traditional Chinese oil mustard as well as canola), using much mud from ponds. 

            China produces about 30% of the world’s honey—543,000 tonnes. This honey is sometimes polluted (as even Qimeng admits).  China produces 79.2 million tonnes of watermelon, out of the total world production of 111 million.  I recall some of us asking a group of ordinary Chinese at a market in 1978 what they would do with a yuan; they all answered “buy a watermelon.”  China leads in many other fruit, but quality control remains a major issue.  China produces 56.3 million tonnes of tomatoes

            China has 1,086 million hectares of agricultural land to India’s 1,579; USA 1,631; EU 1,091.  208.l million tonnes of rice are produced; 257.3 of maize; 134.3 wheat.  The USA figures are 9.2 (we aren’t a rice culture), 366.2, and 47.3.  However, this otherwise relentlessly upbeat article admits that China is losing about 3,000 square km of agricultural land a year, to urbanization and degradation.  The article notes this problem is being addressed by soil conservation, but that devoting marginal land to reforestation instead of farming produces yet another cost to agricultural land—though with an overall increase in welfare as the trees grow and fix carbon. 

            China now leads even in beer, with over 46 million kilolitres produced per year, about twice the US level.  Some 13.6 kilolitres of baijiu (Chinese vodka) is produced, with the article (inevitably) singing the praises of baijiu as superior to vodka or whiskey.  (This is a matter of taste.)  China, as always, has most of the world’s pigs, and produces 54,650 million tonnes of pork, vs. the USA’s mere 12,166.

            Yuan Longping, the “father of hybrid rice,” born 1930, has been receiving more and more honors, including nomination for a Nobel Prize.  His rice has vastly increased yields in China, with rices now yielding over 10 tons/ha per crop (see e.g. Shellen Wu 2021; Yuan 2002).  He used conventional breeding, not genetic engineering.  He supported the latter eventually, however. Toward the end of his life, he was breeding up the salt-tolerant rices of China’s old-time seacoasts to produce rice that can be grown in seawater (Qimeng 2019). He passed away in 2021 at the age of 90.

            Overfishing gets worse every year, as Chinese fleets scour the world’s waters, taking virtually anything and everything, leaving extreme depletion.  This often devastates not only the economic future but the present nutrition of countries that allow Chinese fishing or cannot stop illegal fishing.  This even extends to aquaculture.   Glass eels—larval forms of edible eels—are imported and raised to adulthood on fish farms in China and Hong Kong.  Critically endangered European eels (Anguilla anguilla) come from North Africa and maybe Europe, are imported illegally under CITES.  A. japonica and A. rostrata, treated similarly, arealso endangered but not critically. 

A mangosteen-like fruit (Garcinia sp.) of south China is monographed by B. Liu et al. (2017).

            Tea has received its own art magazine:  The Art of Tea, up to issue 9 as of the end of 2010 (I have not seen it since; it has apparently gone under).  Unsurprisingly, it was supported by the Taiwan tea industry.  It is beautiful and detailed. 

            An excellent book about tea, with many beautiful illustrations, is Luo Jilian’s The China Tea Book (2012). A scholarly tract is Mair and Hoh (2009).

            Going well beyond tea merchandising is Frederick Dannaway’s essay (2010) on the world-in-miniature and tea in China and Japan.  He notes, correctly, that the Chinese do not say “microcosm” or “world-in-miniature” for their bonsai landscapes and compressed urban gardens.  In fact they simply call them mountain landscapes or gardens or even worlds, as if they were the real thing.  And, indeed, they are…you need only look closely (as shown by Stein’s excellent study, 1990).

            Historian Miranda Brown has sought out traditional milk processing that still goes on today.  China’s love affair with dairy foods peaked in medieval times, but yogurt, soft cheese, and other products continue rather widespread.  Learning from central Asia continued during Ming.  Dairy foods turn up in odd places, including Shenzhen, the border town with Hong Kong, where a traditional cheese-like product survives.  Brown has also reported on foreign foods in traditional Chinese cookbooks (Brown 2019) and other matters of Chinese history, and runs a very active food blog.

Breastfeeding, formerly done till the child was two or three (or even till 5; Santos 2021:140, but this may have been a problematic case), is now sharply reduced, because of the pressures of work. Women now labor in factories and other urban jobs, leaving children with grandparents or other relatives. Breastfeeding is recommended by the government but hard to manage.

            Bean starch has an ancient lineage, and jelly made from it goes back to Song. It gelatinizes in hot water. Mung bean starch known and written about since the Qimin Yaosho described how to make the starch: boil beans, leave in water to ferment, mash, soak and stir to separate starch—fenying, “powder essence.” The jelly does not appear in writings till Song but may have been around earlier. Several good Song recipes given, including lungs stuffed with it along with ginger, nuts, sesame paste, and wheat flour; a similar mix (with pine seeds, walnuts, and dill as well as the mung beans, flour, and sesame) was made into a vegetarian “lung” by cutting it in that shape and serving in spicy sauce. Mung bean starch jelly was used in many other mock-meat and mock-seafood dishes. It was compared to jade in appearance. A Ming writer compared mung bean starch with lotus rhizome, kudzu root, and bracken rhizome starches. The jelly is now cut into broad kuanfen noodles, and fensi (bean jelly vermicelli) are common (Liang 2021).

China is, as always, quick to follow global trends. Thomas DuBois and Xiao Kunbing (2021) report on the rapid rise of supermarkets, starting with international chains (including Walmart) but rapidly imitated by locals. Similarly, MacDonald’s and KFC spawned countless imitators, franchising shops for tea, noodles, meat skewers, dumplings, and other staples, with the usual range in quality. TV cooking shows, mass merchandising, name brands, and everything else western has been enthusiastically adopted. Chinese eating will never be the same.

DuBois (2021) has also flagged the importance of culinary nostalgia. Old-time brands and local restaurants are wildly popular in China as of this writing. The items sold and the dishes in the restaurants are not always what they were, but few complain. Food nostalgia is well known throughout the world, and China was sure to follow eventually, though it lagged America and Europe.

Chinese food in Asian context is treated in a series of books by Cecilia Leong-Salobir (2011, 2019; Leong-Salobir ed., 2019).

Current Foodways around China

            A great deal more about Chinese food and caixi—“systems of dishes,” i.e. regional and local cuisines—has come out since 1988.  H. T. Huang’s huge book—the labor of a lifetime—goes into much more detail on wheat products (including alum-raised ones, such as yutiao and some bao) and on flavoring pastes than I can possibly summarize.  There are also many cookbooks with ethnographic detail going far beyond simple recipes.  (A few examples from a large, good literature are Lo and Lo 2003, see previous section; Yee 1975; Young and Richardson 2004).

            Local foodways are covered in a major collection of papers, edited by David Holm (2009).  Sidney Cheung has edited an important volume, Rethinking Asian Food Heritage (2014), with papers on the origins and modern fates of several important, and often little-studied, local food traditions in China and south and southeast Asia; notable, for instance, is James Farrer’s brilliant analysis of the rise and decline of Western-style food in Shanghai during its golden age in the 1920s and 1930s. The western-type food available then was apparently of a very low standard, but it was romantic, exotic, and an important part of the city’s image, so old Shanghai hands clung to it.  They re-created it in Hong Kong (as I well remember from my 1960s time there), only to have the rising young generation scorn it as terrible, unmoved by its hallowed tradition.  Among other outstanding articles are one by May Chang and Cordia Chu on mullet roe in Taiwan.

            Göran Aijmer continues a 60-year career of studying Chinese festivals and rituals, which always involve highly symbolic food (Aijmer 1965, 2003, 2018—a mere thin sample of an enormous bibliography). The 2018 paper compares ritual use and ideas about rice in south China and the Shan groups of Myanmar and India.

            Broomcorn millet, as neglected a major crop as the world affords, has finally received some attention, from Ruiyun Wang et al. (2016).  They describe many uses.  It is parched as chaomi, dry-toasted in a pan, in central Asia.  It is made into suanfan “sour cooked grain,” a fermented concoction with a yogurt-like taste. It is used for the usual noodles, cakes, and buns.  A waxy variety is used for gao cakes, including yougao, oil cake, a deep-fried gao traditional at the Spring Festival and at weddings.  It is also brewed into jiu.  Wedding uses also include limu gao, “cake for leaving mother, and use of jars of millet in dowries (in Hequ, Shanxi; p. 3333).  It is widely cultivated in China, but mostly in the interior north. The seeds are usually yellow or white, but can be red, brown, gray, or black (336).  Many other traits vary too.  The crop is in need of further study.

            A superb, encyclopedic book about tea by Mary Lou and Robert Heiss (2007) covers Chinese tea especially.  It is by a couple who are long-established merchants of top-end tea, so the book is unashamedly promotional; no gritty reporting on the seamy side of the tea industry.  On the other hand, the combination of overwhelming knowledge and deep insight into the tea business produces a quite unique account of the top side. A study of tea in Yunnan’s economy was done by Po-Yi Hung (2015).

            Another phrase for “with-it” is guo fan, “pass grain,” i.e. “helps the food go down,” the precise equivalent of the phrase “it helps the bread go down” recorded by Escoffier from rural France.

            Sticky rice, miscalled “glutinous,” is sticky because it has almost no amylose; the starch it does have, amylopectin, cooks up stickier.  It also brews better, and is thus the usual feedstock for rice “wines” and sakes.  Rice varieties have varying proportions of amylose and amlopectin, and are thus sticky to varying degrees.  The textbook separation of indica, japonica, and glutinous rices does not survive well; there are too many subvarieties, intermediates, and dubiously related sticky forms.

            Rice breeding continues apace; a gene for longer, better-quality, less chalky rice has been found, and is being bred into other rice varieties (Nature 2015, reporting an item in Nature Genetics).

            Eggplants, domesticated in India, were apparently independently domesticated in what is now southern Yunnan (Meyer et al. 2012; the domestic plant Solanum melongena and its purported wild ancestors, S. incanum and S. undatum, turn out to be genetically pretty much the same—all one species).  They go back about as far as any plant records are found, in both China and India.  The garden egg—the variety whose fruit really looks like an egg, oval and white—is apparently yet a third domestication, from southern Southeast Asia. Many other useful fruits are gathered in Yunnan (J. Chen et al. 1999).

            Noodles are made in several ways.  Low-gluten grains like corn and buckwheat are made into a rather wet dough and forced through holes in a colander, directly into boiling water.  This is probably how those 4000-year-old noodles were made.  Bean starch and some wheat/egg noodles are made into lumps or flat sheets and hand-cut.  High-gluten wheat noodles are made in many ways, the most dramatic of which are “pulled” or “swung noodles” (la mian).  For these, the dough is stretched and then swung like a jump-rope, then doubled and re-swung, then doubled again, and so on.  This develops the gluten so much that it produces an extremely chewy noodle.  Swinging the dough without having it neck down and break requires extreme skill.  (Not long ago, the one expert at this in Los Angeles was a Mexican chef working in a Korean restaurant.  Globalization is real.)

Salt in Chinese culture has been the subject of a major monograph by Hans Ulrich Vogel (2009); he reviews every aspect of its production and consumption in late Imperial times, and compares these with the contemporary European world.  Vogel notes, sympathetically, that Chinese add deep-drilling—perfected for salt wells—to the list of the greatest inventions China has given the world, along with paper, printing, the compass, and gunpowder (Vogel 2009:185).

Seitan is wheat gluten used as imitation meat. One can get gluten powder now in the United States (Bob’s Red Mill makes it). Mix, knead, simmer in broth.

            Tangzhong is a roux-type starter for Chinese baked bread. One mixes flour and water, heats, whisks, then mixes into the flour, yeast, water, etc. for the bread. It provides the fluffy but chewy texture that Chinese prefer in bread. It may be from Japanese or possibly from Portuguese usage; Portuguese sweet bread influenced Chinese baking, via Macau.

            Doufu zha is the residue from making bean curd (Japanese okara); it is  locally eaten in north China.

Qing gan cai is green-stemmed bok choy as opposed to the usual white form. Presumably what I have growing in 2021-2 that is so good.

Passion fuit is bai xiang guo, 100 fragrances fruit

Ma nai jiou, kumys (app both undistilled and distilled)

Er guo tou, two pot head, cheap white lightning; 21st-cen usage.

Luohan guo is now Siraitia grosvenorii. Gac fruit, a VN delicacy (under that name), is Momordica cochinchinensis.

Thick NW Ch bread is mo

Huanjing ‘environment’

Gun, “turn,” a cooking time meaning a turn-over of the boiling liquid. Yuan Mei

Boiling and steaming remain the commonest ways of cooking in China. Stir-frying and especially deep-frying and roasting/baking have also become common in recent decades.  The result is not always good for health; fat consumption has soared.  Complex cooking involving several processes has become common in restaurants.  Vegetables are more and more often parboiled before being stir-fried, instead of cut up, stir-fried, and then finished in added liquid.  The latter was the traditional method, at least in the households I knew; but the parboiling step was a gourmet touch, making the result a bit more cui and thus worth the trouble. Cui refers to a mouthfeel: the vegetable is crisp but then succulent, slightly resisting but then yielding, a texture familiar to westerners in well-cooked new peas, string beans, and carrots. It is a desired height of Chinese gourmetship.

The numbing and spicy taste of Sichuan food is known as mala, “hemp and piquant,” the hemp referring to the numbing quality of marijuana; the drug side of the hemp plant (China’s Cannabis sativa) is not as pronounced as that of its Indian relative C. indica, but was quite well known in ancient times. The classic mala dish is mapo doufu, a dish that began (probably in the 19th century) in Sichuan and as swept the world (Erway 2020). The name probably means “the beancurd of the Ma family women,” but there are countless other theories (ma means “hemp” and can refer to smallpox marks, which are vaguely similar to hemp seeds, and some say the dish was invented by a pockmarked woman).

            Seafood gourmetship gets ever more arcane, and ever more fatal to the world oceans (Fabinyi 2012; Fabinyi et al. 2012).  The fisheries of China and the seas around it are depleted, and a zone of extreme overfishing is expanding rapidly through the Philippines and Indonesia and out into the Pacific.  Even American coasts are depleted, by overfishing of things like sea cucumbers and sea urchins.

            Vegetarianism has received some attention lately.  Chinese Buddhists are supposed to be vegetarian, and some non-Buddhists are too; this has led to the development of a vegetarian cuisine.  Buddhist vegetarianism and avoidance of alcohol have received noteworthy attention and excellent review in two articles (Benn 2005; Kieschnick 2005; both in Sterckx 2005).

Ducks may not be raised from the egg with loving care any more (though some probably still are), but the Quan Jude restaurant—Beijing’s classic “Peking duck” place—has flourished and even franchised out.  The owners were sent down to the countryside for being bourgeois, during the Great Cultural Revolution, but they returned (Ni 2004).

Preserving eggs has received brief but thorough monographic treatment from Fuchsia Dunlop (2006), who points out that it was westerners who started calling pi dan “hundred-year” or “thousand-year-old” eggs.  They are aged a few days or weeks.

Milk and milk products used in the past include butter in offerings and milk products consumed by Buddhist monks, among other things (Newman 2011a). 

Tea is the subject of many books.  There has, in fact, been a sudden explosion of books about tea, ranging from brief popular accounts to Heiss and Heiss’ encyclopedic and highly authoritative reference work (2010) and James Benn’s superb history of tea in early dynasties (2015).  An incredibly beautiful book, issued in Thailand, is Tea Horse Road by Michael Freeman and Selena Ahmed (2015); Freeman’s exquisite and scientifically detailed photographs are set off by Ahmed’s unique expertise in tea ethnobotany.

Insects, rarely mentioned at length in Chinese food books, have been treated along with various annelid and other worms by M. Leung (2000).  Cicadas, waterbugs, silkworms, and others are eaten.  Caterpillars and grasshoppers, in particular, saved countless people from starvation in earlier times.  Locusts were so popular they inspired a religious cult (Hsu 1969).  Insects are a major component of southeast Asian fare, occupying e.g. much of the space in the public markets of Cambodia, where deepfried tarantulas are also a delicacy.  Pond snails are popular, and Chinese introduced at least one genus, Viviparus, to the United States, via markets; it still is found therein, but has escaped and gone wild as well (Paul Chace, personal communication, 1987; see also Hanna 1966:37 on V. stelmaphorus).  More exotic is “winter frog”—the fat, with part of the reproductive system, derived from one species of frog in north China (Newman 2000).  One suspects that other frogs are used, because this and other frog dishes are available even in far Los Angeles.  This is contributing to the worldwide disappearance of amphibia.  Turtles are not only popular food, but medicinal, and their fabled longevity makes them a possible candidate for a long-life food (Newman 2004b).  Unfortunately, turtles, like many other animals, are threatened with extinction in China because of their popularity as food and because the Communist government destroyed the traditions of conservation and resource management that had protected China’s and southeast Asia’s environment for centuries.  Deer antlers in velvet may not quite qualify as a food, but are a major product of the deer-raising industry in Taiwan and New Zealand; the antlers are cut off, leading to much pain and loss of blood, but at least sustainably (Tseng 2017).

            Among the saddest cases of failure of conservation is the supply of edible birds’ nests.  These are the nests of a swiftlet, Collocalia esculenta, which makes “white” nests of protein secreted from glands in its mouth.  (Related species produce “black bird’s nests,” not purely mouth secretions, therefore inferior and in need of considerable cleaning.)  The nests are highly regarded as food and medicine, strengthening yin and lungs, good for digestion, and generally tonic.  They actually are made primarily of indigestible long-chain proteins, but include growth stimulants and a unique glycoprotein with immunomodulating value (Kong et al 1990; Langham 1980).  The supply is, however, endangered by overcollecting; increasing demand and breakdown of local social rules on harvesting have led to wiping out the swiftlet in China and making it rarer and rarer throughout its range in southeast Asia (Chiang 2011). Fortunately, the creative farmers of southeast Asia have discovered a workaround: retooling abandoned houses and buildings as swiftlet caves. This has become a big business, and is saving the swiftlets (Wong and Thuras 2021:160).

            China’s environment and agriculture are collapsing fast (see e.g. Johnson 2014), and failure to conserve resources is the worst of many problems.

Mushrooms of many species are important foods in China (Newman 2010b, 2011c, 2019) and especially among minorities.  Many are also exported to Japan.  A huge trade has developed in the Tibetan frontier lands.  Daniel Winkler has chronicled this, and could not resist the temptation to refer to “mushrooming trade” (Winkler 2008, 2009).  Species include shiitake, now Lentinula edodes; maitake, Grifala frondosus; enoki,k Flammuline velutipes;  bamboo fungus, now commercially raised, Phallus indusiatus; and the old usuals (Newman 2019c).

One recent article describes mushrooms of China, with references to early Chinese sources (J. Newman 2010b), and including such unusual species as chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), enoki (Flammulina velutipes), and lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), and followed by an enthusiastic article by her husband Leonard on how to grow shiitake (Lentinula edodes; L. Newman 2019c).  

            An odd item unrelated to cooking as such is the use of restaurant density and quality to assess the wealth, population, and business activity of cities.  Lei Dong and associates (2019) used number and type of restaurants and local ratings of their quality to assess daytime and nighttime populations, businesses, and the like, and checked this against other data.  The restaurants turned out to predict the contours well, so the authors constructed a way of using such data to assess neighborhoods rapidly.

Our knowledge of cooking in the various provinces of China has been enormously advanced by many culinary ethnographies.

Particular distinguished mention goes to Fuchsia Dunlop for her stunning work on Sichuan food, Land of Plenty (2001).  This book not only includes recipes for almost all the Sichuan specialties, but a set of glossaries that give the characters, transliteration, and definition for just about every common Chinese cooking and culinary term, as well as Sichuan localisms, including very obscure ones.  The recipes are, as she says, authentic: they are the way the better Sichuan chefs actually prepared them when she was there in the 1990s.  They are properly rich in garlic, Sichuan brown pepper, and chile, just as I remember real Sichuan food in the old-time cafes in Taiwan that catered to Sichuanese. A later personal memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper (2008), adds more terms and recipes, as well as lively accounts of eating. 

These and other works have established Dunlop as perhaps the leading ethnographer of actual Chinese food.  (A later book by Dunlop, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking, 2012, goes over relatively familiar ground, but has some very unusual but simple recipes; it is, however, a photograph book, not an in-depth study.)  Dunlop has also sought out the full story of Gongbao Chicken, the “kung pao chicken” of worldwide menus.  It was created for Ding Baozhen (1820-1886), the Gongbao (Palace Guardian) for “his honorary title of tutor to imperial princes” (Dunlop 2019:F1).  He came from Guizhou, one of the chile-loving provinces since the 18th century, and later spent much time in Chengdu, Sichuan, where the chicken dish was created for him.  It involves chicken white meat with dried chiles, Sichuan brown pepper, garlic, ginger, white spring onions, peanuts, and “a glossy sauce mixed to a particular degree of sweet-and-sour known as ‘lychee-flavored’” (Dunlop 2019:F4).  Today, different forms of gongbao chicken and many other gongbao dishes are made in Guizhou, in honor of Ding’s memory.  The chicken there can be made with dark meat; it uses the local ciba chiles, in red oil, without the peanuts or Sichuan pepper.  Fuchsia Dunlop continues to produce blogs, recipes, and articles at a monumental rate.

Another major ethnography is Bitter and Sweet by Ellen Oxfeld (2017), a study of food and its social meanings in a Hakka village in rural Meixian, the Hakka center, in Guangdong.  She has watched over two decades the changes from real want to considerable luxury.  Older people remembered real starvation, first in pre-Communist days and then again in the Great Leap Forward.  They revel not only in better food, but in the fact that proximity to the county seat lets them work at better jobs than agriculture.  Many of the young have white-collar jobs, and are buying food rather than raising or even cooking it.  A fascinating contrast of home cooking and city food appears in lists of two Midautumn Festival celebrations put on by host families.  The first is home-cooked:  sea cucumber, chicken and duck feet, squid with chive flowers, pig stomach with celery, lotus rhizome soup, braised dog meat, chickens with ginseng in soup, pomfret (steamed), braised duck, steamed shrimp, red-cooked pork with mushrooms, frog with gren peppers, fragrant veined vegetable (xiangmai cai), and fish and meatball soup.  Another family got the feast catered:  Sea cucumber, pigeon, sweet-sour pork, shrimp with snow peas, duick feet, greens (unidentified), custard-filled sweet dumplings, steamed chicken with ginger, red-cooked pork, chicken and ginseng in soup, fried rice flour balls, steamed fish (Oxfeld 2017:68-69).  Note that many dishes are the same.  This was a county-seat caterer who evidently knew what was appropriate.  But the other dishes are more interesting: home cooking gives us pig stomach, dog, and frog; the restaurant provides sweet-sour pork (presumably a backwash from overseas communities) and other standard restaurant dishes like shrimp with snow peas.  The catered meal reflects less flavor, less effort, more worldliness.  Another feast that “consisted of anumber of standard Hakka country dishes: braised pork…, fried noodles, soup with beef and daikon radish, dog meat, stir-fried peapods and pig liver, fish ball soup, fried lettuce…and steamed chiken with ginger and red chiles” (p. 160); another added shrimp and celery and one or two other items (162). The hotpot is well known and a special treat (168).  People criticize the “liquor and meat” of the cadres in the same terms that Chinese have used for 2000 years.

Jiangnan, classically the home of China’s most prestigious and refined cuisines, has received an excellent study by Jin Feng, Tasting Paradise on Earth (2019). The book is a study of the hallowed traditions, their great restaurants, and the recent commercialization of both in that affluent, tourist-oriented, accessible part of China. The food is not always what it used to be; Jin Feng is a remarkably honest reporter on quality.

Henan, previously a rather blank spot on the culinary map, has had its food chronicled by (once again) Jacqueline Newman (2011d—with recipes). It is noted for fairly plain, straightforward cooking, running heavily to pork, onions, and noodle dishes.  Another blank filled by the intrepid Jacqueline is the northeast (the former Manchuria; Newman 2019b).  She notes its history of game, including deer tails, whkich have to be soaked to make fur removal easy and then stewed “for at least two hours with several Korean pastes and lots of cinnamon” (Newman 2019b:15).  Saqima (Manchu sweets) and sanzi (glutinous rice dumpling “wrapped in perilla or linden leaves” (Newman 2019b:14) are eaten. 

In Shanxi, jujubes are made into a true wine—they are mashed and fermented.  Buckwheat is important there, and is made into noodles, as in Korea and Japan.

In Shaanxi especially (but widely in north China), a sandwich, rou jia mo (“meat in bun”), is a common snack. It is more or less a flattened equivalent of a stuffed bao (see Wong and Thuras 2021:121-2).

            In Fujian, dumplings stuffed with meat and flattened are called bian shi, “flattened eats.”  A round bread baked in a tandur-like oven is kompyang or kompia (nasalized), said to have been invented in 1562 when Japanese pirates were spotting pursuers by their kitchen fires and a storable, precooked food was needed.  Of course this could be one of those delightful Chinese dish origin myths.  The bread is bagel-shaped and could be hung on a pole.  It is native to northern Fujian and apparently other areas (Wikipedia, “Kompyang,” with additional information from Katy Biggs [Hung] on Facebook, June 3, 2015).

            Reported from Malaysia is a strange cake made with lye: ki-a-kueh, “lye cake” (ki is lye, a the Hokkien diminutive, kueh is “cake”); Victor Yue, Facebook posting, Dec. 24, 2021).

In Guangxi, barnyard millet (Echinochloa) is an important grain; its name has spread to maize.  The foods of Guangxi have been described by David Holm (1999).

In Yunnan and elsewhere, a bitter tuber of a water plant, sa pi, comes from a Homocharis sedge.  Pteridium and Osmunda fern shoots are also eaten.  Mallows, chayotes from Mexico, and mushrooms abound.  Yogurt is still widespread.  Lima beans have become very common in Yunnan, and known locally elsewhere. 

The minorities of Yunnan traditionally lived largely by swidden farming, though there are several in the south who terrace hillsides for paddy rice. Shaoting Yin (2001) carried out a long and detailed study of swiddening (translated by Magnus Fiskejö, an authority on Yunnan minorities who could add his own knowledge). Yin defends Yunnan swiddening as being extremely sensitive ecologically (see also Jianhua Yang 2013). For one thing, many minorities have planted alders in abandoned swidden fields. Alders rapidly and heavily fix nitrogen from the air, since they have root-knot microbiota symbionts, as legumes do. Thus the swiddeners refertilize their fields while growing valuable timber. They also know that deforestation dries up mountains. Some groups sow eleusine (Eleusine coracana), locally called “dragon claw” millet; this is a plant from Africa that came via India. The usual millets, vegetables, and rice are grown; the Jinuo have over 71 kinds of it (p. 242-244). Recent replacement of swidden by tea and rubber plantations has been ecologically disastrous (Fiskejö 2021; Wang 2013).

            Yunnan cooking still includes dairy products, including thin sheets of goat cheese (ru pi “milk skin”), said to be from the Bai people.  Related is deep-fried soft goat cheese cubes.  Yogurt survives among Tibetan and related minorities.  The extension of milk products to southeast Asia, and their subsequent contraction from much of the region, was chronicled by Paul Wheatley (1965).  He pointed out that they spread with Hinduism and Buddhism, which use milk products ritually, and contracted with the spread of Islam.  An excellent water-buffalo yogurt survives among the Toba Batak of Sumatera, as a local but important food (personal observation; Richard Lando, personal communication).

            Cheese is also made, astonishingly, in Shunde (Sun Tak in its original Cantonese form), near Hong Kong.  It is made from water buffalo milk, and is fully traditional there. Miranda Brown has documented and filmed three women making it (Brown, Facebook posting, Dec. 11, 2017).  Excellent, thorough research by Sau-wa Mak (2014) found that water buffalo fresh cheese used to be eaten with rice congee for illness, but that stir-fried milk, deep-fried milk, milk in ginger juice, and other modern Sun Tak delicacies are relatively or quite modern inventions, created as sophistication and refinement came to Sun Tak and led to elaborating traditional dishes for fun and profit (a very Cantonese thing to do).  At least in my experience, deep-frying milk involves freezing milk in ice cube form, battering the cubes, and deep-frying them before they can melt. They remain somewhat liquid inside.

Cantonese hot non-vegetarian dishes are yitfan “hot staple-food” (see So 1992:136ff). Cantonese soups and related foods are chroniced by Teresa Chen (2009).

            Highland minorities in western Yunnan grow three species of quinces: the familiar Chaenomeles speciosa and also C. cathayensis and C. tibetica.  They provide much vitamin C, and are medicinally used (as elsewhere in China) for their tannins, soothing value, and ability to sweeten other medicines.  They are pain medicines in Yunnan.  They provide valuable ecosystem services, like other tree and bush crops (Yang et al. 2015).

Basella esculenta, a green vegetable oddly known as “bean curd vegetable,” is eaten in southwest China. 

            One of the large smoky-flavored cardamoms, Amomum villosum, is distinguished (and long has been) as sha ren, not tsaoko.

            Many books and articles on tea have appeared, e.g. Chow and Kramer (1990).

The indefatigable Naomichi Ishige, now probably the foremost ethnographer of Chinese food, has produced a fine review article on dining behavior around East Asia (Ishige 2006).

Finally, on a literary note, a humorous short performance by storyteller An Zhongwen of Hangzhou has been translated (Simmons 2011:476-477).  It is a marketplace dialogue between a dried ribbon fish and a winter melon.  They slang each other in dialect like a couple of peasants.  The ribbon fish boasts not only of his taste but of “containin’ phosphorus, protein, and fat”—An Zhongwen was having some fun with modern nutritional advice.  The winter melon answers that it is “thrifty and practical, moreover easy to cook.”  As well as available for candying and soup.  Also, it could roll over and squash the fish with its sixty-eight catties—88 pounds, a most unusual weight indeed for a winter melon.

Good descriptions of local Chinese cuisines have finally begun to emerge in English.

Shanxi possesses a huge salt lake, the Yuncheng Dead Sea, that has produced salt for 4000 years. It contains sulfates, which nourish colorful algae blooms. Today it is more a tourist attraction and health spa than salt supplier, but salt ponds still flourish (Wong and Thuras 2021:118).

Mark Swislocki (2009) has provided a fine study of Shanghai food and its local meanings—heavily nostalgic, of course.

Fujian food involves, besides the famous red ferment on rice, a flavoring mix often lacking ginger—odd in China (see below).  Raw sea food in wine lees or red ferment is not to the outsiders’ taste, especially since the sound and feel of crunching the shell is part of the pleasure.  Pitahaya, a Mexican cactus fruit, has come to Fujian and elsewhere in southeast China, under the name of “fire dragon fruit” (huo long guo)—a creative name for a scaly fruit of shocking pink and electric green.  New world foods often came first to Fujian, and some odd ones occur, such as a purple field corn similar to rare Mexican varieties—and very good (I met with it in remote rural Fujian in 1999).  Green tea powder is used there, as in Japan.  Fukien “water liquor”—made with yeast, often including the red ferment so beloved there (Huang 2000), and water—is mixed with highly distilled raw alcohol to produce a drink significantly called “tiger piss” (lao hu miao).  Hakka people of the area sometimes skin and smoke-dry field mice for food. 

In Quanzhou, tea was once common, became rare, and is now common again, thanks to the boom in the Chinese tea industry; this is a case of  “re-invented tradition” (Tan and Ding 2010).

            Wuhan food, judging from a very inadequate sample in a restaurant in San Gabriel, involves very chile-rich chopped meat dishes cooked in a pan over the stove; I have seen this in Hunanese restaurants elsewhere.  In my experience, there is not much taste except the basic ingredient and the chile.  The Tasty Dining Restaurant also offers sweet glutinous rice-squash cakes with sesame seeds on top; good, and supposedly loved by Mao Zedong.  Noodles with sesame and soy sauces, dumplings with rice and mushrooms as well as pork, and other small items are major parts of the cuisine.

            Jacqueline Newman (2014a) has spent some time in Dongbei—Manchuria—and provided some notes on the cuisine.  Bears’ paws were traditional, with the left front one preferred, but now the paws must be emulated in bean curd, for bears are rare and protected.  Local game in general is so rare that Newman could never find out what a feilong—flying dragon—was; apparently some kind of pheasant-like bird.  Moose nose was popular there, as in Siberia and aboriginal Canada.  Forest mushrooms and herbs remain available.  Various breads show Russian influence, up to and included sausage baked into a bun and known as pork khleb (Russian for “bread”).

            Guizhou’s cuisine, previously almost unknown to the outside world, has finally received a short monograph.  The indefatigable Jacqueline Newman (2010b) reports both regular and glutinous rice, the usual vegetables, nuts including walnuts, wild sour fruit, and game.  Pickled vegetables are popular, and Newman gives an elaborate recipe (2010b:10).  Dog meat is eaten for strengthening (see also Newman 2011a).  Recipes include a marvelous one for fish in sour soup.  Many snacks and fish dishes occur.  I remember once seeing in a Chinese cookbook a Guizhou recipe for pangolin—an animal eaten because its weird appearance makes it suspect of having powerful qi.  The recipe involved stewing it with every strong-flavored thing in Chinese cuisine, obviously to kill the taste; the animal lives on ants.  (I was reminded of the classic American folk recipe for cooking a coot:  Put the coot in water with a brick; boil till brick is tender; throw away the coot and eat the brick.  I am told that Australians use the same recipe for the cockatoo.)

            In Hubei, the mountainous southern district of Enshi is an outlier of minority groups; people of Tujia, Miao and Dong ancestry live there, though they have now Sinicized and blended into the local Chinese population.  A distinctive cuisine of uncertain origin is locally called “Tujia,” but is really a general local cuisine, eaten by all groups in Enshi.  The local anthropologist Xu Wu (2011) has devoted an entire book to this cuisine—the first scholarly book in English on a Chinese local folk cuisine.  Apparently it is a development of the whole mixed-origin population, since it is based on introduced New World crops and is thus clearly a relatively recent development.  Early account mention millets (including eleusine—now forgotten in the area), barley, buckwheat and bracken fern rhizome starch instead of the New World foods.  A watershed for the area was 1735, when the Qing Dynasty worked to open up the area for farming; settlers including minority peoples moved in, land was cultivated, game was hunted out, and the New World crops began to take over.

The distinctive Enshi cuisine is based on maize flour.  Maize is now thought to have been there since ancient times, and the locals refer to themselves as maize-eaters in contrast with the people of the plains, who are rice-eaters; by humorous analogy, jeeps are “maize-eaters” and autos are “rice-eaters” (Wu 2011:93; page numbers refer to the ms., since the book is in print as of this writing).  Rice is, however, important, and all the ritual grain dishes are made of it.  As elsewhere in China, maize has remained very much an outsider in this regard.

Local vegetables are staples, including wild greens.  The “fish flavor vegetable,” Houttuynia cordata, is popular; the root is eaten with the inevitable chiles.  Wormwood (Artemisia sp.) is another.  The people also eat what the Japanese call konnyaku:cakes of the root starch from Amorphophallus riveri.  One dish is made of smoked pork, smoked sausage casing, sticky rice, regular rice, wild wormwood, and wild garlic.” (Wu 2011:40).  It is eaten at the Spring Sacrifice in the second month.  Another green is Camellia oleifera, traditionally used not only for soup but also for tea in place of C. sinensis.  There are said to be 2000 kinds of medicinal plants (Wu 2011:71).  Famine in the Great Leap Forward led to reliance on sweet potato, fern starch, and even loquat tree bark, which is somewhat poisonous (Wu 2011:151).

Pork and bean curd are as popular as elsewhere.  The rivers have fish, once abundant but now depleted.  Game was once important; old accounts even mention smoked tiger meat (Wu 2011:71) as well as hunting with hawks and hounds (p. 83).  Even today, meat (now pork) is often smoked, harking back to the days when preserving game was a regular activity.

This cuisine, at least the folk form of it, is called “hezha.” It was once considered low, but is now popular, with its own specialty restaurants.  Hezha refers specifically to soybeans ground with water as for making tofu, but it is used as a drink or soup in Enshi instead of being processed into tofu.  It is usually cooked with chopped vegetable leaves for soup.  Sometimes red peppers, garlic, and other hot spices are added, or meat is ground with the soybeans to make a very rich hezha.  Its name has come to be the term for the whole cuisine.  Rice is sometimes cooked with white potato cubes as a starch staple.  This is washed down with the local white lightning, made of maize.  Potatoes—often a staple—are also sliced and stir-fried, then eaten with vinegar-chile sauce.  Sweet potato too can be a staple, sometimes made into a ball of mash.

The people love sour flavors including pickled vegetables (Wu 2011:50).  They especially love sour-and-hot foods (“hot” with chile—la—not necessarily hot in temperature).  They make chile sauces, both with chiles alone and with chopped chile mixed with maize flour.  The latter can be stir-fried with smoked pork or cooked into mush.  Chile is used in everything and is wildly popular, and is pieced out with spicebush (Lindera glauca), a spicy-flavored wild plant; it is said to regulate qi (Wu 2011:48).  Sweetening came from glutinous rice, sweet potatoes, maize stems, and other natural sources, including honey.  The local variant of “five spice” involves brown pepper, star anise, cinnamon, clove, and fennel (Wu 2011:48).  The methods of cooking are the usual ones, but they add “dressing raw vegetables with sauce (liangban) (Wu 2011:51).  A banquet is known as “eating wine” (chi jiu; Wu 2011:52).  Another unique trait (so far as I know) is their category of “rising” (fa) foods, those like konnyaku, egg, sticky rice, and kelp, that stimulate and can exacerbate skin outbreaks (allergy rashes)—more or less a blend of the wider Chinese concepts of supplementing and hot-wet foods (Wu 2011:53). 

New Year is celebrated as usual, but many families eat the banquet a day or two before the actual new year.  This is said to be a Tujia custom, but is in fact rather widely distributed.  Many different explanations are given, showing how many “origin myths” for a common custom can coexist in even a small community.  Often the meal involves a pig head and tail, so the year will have “a good beginning and a good end.”

A large number of taboos and avoidances for pregnant women are known, and the usual high-nutrient postpartum foods are recommended (Wu 2011:193). 

Xu Wu has also studied eating of Artemisia in Enshi.  It is eaten in shefan, or haozi fan (hao means “artemisia”), a dish for the spring sacrifice festival.  Wild wormwood is cooked with the local wild garlic (Allium macrostemon) and other wild greens.  An artemisia meal will involve such other items as smoked pork, smoked pork intestines, dried tofu, shepherd’s purse (wild greens), and so on (Wu 2014a).  Only tender young leaves of wild plants are used.  This can be compared with the widespread use of wormwood in Korean cooking.

Wu has extended her concern to other villages, and their revival of local foods in nongjiale—“Farmers’ Joy”—restaurants.  These provide more or less authentic local traditional foods, but to varying degrees modified for the tourists.  “Stinky”—fermented—foods are generally ruled out, for instance.  The Chinese Communist government’s bureaucratic attitude toward classifying ethnicity is revealed in the change of one village from Han to Tujia to Dong (Wu 2014b:170), all with no change in the people.  They are, in fact, culturally Han and mostly Han by ancestry, but classifying them as minorities helped them get a tourism industry started, with—of course—food. 

Wu has also done a fascinating article (2015) on food and pilgrimage on Wudang Mountain.  Here, local gathered foods were ignored and considered uninteresting, but pilgrimage tourism has now made them a hugely popular local specialty.  Farmers and cooks have opened restaurants along the pilgrimage route.  Some have started to cultivate plants formerly gathered in the wild.

China’s traditional contempt for rural and minority cultures has changed to nostalgic love for them, with a newly discovered reverence for “original ecology,” i.e. a romanticised version of the traditional adjustment of local people to their landscapes.  This is partly western-derived, partly derived from China’s own strong and ancient counter-tradition of loving rural landscapes and people.  Communist “modernizers,” who mix modernizing with Han chauvinism, have variously judged negatively the eating of wild animals and plants, eating in a different pattern from standard urban Chinese, drinking much rice wine, drinking with straws, and of course those “stinky” foods (Wu 2014b:164)—though Han foods include some stunningly fragrant ferments, from fermented bean curd to Sichuan pickles and bean pastes.  Wu provides a long, detailed, and well-referenced discussion of Chinese cultural attitudes toward traditional foodways.

From Hunan, we have “the strange tale of General Tso’s chicken” (Dunlop 2005).  General Tso’s Chicken is a common Hunanese dish today, but does not fit the usual Hunanese cooking style, and is not known in Hunan itself outside the capital.  Fuchsia Dunlop tracked it down to an innovative Hunanese chef who invented it in Taiwan (after the Nationalists took refuge there) and then moved to New York, where he Americanized the recipe.  It now bears more resemblance to American Chinese restaurant fare than to anything native to Hunan.  Dunlop points out that it fits a common pattern of naming a dish after a general or other famous individual who might have enjoyed it.  In this case as in some others, it was invented long after the actual General Tso passed on.  The dish has mutated now into many variants, often named after quite imaginary generals with similar-sounding names.  Anglo-American foodies love to demonstrate their knowledge of Chinese food by saying it is not a “real Chinese dish,” but of course it is as real as any other, just not as hoary with antiquity.

More truly Hunanese are a cold dish of cucumbers with garlic and red pepper flakes, marinated in soy sauce; thin-sliced mutton stir-fried with cilantro, garlic, and cut-up fresh jalapenos; pork intestines; smoked duck; and, in general, incredible amounts of cut-up jalapenos or similar chiles in just about every dish.

Wenzhou, an isolated port city in southern Zhejiang, has a distinctive dialect of Wu, or separate language in the Wu group, and an equally distinctive cuisine, with its own dumplings, salads, and sother usual types of dishes.  Being on the sea and cut off from the rest of the world by mountains, it specializes in sea foods, ranging from edible fish skin with garlic to crab and pork dishes.  The indefatigable Jacqueline Newman has chronicled this cuisine as well as many others (Newman 2012d).

Fujian cuisine includes a jelly made from the nuts of Castanopsis spp., very bitter chestnuts.  The nuts have to be ground, leached with water, and the resulting mush pressed through a strainer; the result is made into jelly.  The process is similar to Korean acorn-jelly production.  The trees are saved in fengshui groves, which often become largely this genus, another proof that fengshui groves are working forests, not some result of bizarre and idle belief.

A sort of extension of Fujianese cuisine is the cuisine of Taiwan, now enriched by north Chinese, Shanghainese, Hakka, and other immigrants.  An amazing paean to the humble noodle and dumpling houses of Tainan has been penned by S. J. Ren, a true gourmet in his awareness of perfection in cheap breakfast and snack cuisine, in a bilingual book descriptively titled The Rise and Fall of Some Small Noodle Shops in Northern Tainan: A Historical Survey (2014; thanks to my erstwhile student Toni Snyder for finding this wondrous item)It is a fine introduction to the really traditional food of the island.

Fishing by burning sulfur to attract fish to the light is a dying art in northern Taiwan (Wong and Thuras 2021:129).

More substantial is an amazingly thorough and expert work, A Culinary History of Taipei by Steven Crook and Katy Hui-Wen Hung (2018).  It is in fact an introduction to the food of the whole island, including Aboriginal food, otherwise almost undescribed in western-language sources.  Various fermentation techniques are used.  Rodents are eaten, sometimes intestines and all.  Snakes and mushrooms are foraged, and wild boar regularly hunted.  Sweet potatoes were the poverty food and often the staple in the old days, and remain popular, partly from nostalgia (103-104). Dutch influence is seen not only in the name for peas (ho lan dao, “Holland peas,” as elsewhere in China) but also in a local name for cabbage, ko le cai, the first syllables being Dutch cool (“cabbage,” cf. German kohl, English cole).

Agriculture continues its sad decline, as cheap food imports become ever more available, but specialty farming flourishes (97-118).  Rice is still grown, but Taiwan’s formerly great production of sugar and pork is long gone.  Ponlai rice is still grown, and fed into the Green Revolution rice. 

Interesting plant foods adopted by the Chinese from the Austronesian aboriginals include pickled fruit of pobuzi, Cordia dichotoma, a plumlike tree (p. 17-18; the Maya of Yucatan pickle a very similar fruit from a closely related tree) and seeds of maqaw, Litsea cubeba, a peppery spice from another tree (p. 21).  Perhaps the most interesting is a native Taiwanese quinoa, Chenopodium formosanum, with reddish seeds; it is generally known by the Paiwan (Austronesian) name djulis (118) and is becoming popular with the wider population.  It has medicinal value, under study currently.  Another oddity is leaves of a Chinese brown pepper relative, Zanthoxylum ailanthoides, known as tana to some Aboriginal groups and cicong in Mandarin (21).  The young leaves are high in vitamins.  Another Aboriginal special plant is a mint, Chinese mesona or Platostoma palustre, used for a jelly called “grass jelly” (154).  Wikipedia informs that it is xiancao in Mandarin, sian-chhau in Taiwanese Hokkien, leung fan chou in Cantonese.

Among other vegetables rather strange to most of China are “crested floating-heart of white water snowflake…Nymphoides hydrophylla; a daylily Hemerocallis disticha; a fern, Diplazium esculentum, guomao in Chinese; areca palm flowers; and chayote, whose young shoots are excellent eating and are known in Taiwan as “dragon’s whiskers” (longxu) (pp. 102-103).  Most obscure is jabuticaba, a South American fruit (Plinia cauliflora, syn. Myrciaria cauliflora) superficially similar to grapes, but growing on the trunk of a large tropical tree.  How it got to Taiwan remains obscure, but it is now popular there (107).  The native fig Ficus pumila has a choice local variety, gathered wild; it is a traditional food of the Austronesian groups, with many local names (107).

Among the Chinese, salted mustard greens are a major staple.  A sad Hokkien proverb describing the sad fate of women is cha-bo-gina-a, ku chhai mia; cha-bo-gin-a, lu chhai chi mia—”a girl child, a chive’s fate; a girl child, a mustard seed’s fate.”  Cut down or mashed without thought (p. 14).  They note (p. 31-32) that Chinese satay sauce (Hokkien sa te, which became Mandarin and Cantonese shacha) is now fairly different from the Indonesian original; in Taiwan it now has soy oil and Chinese spicing instead of peanuts and Indoneesian spices.  Hong Kong’s form is closer to the original, but sometimes includes spiced soybean pastes.  Pork floss and geng stews are common—a bit of ancient Chinese food ways surviving today (35).  Bean curd is popular, incliuding the infamous chou doufu, “stinky tofu”—fungal fermented until it greatly resembles the most extreme German soft cheeses.  Vegetarianism is popular in Taiwan, with its Buddhist heritage and western influence.  Many fruits have names that pun with desirable things, as youzi “pomelo” and “to have a child” (with a tone difference). 

            A fad word as of this writing is “Q”—just the English letter. It is actually the Hokkien word k’iu, designating the texture for which the Mandarin word is cui—a succulent but somewhat resistant bite, slightly chewy but moist, like ripe fruit or tender young greens or glutinous rice preparations (Crook and Hong 2018:74; also from Victor Mair, email post).  Ideal Q is the texture or mouthfeel of good rice cake—springy and elastic, then chewy (Qin 2018).  The etymology is obscure.  There is a current fad for Q foods.         

Crook and Hung give the whole festival calendar with its appropriate foods (pp. 76-83).   These defy summary, but the account of mooncakes (p. 80) deserves special note.  Mooncakes have been getting smaller and lower in calorie lately, as elsewhere.  Warming foods for winter include lamb ho pot, ginger duck, and sesame chicken in wine; cooling foods for summer include mung bean porridge (with its cool green color), lotus-leaf porridge, and the lower-calorie, more sour vegetables (83).  Celebratory roadside banquets, open to the neighborhood, are bando (84).  Austronesian festivals are rarer, but feature millet, the ancient crop among these groups (82).   

The traditional Chinese custom of “sitting the month” after childbirth involves highly nutritious, protein-rich foods, as elsewhere, but also includes rice wine (94-95).

Cannibalism, so often alleged without evidence in China, was occasionally practiced in Taiwan, as actually observed by at least three outsiders.  As in mainland China, parts of executed criminals were eaten as a strengthening or courage-giving medicine.  Headhunters ate the brains of victims (Crook and Hung 2018:57). 

Western food came rather early, via Japan or via Russian refugees (p. 67).  Bakeries selling western-type goods now abound, as of course do the international chain eateries.  Beer, wine, sake, and award-winning whiskey have been added to traditional white lightning (baijiu made from kaoliang, or, for cheaper forms, sweet potatoes and the like; 160).  The Aboriginal groups prepare a cloudy millet wine (like that of the Wa and other southeast Asian minorities), sometimes fermented by chewing like Andean chicha, and sometimes mushy enough to be eaten with a spoon, like Southeast Asian tapai.

A particularly fine study of Aboriginal life, provided by Scott Simon (2015), discusses dog and pig keeping by the Atayal people of Taiwan. The dogs are used for hunting, and are also beloved pets. The Atayal have a comprehensive moral ecology reminiscent of similar systems in other small-scale traditional societies (Australian tjukurrpa, for example).

Hakka food, long obscure and poorly described, finally found a serious and worthy champion in Linda Lau Anusasananan (2012), a California Hakka (married to a Thai, hence the notably un-Hakka last name), in The Hakka Cookbook.  She was raised in northern California, where her father had a Chinese restaurant.  She became a food writer, and later traveled the world to explore her heritage and its transformations.  Hakka speak a distinct language.  They immigrated from the north to southern China in successive waves—she lists five—around one to two thousand years ago; they localized in a wild upland area where Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangzhou meet, which, as G. William Skinner pointed out, was something of a dead zone between the downstream-oriented and coast-oriented centers of those provinces.  She cites Lo Hsiang-lin (Luo Xianglin) as holding the Hakka came from north China from the Han Dynasty on, and also challenges by others who maintain that they are semi-assimilated local minority groups.  I interviewed Lo in Hong Kong in 1966 and have high respect for him as a scholar, and I agree with him; however, of course the Hakka have mingled over time with local minority people and assimilated them.

The Hakka were forced to work hard to survive, and to defend themselves against older-established groups that felt the Hakka were interlopers (“Hakka” means “guest households”—Mandarin kejia).  They developed a simple but exquisitely flavored cuisine that runs heavily to pork (stewed or minced), mustard greens (often salted or pickled), and other vegetables.  Stretching the pork by stuffing vegetables and tofu with it is a trademark.  Spinal cord of a cow is a delicacy.  I have always loved Hakka food, which manages to be surprisingly subtle and complex in spite of its mountain simplicity.  Their poor homeland made them quick to adopt New World plants that would grow in rough hill country, from maize and peanuts to chiles and sweet potatoes, and these are now an important part of Hakka life.

Linda Lau Anusasananan provides all the classic recipes (though sometimes more “modernized” that I like).  She also gives an amazing kaleidoscope of recipes from all the places the Hakka have gone.  Their montane homelands are poor and barren, so the Hakka have dispersed over time, first to Hong Kong and other coastal areas near their home, then to the whole world.  There are now said to be 75 million Hakka scattered over the world (p. 6).  They have learned to do everything from pickling chiles and lemons (neither of which are native to Hakka-land) to making full-on Indian curries and Peruvian ceviche.  Anusasananan provides recipes from Mauritius, Peru, Hawaii, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and elsewhere, often involving blends with local cuisine.  India/Hakka food is particularly amazing, but all the adaptations are testimony to the incredible creativity of Chinese cooks in general and Hakka ones in particular.   

Fish are still raised in rural Hong Kong—protected heritage fish ponds present an unchanged landscape contrasting strangely with the high-rises of Yun Long.  The fish bring 12-15 HK dollars per catty but cost 12 per catty to raise, so it isn’t very profiatable and children are not picking it up as a profession. 

Cantonese food is more elaborate than ever, but the simplest of its dishes, “yat ka mien,” remains with us on American menus.  The name simply means “one order of noodles” (Gray 2011).  Another simple food that persists is pun choi, “basin dish,” a large stew-up of meats, traditionally prepared by men, in quantity, for ancestral feasts and commemorative rites and for weddings.  James Watson (1987, 2011) provided a classic study of its important role in village life; it was a core of the festivals that brought village people together and created solidarity.  It has more recently caught on as a restaurant dish (Cheung 2012) and tourist attraction (Watson 2011).  It involves once-inexpensive village foods:  “dried pig skin, dried eel, dried squid, radish, tofu skin, mushroom and pork stewed in soybean paste” (Cheung 2012:4).  Fancier ingredients are now added.  A restaurant in Ohio advertised “too hard to translate soup”—the dish was a homemade dough drop soup (dough in small balls dropped into water), but the Chinese for these dough drops literally means “pimples” (from Victor Mair’s Language Log blog, Sept. 1, 2018).

Another Cantonese touch is referring to carrots as “the ginseng of the poor” (Z. Liang 2013).

Simpler yet is rice, but its role in Cantonese life is important enough to inspire a major book, Gourmets in the Land of Famine by Seung-joon Lee (2011).

Ha kaau (Mandarin xia jiao), the shrimp dumplings that may be the most beloved Cantonese snack, came originally from the village of Wufeng in the Haizhu district (Leo Lok, Facebook post of July 24, 2021).  Their almost inevitable companion siu mai may be Mongolian; it is shumai in Mandarin, mai meaning “wheat” (Katy Hung, Facebook post of Jan. 4, 2021), though Cantonese uses a different character that in Mandarin is mi.

            The famous taan t’a or “dan ta,” “egg tarts,” are derived from pastel de nata, famous exemplar of the pasteis de Belém, the latter word referring to a monastery in Portugal that made them famous. An anticlerical liberal administration took over Portugal in 1820, and a company was set up to save the Belém monastery and its foods. The pastry had probably spread to Macau long before that. In any case, from Macau it spread to the entire Cantonese world, and thus the entire globe today.

Shunde (Sun Tak) has a distinctive cuisine, very rich, with mild and subtle flavors; many fish dishes.  It is very popular now (2013) in Guangjou.  Delicacies include sandworms, snake belly meat (various species of rat snake are on the menu), turtles, chestnut cake (stuffed pancake), all sorts of fish.  Pork hocks are cooked in a sweet sauce much like an American ham sauce. 

Chen Village fen is rice paper with pork bits and soy and other saucing; it is simple but great.  A really good sweet is glutinous rice cake with jujube mashed with some brown sugar. 

Graham and Elizabeth Johnson spent a lifetime chronicling the town of Tsuen Wan in Hong Kong. During this time, it changed from a cluster of old-fashioned brick houses to a skyscraping city of highrises. The last old-timers persist in the last brick homes. Among foodways recorded are the ceremonial cakes for Chinese New Yeark, a local specialty. These are chahgwo and goubaahn, sweet rice cakes with or without peanuts. There are also “year cakes,” nonsweet sticky rice cakes with radish, green onion, preserved meat, mushrooms, and the like. Small cylindrical chahgwo for Qing Ming Day (3rd day of 3rd lunar month) were called jeuijaibaahn, “little boy’s penis cakes.”  Types of chahgwo occurred at some other festivals, incl black herbal ones for Dragon Boat (Johnson and Johnson 2019:36-37). The book is a beautifully written and highly nostalgic account of the changes in a wonderful, close-knit, friendly little community that is on the verge of being finally absorbed into the vast urban mass of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s famous floating restaurants are largely gone, but a huge one, the Jumbo Kingdom, survives at this writing. These began as Boat People eating places, but caught on with tourists and were turned into floating palaces by land-dwelling entrepreneurs. The food in the old days was overpriced and cooked for volume feeding; I hope the Jumbo is better (see Wong and Thuras 2021:125).

The boat people themselves are almost all on shore now, not only in Hong Kong but even in Guangzhou (Dixon 2018). Boat-dwellers are said to exist still on remote rivers and coasts.

In a market in Guangjou I noted several new items to me in January of 2013.  One was cow milk jujubes, huge jujubes as big as apples and green in color.  Another was gobo root, huai shan (water radical, huai phon; mountain).  Passion fruit was sold as hundred-fragrance fruit, and enoki as golden-needle mushroom.  Snow lotus was a crisp root, somewhere between a yam and a radish.  A real yam was called fen ge.  Tiger head chile is California chile.  A new fruit is jitan guo (chicken egg fruit)—much like a yellow sapote.  It isn’t in Hu.  It may indeed be a kind of yellow sapote.  Concholepas from Mexico has now come to Hong Kong as an abalone substitute.

Rosemary is now available in Guangjou herb shops.  So are all too many dyed gouji berries and Cordyceps; phony or low-quality cordyceps, dyed orange, is a staple.  The real thing is worth more than gold, and rather hard to find there.  Live scorpions, however, abound.  Crocodile meat may be found, and soup of it is taken for asthma (xiao chuan bing).  A new herb is snow chrysanthemum, a bright orange dried daisy flower.  It makes the best herbal tea I have ever had.  It is in Hong Kong too, as are huge thick slabs of Vietnamese cinnamon bark, used to treat allergy to meat, among other things.

New tim sam include a baxing jiaozi stuffed with peanuts, and very small bits of carrot, cabbage and meat, and a fen kok with very succulent and well-spiced thin-sliced roast or steamed beef wrapped up in the noodle skin, then decked with cilantro.

            Cantonese use of food for insulting people never ends. Haam jyu sau, “salty pig’s hand,” is Cantonese for a groper. Mandarin zhu shou “pig’s foot” means the same, and led to some embarrassment when a Chinese market posted a sign “German Style Sex Offenders” over a display of smoked pork hocks (photo widely circulated on Internet).

            Cantonese shrimp sauce, made of shrimps in salt such that they autodigest, has expanded in Beihai, Guangxi, to include ghost crabs caught on the beach. Pollution is controlled to keep them flourishing. The sauce is extremely popular there (Wong and Thuras 2021:121).

On a different note, there are now maotais costing over $200 per bottle.  And yak meat may now be had in Guangjou as well as Tibet and west China; it tastes like good beef.

Macau has its own cuisine (see Sales Lopes 2010). This went unchronicled, partly because Macanese tend to be quite secretive about it, holding tight to their special family recipes. Finally, it found a devoted historian in Annabel Jackson (2003, 2020). She records wonderful stories and family records, discusses the place of cuisine as critically important heritage and ethnic marker, and provides histories of the incredibly complicated origins of the cuisine. Basically the effect of Portuguese setttling in a Cantonese area, the cuisine was enriched from the start by foods from all the other places the Portuguese colonized, even Brazil, which contributed everything from chiles to specific dishes. Africa provided a surprising amount of ideas, including “African chicken,” a famous Macanese specialty that was invented in Macau by a Chinese chef but with true African antecedents. Another major influence came from Goa, the Indian colony that was a major focus of Portuguese activity in Asia. Melaka also contributed, providing Malaysian foods. Of course, Portugal’s own contributions, from Belem egg tarts—now Cantonese taan ta—to sausages. I remember old-time Portuguese markets in Macau, and goods reaching Hong Kong. One could buy vinho verde, the wonderful “green wine,” as well as Portuguese cheeses, sausages, and canned fish. Bacalhao, the dried salt cod that is Portugal’s signature food, was in evidence. Macanese food has now gone worldwide, with the dispersal of Macanese following Communist Chinese takeover in 1999.

Western food came into Hong Kong not only with the British and Portuguese, but with Chinese and White Russians moving down from Harbin and Shanghai. Chinese cooks opened western-style restaurants as early as the 1860s. The flight of Russians from eastern Russia to China after the 1917 revolution and 1917-21 civil war cretaed a huge Russian population, often food-conscious and able to cook. Russian restaurants became a Christmas tradition in Shanghai and then in Hong Kong. (The last of the Russian colony largely moved to San Francisco in the later 20th century, merging with the Russian settlers in the west-central city.) A western cuisine known as “soy sauce western” arose from a fusion of Russian, British, and Cantonese, the Cantonese toning down strange spices, adding soy sauce to soften flavors such as gamy meat, using more vegetables, and otherwise nativizing the cuisine (E. Cheung 2021). I well remember the old Russian restaurants of the 1960s, already drifting away in a Cantonese direction, from anything Russian. They are gone now. “Soy sauce western” restaurants, such as the well-known Tai Ping Koon, lasted into the 2010s, but they too have largely vanished, in spite of nostalgic visits by old-timers.

Teochiu (Cantonese Chiu Jau or “Chiu Chow”) cuisine remains little known in the English-speaking world, but apparently is covered by Chinese cookbooks.  There is said to be a cookbook: Jia! The Food of Swatow and the Teochew Diaspora, by Diana Zheng, but I can’t locate it so far.  The indefatigable Jackie Newman (2015) reminisces about feasts of duck soup, braised goose, soupy sweets, oyster omelettes sometimes wrapped in bean curd skin, and other items.  She knows this food mainly from Singapore, where they have adoped sa cha or satay—i.e. satay—sauce.  They also produce “hot pot made with many leafy vegetables, yams, and tapioca flour.  The yams are sliced very thin” (p. 10).  Another new dish to me is “a fish salad made with fried or fresh fish and fried shrimp.  It has five-spice powder, plum [mei] sauce, preserved vetebales, radishes and carrots, and fish balls they call dumplings” (ibid.).  This sounds wonderful.  Yet another is spring rolls in bean curd skins, and a congee made with sour mei, among other things (p. 11).  (Wikipedia has directions on how to salt, pickle, and make sauce from mei.) 

A recent study of food shops in Shantou (Swatow) by Guang Tian et al. (2018) describes five famous and long-established shops, selling, respectively: taro cakes and soup; various foods and meat products; bamboo shoot cake with dried shrimp and other cakes; dry noodles with pork and onions and soup with pig parts and fish balls; and stuffed pig intestines, horseshoe crab cake, and zongzi.  The last three are now state-owned, the first two remain private.  Shantou and Teochiu are adjacent and culturally similar.

Some new Shanghainese items to me in 2013 were salted duck eggs (mild, with slightly runny yolks; very good); small river shrimp with Chen kong vinegar; finely slivered baby bok vchoy with mushrooms and meat threads.  Extremely small baby bok choy is “chicken feather” bok choy.

            Chinese names for dishes continue to delight.  Thin noodles with ground meat and oil (and lots of chile) are “ants climbing on trees,” because the bits of meat stick to the noodles and look like ants on trees—if you have a lot of imagination.  A Beijing sweet delicacy is “ass rolls about” (or “donkey rolling in sand”)—a sweet glutinous rice cylinder rolled in crushed bean meal.  The rolling process reminds one of a donkey rolling on sand to scratch his back.  “Across the bridge noodles” is a Yunnan dish in which noodles are poured from one pot into another to finish cooking; the name may come from that, but there is an origin myth involving an elite boy forced to study all the time, and isolated for the purpose on an island in his parents’ garden, food being brought “across the bridge” by his family (Lo and Lo 2003; see ref. in preceding section) or by his long-suffering wife (Freedman 2018, who makes this a theme of her book).  Such cute stories explaining the name of a dish are not to be taken on faith, since the Chinese love nothing better than to make up such tales.  “Lonny,” who I assume to be Leonard Newman, has made up a whole list of wild names:  “Buddha’s navel” is a sesame sweet with fruits and sweets, from Wuxi.  “Bright Pearl in the Hand” is “deboned duck feet topped with shrimp paste and a quail eg, from Anhui.”  “Cats ears” are “stir-fried flat pieces of wheat or sorghum pasta” from Shaanxi.  “Dragon plays with a pearl” is “breaded whole shrimp wrapped with fish, from Shandong; “dragon Playing with Cold Coins” is “eel and shrimp patties with oil, fom Beijing.”  “dragons Fight Tigers”  Snake, cat, chicken, and fish-maw in a soup, from Gunagdong.”  I know a version of this as “dragon, tiger and phoenix”—snake, cat and chicken in a soup.  “Four Stars longing for the Moon”  Carp in a spicy sauce surrounded by foiur other dishes: from Jiangxi.   General Takes Off His Cape:  Eel stir-fried with mushrooms and bamboo shoots: from Hunan.  “Hundred Birds Bowing to Phoenix: Chicken and soup with dumplings; from Hunan.  Lady’s Jade Hairpin: Green stuffed chili peppers with pork and shrimp; from Guizhou.  No More Time: Banana, candied orange, and melon batter-fried; from Chaozhou.”  (This is probably a pun, but too arcane for me.)  “Red Cliffs Burning: Turtle with chicken, ham, and Steamed egg cake: from Shanghai.”  (“Burning” is sure to be an allusion to the ham, which is “fire leg” in Chinese.)  “Toad Spits Honey: Sesame wrapped biscuit stuffed with red bean paste; from Beijing.  Wok Brushes: Open-topped pork dumplings with frilly edges: from Guiyang.  Xixi’s Tongue: Dough filled with date and nut paste and seeds; from Hangzhou.”  (Presumably a reference to the legendary beuaty Xishi; “Lonny” 2016:9.)

A fascinating email exchange in August of 2011 between Andrew Coe, Fuchsia Dunlop, myself and several students and Chinese cooks revealed half a dozen unrelated and mutually incompatible origin myths for the name gu lou yuk, the Cantonese for sweet-sour pork.  It literally means “murmuring and muttering meat,” probably with reference to the sound of cooking the dish.  Some say this could come from a homonymous phrase meaning “ancient-old meat,” but this is unlikely, since there is nothing ancient or old about the dish.  There is a persistent myth that it is a euphemistic way to say guai lou yuk Cantonese for “foreign devils’ meat,” because the dish was devised for westerners.  (It is based on traditional recipes used for pork ribs and for yellow croaker fish, but  was created in the 19th or early 20th century for foreigners, who love sweets and do not want to deal with bones.)  Non-Chinese who are would-be sophisticates take delight in bashing this dish, but a team of leading Chinese chefs who visited Los Angeles in 2013 evaluated one high-line restaurant by its sweet-sour pork, and said this is a standard dish to test a cook’s skill (Gold 2013).  It is not at all easy to make well; it can range from superb to inedible.

            Moon cakes are evolving; heavy, sickly-sweet, and doughy, they are unpopular today, so low-calorie forms are evolving, as well as variants using new ingredients.  They too have spread to the United States and become liberated from traditional contexts (Langlois 1972).

            The tea house as ordinary people’s office, a social institution I described in the book, has finally received proper and deserved historical attention (Wang 2008).

            Tea itself has caught on worldwide, of course, more than ever.  A major art exhibit has chronicled its rise and spread over historic time and over the world (Hohenegger 2009).  The latest fad, as of this writing, is for aged Puer tea from Yunnan; excellent ethnographic and historic research has revealed much about this delicacy (Yu 2010; Zhang 2010).

The Maya-domesticated pitahaya cactus is now universal in east Asia under the name “fire-dragon fruit” or just “dragon fruit” (long guo).  The latest New World fruit (as of around 2010) to arrive in China is the passion fruit, bai xiang guo, “100 fragrances fruit.” 

The classic meat dish “Buddha jumped over the wall” (it smells so tempting that a Buddha would break his vegetarian vows and leap for it) is made by very slowly braising sea cucumber, shark fin, deer sinew, fungus, abalone, dried scallops, snow fungus, fish swim-bladder, turtle, and medicinal herbs such as ginseng.  Other, less exotic ingredients are often substituted for the rarer ones.

There is a scurrilous rumor that 90% of the maotai sold today is “fake,” whatever that may mean of a spirit which at best is neutral grain alcohol.

            Cannibalism, always fascinating to humanity, continues to receive attention.  As noted in my book, famine drove people to eat human flesh on many occasions, but literature fantastically exaggerated the extent of this, and Yenna Wu has analyzed the issue (Wu 1996).

            The indefatigable Jacqueline Newman has assembled a set of interesting etiquette notes about chopsticks:  Never knock them on the table, ‘because these are the sounds of beggars asking for food”; do not stir food in the dish with them or dig into a dish with them; “do not stand them upright in a dish” because that is too reminiscent of incense sticks or chopsticks in the bowls of sacrificial food for the dead (Newman 2017a:13).

More on Cooking Strategies:  Some Thoughts for “Slow Food” Devotees

            Chinese food is the original fast food.  Stir-frying takes seconds, or at most a very few minutes.  Food was sliced very thinly and evenly, with maximum surface area exposed, to allow it to cook at maximum speed.  Tender young ingredients are used, partly for taste, but partly—again—for quick cooking.  “Small eats” (xiao shi, the collective term for snack dishes) are sometimes slow to make, but they are sold on the street for eating on the run.  Even slower processes like steaming and soup-making are done fast in the Chinese kitchen.  Baking was speeded up by making the baked items extremely small.  Persian nan, typically about 30-50 cm long, shrank in China to become the shaobing, only about 10 cm.  Baking was done at high heat in very efficient, fuel-sparing ovens or large pots (derived from the Indian/Central Asian tandur). 

All this has everything to do with the incredible difficulty of obtaining fuel in the old days.  I well remember the scarcity and high price of wood and other fuels, even after kerosene and bottled gas came in.  All Chinese cooking is shaped by the need to cook everything with the absolute minimal amount of fuel.  I have seen a full meal for a family cooked with a handful of grass.  Stoves, dishes, and recipes are all exquisitely adapted to this.  The Chinese traditional bucket stove has now spread worldwide into fuel-short areas; I have seen it sold widely in Madagascar, among other places.  I have also seen an ancient Greek pottery stove that is almost identical; apparently it was an independent invention, but one wonders.

The only really slow cooking in Chinese tradition is the stewing and braising used for tough cuts of meat and fish.  This could be very slow indeed—some restaurants kept pots of stock constantly simmering, and put into them anything that needed long cooking.  According to legend, some of these stock pots had been simmering for centuries.  Admittedly this is highly improbable, but certainly some stock pots had been there at the back of the stove for years. 

Foods of Non-Han Peoples Living in or near China

            Foodways of the Muslim ethnic groups of Xinjiang, largely Turkic-speaking, have been beautifully documented in an encyclopedia, Zhongguo Qingzhi Yinshi Wenhua (Chinese Islamic Drink and Food Culture), issued in Beijing in 2009.  Many illustrations and recipes are provided.  Interesting is the strong European cast of many of the groups, especially the Tatars (p. 202ff), who are quite East European-looking and sometimes brown-haired and blue-eyed. 

            Turkic food includes the dried milk solid qrut (qurt, qurut), usually dried yogurt but often dried skimmed milk. It is aaruul in Mongolian, kūru in Manchu, and one of the milk solids covered by rubing in Chinese (Bello 2016:140).

            Jen Lin-Liu, a food writer and cooking school teacher, traveled the Silk Road from Xi’an to Rome and wrote a delightful travel book about it, On the Noodle Road (2013).  She was obsessed with noodles, and learned to cook every noodle dish she encountered along the way.  She notes that noodles were called tang bing, “soup cakes,” in early medieval China.  In China, la mian dominated, under various names, becoming laghman in Turkic languages.  Other noodles and breadstuffs were found.  She reports that the large breads of northwest China are mo, but were earlier tuturma, from Turkick tuturmashi (Lin-Liu 2013:49-52).

Uighur food includes yang’aq halwasi, “walnut halva” (-si is the possessed Turkic ending, denoting the noun covered by the adjective).  The Chinese name is ma tang, short for hu ma tang, “sesame sugar” (i.e. “sesame sweet”).  It is actually, at least as sold in Beijing, a large cake, up to a meter or so in diameter, made of sesame, peanuts, and dried fruit as well as walnuts and probably other items to bind it.  It is sold by the half kilo by Uighur vendors from villages near Kashgar; they are often illegal migrants and selling illegally, so they have a complex relationship with police and informal market areas (Sullivan 2016). They admit that laghman was originally la mian (Lin-Liu 2013:72).  Persian nan is the standard bread, pronounced nang. Chinese chives are popular, as in Afghanistan.  Dumplings are manta, but small soup dumplings are chuchurma, both Turkic words (see Lin-Liu 2013:86).  Humoral “hot” (Chinese re) is yel (Lin-Liu 2013:89).  Gushgerde are buns baked in a tonur (tandur; Lin-Liu 2013:95).  From Uighurland, Jen Lin-Liu proceeded westward, describing noodles and other foods as she went through Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and Italy. She continues to produce food blogs, with an emphasis on China.

            The indefatigable Jacqueline Newman has added a compact description of Kashkar (Kashgar) food (Newman 2017c).  It is typical central Asian fare.  She says the city name means “place to find jade”  She too describes ma tang, describing it as “nut nougat covered in creamy yogurt curds drizzled with brown shugar syrup.”  A spice mix called tetitku is noted.  Bread is naan or nang; she gives a recipe, which is more or less the typical Persian one.  Lagmen and similar noodles are as popular as elsewhere in the center.  Whole lambs are served with caraway in their mouths.  “Chicken was cooked with carrots and onion, mutton called polu [or polo]came fried with onion, rice steamed with carrots and onions, too.  Kebabs were called kawaplar [Uighur pronunciation of “kabab” with –lar, the Turkic plural] and made with beef or lamb, seasoned with salt, pepper, sesame seeds, and sometimes chile and cumin, then grilled after soaking them in milk, butter, salt, and sugar” (Newman 2017c:13).  A “big plate chicken” was served.  Fish was available and was eaten with rice.  Sangza, “crispy twisted fried bread, or baked buns called kao baozi” (Newman 2014:14) were eatenat breakfast.  The former is thoroughly Chinese as well as central Asian.  The latter—the word means “roasted little bao”—is Chinese but adapted to ovens; Chinese traditionally did not bake bao (though they now do in western countries and westernized bakeries in China).  Lamb soup was shorpa, as elsewhere (ultimately the familiar Arabic root sh-r-b, “drink”).  Kumys was a preferred drink.  Black tea, Russian-style kvas, and “a non-alcoholic beverage made with honey…called gewasi” were also drunk. 

            All this sounds properly Turkic-Central Asian, with expected Chinese additions.  The words are a mix of Turkic, Chinese, and generic Arab-origin Middle East (shorba, kabab/kawap).  Sometimes, one cannot quite figure out where a word started; lagmen is probably Chinese, but Iranic speakers claim it as an Iranian word. 

            Mongol food is covered elsewhere in my writings, so I note here only a recent thorough account of dairy food preparation by Mongols in Xinjiang (Chan 2017).  The intrepid Jacqueline Newman has chronicled Inner Mongolian food too, with recipes for buuz dumplings (rather like jiaozi), rather Chinese-style meat, and the Mongol version of hot pot.  She mentions “maichan, a boiled lamab and onion dish with bulmuk, a flour-based gravy” (Newman 2017d:11).

            Mongolian food also includes boodog, animal cooked in its own skin. One skins the animal, cuts the meat off the bones, seasons it to taste, puts it back in the skin along with hot stones. The hot stones cook the food, while the hair is singed off over fire (Wong and Thuras 2021:144-145). This is a classic technique among hunters all around the Northern Hemisphere, known as skin-boiling. For large animals, the stomach is used instead of the skin.

            China’s neighbors and ethnic minorities have very complex foodways of their own.  Paul Buell and I, with collaborators Montserrat de Pablo and Moldir Oskenbay, have written up Central Asian food (Buell et al. 2020), including a thorough run-up on Korean food, owing much to Michael Pettid’s superb account of it (2008), and much to research in Los Angeles Koreatown as well as in Korea itself.

Korea’s national dish, kimchi, continues to propagate worldwide. In Korea, it is still homemade; only 7% of that consumed is comercial (Wong and Thuras 2021:154). Koreana magazine has glorified it as a perfect health food (Young 2008).  Indeed, it has plenty of antiseptic garlic and chile, vitamin-rich cabbage, antioxidants in all the vegetables, and so on, but its high salt content is associated with Korea’s high stroke rate.  Pickling destroys its vitamin C content.  I was amazed to find in France, in the heights of the Auverne, a mixed winter pickle virtually identical to kimchi but apparently a purely local invention. 

One important Korean food not known in China (as far as I can find) is acorn mush.  Chinese do eat acorns, however—usually roasted—as well as a pecan-like nut called a “mountain walnut.”  Hu Shiu-Ying (2005) identifies this as referring to both the Chinese hickory, Carya cathayensis, and the Manchurian walnut, Juglans mandschurica.  For the Korean dish, acorns are ground, the tannic acid is soaked out of them, and the meal is then boiled while stirring until it forms a jellylike mush known as dotori muk (the meal is dotori muk karu).  It is tasteless, but is sliced and eaten with seasonings or other foods.  It is similar to the acorn mush of California’s Native American peoples, but more thoroughly leached.  It was independent invented in California and Korea—there are no intermediate steps to connect the two.  (No references here—I had to do all the field work myself on this; I have never seen a published description except a brief note, long ago, in Koreana; the reference did not add to my findings.)

Beware of ordering a sundae in Korea; it’s Korean for pork blood sausage.

Korean ceremonies still use ancient Confucian sacrifice rites, involving offerings of foods adapted to the Korean context (Kim 1999).  These include jujubes, pine nuts, walnuts, and ginkgo nuts, as well as the usual meats and fish, but also kimchi (Korean pickles) including things like Chinese bellflower and wild dropwort (these are medicinal herbs).  Rice cakes and various wines are used, as well as meat minced with soy and other ingredients.  Meat items include something rather mysteriously defined as “swine’s armpit” (Kim 1999:8; the Chinese characters supplied makes things even more mysterious—the character translated “armpit” means “to pat” in Chinese).  Korea now proves to have a very long, complex prehistory (Nelson 1993, 1999).  Millet cultivation began (probably introduced from China) around the 6th millennium BC (Nelson 1999:150).   Rice was introduced, already domesticated, from China, by 2000 BC or earlier (Nelson 1999:150).  Pigs and other animals came early, before rice, and pigs became major domesticates. 

A complex agriculture evolved in Korea, spreading eventually to Japan with the Yayoi culture (intrusive from Korea to Japan around 200 BC).  Japan had some agriculture earlier, but it stayed very simple and minor; only with Yayoi did Japan become truly agricultural.  A quick note suffices for Japan: recent comprehensive, detailed, and excellent work by Eric Rath (2010, 2016; Rath and Assman 2010) and Charlotte von Verschuer (2016) makes further description unnecessary.

Manchu food is more or less Chinese, in recent centuries, but traditions of venison and distinctive noodle dishes survive.  Newman (2006) provides recipes. Large dumplings are bobo, presumably linguistically related to Tibetan momo.

A detailed account of foodways in Vietnam (Ngo 1994) notes that the heating/cooling system and the five-elements system flourish there.  Cooling foods, including many vegetables and fruits, were favored, because of the hot climate.  About 1500 medicinal plants make up the traditional herbal canon; some 150 are food plants (p. 77).  An 18th-century physician, Hai Thuong Lan Ong, wrote a book, Culinary Art, with 152 recipes for healing foods, with recommendations of foodstuffs.  “For instance:  glutinous rice related to sweet and tepid, strengthened spleen, lung and kidney and cured urobilinury whereas ordinary rice related to sweet and healthy, kept up the body and regulated the temperament.  Regarding beans, soya related to sweet and tepid, strengthend the bone, boosted the temperament and detoxicated whereas green beans related to sweet and cold, dissipated the heat, detoxicated and cured diabetes” (Ngo 1994:77).  Lemon balm, ginger, and other plants were noted.  “[W]omen in delivery should use glutinous rice wine, with hen-egg…” (Ngo 1994:77).  Papaya promoted milk, as did soup of pork leg.   The giant waterbug Lethocerus indicus is important in Vietnamese cuisine (Packard 2003; Smith 2003), as in northern Thailand, whence it has been imported into the United States (Pemberton 1988; also my own observations).  The pheromonal gland produces a scent that is greatly relished.  Insecticides have made the insect rare.  It is traditionally made into sauce with chiles, lime, and sometimes dried fish or fish sauce. 

Chan Yuk Wah (2011), in a brief but brilliant article, tells of investigating whether the Vietnamese rice roll known as banh cuon was derived from the Cantonese cheung fan roll.  He realized that both are variants of a local food that seems to be one of the many regional things—foods, words, ideas—linking Cantonese and Vietnamese culture as opposed to north Chinese or (other) southeast Asian.  He reasonably refers to this as Yueh culture—Yueh being the ancient Chinese state occupying what is now southeast China.  “Vietnam,” which is “Yueh nan” in Mandarin, simply means “south of Yueh.”  (Nam Viet, “southern Yueh,” was attested historically too.)  It is definitely time to realize that Cantonese and Vietnamese cultures do comprise, in some ways, a unity over and against their neighbors; one can fold the Thai and Muong cultures of north Vietnam into it, too.  Chan, again correctly, notes that “southeast Asia” is an awfully vague term—it links together a large group of countries that share nothing except their agricultural system (wet rice and tree crops) and some degree of Indian and Chinese influence.  Southeast Asia is much less a cultural unity than, say, Europe, Latin America, or East Africa.  One can easily deconstruct it and make the cultural links go in quite other directions.  Chan’s article is a really wonderful example of starting with something deceptively minor, writing a deceptively short and simple article about it, and using this to establish conclusions that shake the received wisdom on a whole region!

Nir Avieli has described in detail the food of Hui An, a town in central Vietnam that formed around a core of Chinese merchant settlements and thus has a strongly Chinese-influenced cuisine with several distinctive local innovations (Avieli 2005, 2012).  Among these are adding raw herbs—beloved of Vietnamese eaters—to Chinese dishes.  These raw herbs can, however, carry diseases that Chinese cooking would prevent—as I learned to my cost in Hui and Hui An!

One of the common herbs there and elsewhere in southeast Asia is Tabasco parsley, not a parsley but a lettuce relative, Eryngium foetidum.  It comes from Mexico (especially, of course, the Tabasco area) and how it got to southeast Asia is a real mystery.  Around Hoi An it is known as ngo gai

            In Yunnan, dozens of local ethnic groups continue interesting foodways.  A marvelous cookbook of local Yunnan food comes to us from Georgia Freedman:  Cooking South of the Clouds (2018).  The recipes are excellent and the photographs are exceptional even for this modern age of photo-cookbooks.  From limited experience in Yunnan I can vouch for at least several of the recipes.  Freedman usefully recommends substitutes for ingredients hard to get outside Yunnan, while still listing the proper ingredients for those who can find them (though failing to explain that “sawtooth herb” is the Mexican plant Eryngium foetidum).  She traces the best of the famous Yunnan hams to Xuanwei county, near the Guizhou border (and recommends—properly—that you can use Spanish Serrano ham if you can’t find good Yunnan).  This is an exceptional regional cookbook. 

            Wild fruits are still very important (Chen et al. 1999).  Slightly over the international border, Yunnan Chinese in northern Thailand have set up highly successful, stable, intensive farming systems, based on subsistence food cropping plus orchards of lychees, tangerines (with a juice processing factory), and other trees (Huang 2005).  They also use an amazing and wondrous variety of wild plants for medicine, including for childbirth (Wang et al. 2003).

            Yunnan food, and some other Chinese foodways, have migrated to Burma, where Chinese food in Mandalay has become inextricably mixed with Burmese food.  A Burmese tamarind soup, typical of the sour soups of India, Burma and Thailand, is Yunnanized with chile and pronounced a “Yunnanese” food (Duan Ying 2011).

            Tibetan food and medicine are still poorly known in the west (though see Dorje 1985).  The Shuhi people, a Tibetan-related group in Yunnan, rely heavily on walnuts, for food and oil, and not surprisingly give them a major place in religion and ritual (Weckerle 2005).  This links them with scattered long-resident ethnic groups around the Himalayan region; perhaps there are ancient relationships, though we cannot know.  In any case, deteriorating rural and forest conditions in China bode ill for this adaptation.

            The Tibetans of Yunnan now produce a rapidly increasing quantity and variety of medicinal herbs (D. Anderson et al. 2005; Glover 2005; Salick et al. 2005), which is greatly improving the local economy, and, one hopes, world health.  However, it is clearly unsustainable; plants are getting smaller and rarer.  The future can only be one of crashes of major species.  Cultivation is occurring, but a belief that wild plants are more effective than domestic ones makes this a shaky proposition.

            Especially interesting is the caterpillar-parasiting fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis, known as yartsa gunbu in Tibetan and xiacao dongchong (“summer herb, winter worm”) or simply chongcao (“worm herb”) in Chinese. It grows in the bodies of ghost moth caterpillars (Thitarodes spp., 37 known host species).The first known mention is in a fifteenth-century Tibetan medical text. It appears in Chinese medical writing in 1757, but did not catch on as a mass fad until 1993 (Zahler 2016).Believed to have magical cure-all effects, it is collected in vast quantities in Tibetan grasslands and sold throughout China and among overseas Chinese. The supply is rapidly depleting. Zelda Liang (2012, 2013) records that it is now hyped as “viagra”-like (it does not work), and has become a super-rich status consumption good, now that the traditional luxuries such as abalone, shark fin, sea cucumber, and fish maw are affordable to the upper middle class. Illegal bu pin (strengthening foods) such as pangolin are also super-status.

            A Tibetan community renamed “Shangri-La” by venal Han Chinese publicists has not only become a tourist designation, it has become a major wine terroir, with the publicists doing everything possible to hype its special virtues. It is said to be reasonably good. Unfortunately, mass tourism and French-style wine culture do not mix well with local reverence for mountains, forests, wildlife, and nature (Galipeau 2016).

            The Naxi of northern Yunnan are the subjects of a brief note by Jacqueline Newman (2018), providing only one recipe, but it is complex and stunning.

            The Yi peoples (Harrell 2001) may have ruled Yunnan in its independent days as the state of Nanchao.  They now occupy a vast swath of highland territory from Sichuan to Thailand.  Among the northerly groups are the Nuosu, famous for having remained de facto independent of the Chinese state right up to the 1950s.  Their staple food is buckwheat; they grow both bitter (Fagopyrum tataricum) and non-bitter (F. esculentum, the species familiar in the west—to which it spread from west China).  They prefer the bitter, in spite of its taste, because it has more nutritional value (at least they say it does; Bender et al. 2019:144). They also grow wheat, barley, and potatoes, the last entering the picture since 1700 but very well established.  They have a turnip-like vegetable called voma that is said to be watery and unsubstantial but very popular (Bender et al. 2019:144).  They raise pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, chickens, and horses, and sacrifice and eat the first five of those species.  They formerly ate a good deal of game, subject to a number of taboos that guaranteed sustainability, but now the game is shot out as taboos go by the wayside in a populous, mixed-ethnic world.  With other Yi peoples, they have a cosmology of forests and wilds (the domain of spirits) and cultivated, thoroughly managed lands (the domain of people), and maintain sacred groves that conserve biodiversity (on conservation, see Urgenson et al. 2010, and countless writings by Stevan Harrell).  Their origin myth (Bender et al. 2019) teaches respect for all beings; it does not explicitly order conservation, but it provides the context of beliefs that allow taboos, sacred demarcation, and ritual management systems to conserve a sustainable system.

            Other Yi peoples include the Hani and Akha. The Hani of Yunnan grow “rice and corn; the rice is often but not always purple rice.  They grow lots of…peanuts, tea, and sugar cane…..they love foods tasting acidic and/or spicy” (Newman 2015:29).  They eat a rice dumpling cooked in banana leaves.  Special dishes include baiwang, coagulated “blood of one or more animals: pig, goat and dog are favorites; and mix it with salt, radishes, leaves of the garlic plant, and chili peppers.  Then they season it and grill it” (Newman 2015:30).  They often top it with peanuts.  Another favorite is “fish mud,” “minced fish with deer, goat, any wild bird, some eel, hot pepers, and chili oil…grilled over charcoal” (ibid.).  An infertile woman “is given a leg of pork to hold”; it is called “dragon meat” and eaten with bean curd, fish, celery, sticky rice cakes, peanuts, etc., and the leftovers buried with rice seedlings (ibid.).

            The Sani of central Yunnan are a detachment of the Hani; the name is a variant.  The Sani have an ancient tradition of rice agriculture, both upland (slash-and-burn) and wet, but they have more recently adopted New World crops with enthusiasm.  Their villages consist of adobe houses, on and around which are hanging maize, chile peppers in strings, green beans drying, and Mexican squashes.  Even epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides) has made it there as a pot-herb, called ki chr kimi..  It all looked like a central Mexican village, even to the clusters of maize ears hanging in trees.  This amazed and delighted the Mexican representatives at the International Congress of Ethnobotany held in Yunnan in 1990.  

Sani dispenses with vowels in many words.  Ng pan mo is “chile.”  The odd small eggplant—a local species, Solanum khasianum—was a dz, a water buffalo an ng (cf. Chinese niu, Cantonese ngau). Dog is chrzh (the last three letters being used here to write something like the buzzed r in Czech). Simplest of all was “horse”:  m.  (The Chinese is ma.

The Akha, related linguistically (but much more fond of vowels, of which they have many), practice slash-and-burn cultivation and some wet-rice agriculture in southern Yunnan.  They eat a typical southeast Asian diet of rice with greens, fish, fruit, peppers, and forest products.  My student Ayoe Wang, an Akha from Yunnan, carried out detailed ethnobotanical researches on the Akha (Wang 2008, 2013).  He found the same general cosmological beliefs as those reported for the Nuosu, with more explicit conservation and more self-conscious differentiation from the surrounding groups.  The Yi world is part of the Southeast Asian world of intensely conservationist and highly sustainable agriculture, a model for the world.

Another related group, the Lisu, are little known to the food world.  A few dishes are described by a Lisu writer, Bai Chingshun (2015).  Bai reports that a thick unleavened wheat bread is one staple; it is cooked on a flat pan and then in the ashes of the fire.  Sweet twisted wheat pastry is a simple delicacy.  Another food is tamales: maize kernels taken off the ear, ground, mixed with chiles and salt and steamed in corn husks or Erythrina variegata leaves. I suppose they are an independent invention based on something like Chinese zong, not direct borrowing of tamales.  Streaky pork with bean paste (mashed beans) and garlic leaves are a delicacy.  Another is wild fennel boiled, tied in a circle, filled with beaten egg, and cooked in soup.  In no case are full directions given, and apparently the author has been long away from home.  We need more ethnography of groups like this.

Also related are the Lahu, evocatively described by Shanshan Du (2002), a Chinese ethnographer. They live a similar lifestyle in the same general area. Du emphasizes the importance of women, who maintain that “chopsticks work only in pairs,” and men and women equally need each other.

Nearby are the Wa, an Austroasiatic-speaking group (like their neighbors the Palaung). They have a well-deserved reputation as ferocious headhunters, protecting their wild and remote but lush and rich land by living in large villages hedged by thorns, guarded by gates, and defended by implacable warriors. They were conquered by the Chinese Communist government in the middle 1950s, but in Burma they remain semi-autonomous. Their staple is rice. They grow foxtail millet for beer, an exceedingly popular item, used ritually like other millet beers of southeast Asia. As in much of the world, meat is highly favored. Cattle, buffaloes, pigs, and chickens abound, and some other domesticates and game animals are consumed. Sacrifices and feasts were once common, especially to celebrate heads taken. The skulls were ritually placed in pillars lining the main road to the village, a fairly good warning of what invaders could expect. The Wa, previously known largely from scary rumors, have been the subject of sustained and excellent ethnographic attention by Magnus Fiskejö (e.g. 2021).

The Mian of southern China and neighboring southeast Asia traditionally ate bland, simple food, but used southeast Asian basil varieties, cilantro, mint, and lemon grass, at least in their southeast Asian villages. Minced beef with basil, eaten in a lettuce leaf, is a favorite dish, and resembles Thai and Vietnamese dishes.  Sticky rice has also spread from the north Thai world.  (Information from Jeff McDonald.)

The Yao have varied foodways, many of which are being lost.  The Ao Yao of Guangxi used to salt down small birds with rice powder to dry them off; this is no longer done.  They pickled many foods.  Otherwise, their diet was, or at least now is, more or less the standard diet of impoverished mountain dwellers:  sweet potatoes, maize, and such, with rice and pork the luxuries (Huang 2009).  Huang gives a recipe for blood sausage—blood and rice in a pig’s intestine, with salt and flavorings. 

The Tujia (see Newman 2014b) are a large but strikingly little-known group, living in central China.  Their language is related to Chinese, but many live near Miao and speak Miao dialects, so one wonders if they have some Miao ancestry.  Over a million are scattered widely from north-central to south China.  Little is recorded of their food, except that it seems hot, spicy, and sour—they love pickles—and related to Sichuanese cooking; they maintain they originated in Sichuan.  Note this is not the same as the Hezha cuisine above.

China’s largest minority is the Thai-speaking (now often Han Chinese-speaking) Zhuang, who live in Guangxi Province and neighboring areas; there are perhaps 30,000,000 of them.  Their food remained mysterious until recently, but now an article (Newman 2005), among other sources, opens them to the world.  They eat both sticky and nonsticky rice; nonsticky seems to be usually (not always) the staple.  They are fond of cassia and fennel, and flavor their tea with orange flowers.  Black rice soup flavored with cassia and fennel is a typical dish.  Eggplant is cooked with rice vinegar, white pepper, cinnamon, sugar, fermented sticky rice, and oil. 

A restaurant in San Gabriel (near Los Angeles) served Guangxi Zhuang food.  A  specialty is luosifen, snail noodle soup.  The snails are boiled in the water but then taken out.  They give a strange earthy or pond-like flavor.  The soup is based on spaghetti-like rice noodles with tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, bamboo shoots, meat or fish of any kind, and flavorings.  Other soups with sour vegetables exist.  (The same restaurant—run by a couple from China’s northernmost and southernmost extremes—served Harbin specialties from north Manchuria.  These are largely dumplings stuffed with pork and fennel leaves or other meat-and-vegetable stuffings.  Cumin is a common spicing, indicating Near Eastern antecedents.  Lamb stir-fried with sour cabbage is also a delicacy there as elsewhere in the far north.)

Dai food has been chronicled by the indefatigable Jacqueline Newman, and is described as often being sour, with pickled vegetables important.  They share a fondness for minced, highly spiced raw meat with other Thai-speaking groups (Newman 2012b).  Water bugs continue popular (Pemberton n.d.).

Wang Si, an ethnologist in Yunnan, has described the Bai (Wang 2012), who are also fond of raw pork.  She supplies details on pig butchering and raw meat preparation and use.

Dr. Newman, who is systematically chronicling the minority foodways of China, has gone on to describe the foods of the Dong (Tung), another Thai minority very close to the Zhuang (Newman 2007, 2012b, 2012c).  (In fact, “Dong” and “Zhuang” are routinely confused.  The languages are very similar, and are close to Thai.  Speakers are called “Dong” or “Zhuang” indifferently, depending on local history.  Newman reports that some people of apparent Tibeto-Burman origin are also called Dong locally.)   A characteristic Dong flavor is tea oil, from fruits of Camellia species including C. oleifera, C. sasanqua and C. kissi (but not from true tea, C. sinensis).  This is often made into a sauce with mustard, vinegar, salt, and sugar.  A raw-shrimp paste with chile, rice, ginger, cinnamon and salt is also made and stored; it would salt-cure (autodigest) in the jars.  Sticky rice is common as a staple.  It is also the staple food in northeast Thailand and neighboring areas.  Vegetables are marinated in a mix of sugar, salt, Chinese hard liquor (technically a vodka or unaged whiskey), and rice wine.  Newman has also contributed a brief account of the Bai of Yunnan, whose cuisine is not strikingly different from other Yunnan Plateau food (Newman 2012).

Newman’s latest foray has been to the world of the Gelao (Kelao), a group so obscure that they appear never to have been well described in print in English.  They live in the far south, in Guizhou, Yunnan, and Guangxi.  Their language is distantly related to Thai, but in a separate branch (Kadai) of the Thai-Kadai phylum.  It is poorly known.  Their food was even less well known till now.  Newman (2016) reports:  “Their staple diet is corn supplemented with ricewheat, millet, sorghum, buckwheat, and sweet potatoes.”  They like sweet-sour tastes.  “They make a condiment called ‘chili bone.’ It is actually ground pork bones mixed with chicken meat, lots of chili powder, sugar, wine and/.or vinegar, and Sichuan pepper and salt.  This they seal in jars for two weeks or more…it is a sweet and sour sauce-like item used as a dipping condimentor spread on dumplings or rice cakes.”  They worship on Ox God with sacrificed chicikens, wine, and rice cakes (Newman 2016b:13).  Newman provides recipes for maize and shrimp congee with vinegar, and ginger, glutionous rice cakes with brown sugar, black vinegar, sesame oil, preserved vegetables, and fried dough sticks, and presed tofu and rice cakes with ginger, black vinegar, sugar, and chile (Newman 2016b:14).  These resemble Cantonese breakfast items.

            Yang Zhuliang has chronicled mushrooms in Yunnan (Yang n.d.).  Mushrooms also figure large in Tibet, where they are collected by Tibetans and minorities as food.  Sale of them has made many people quite well off (Arora 2008).  The caterpillar-parasitizing fungus Cordyceps sinensis complex is an extremely important medicine, sale of which actually is the biggest single moneymaker in rural Tibet (Winkler 2008, 2009).  It is used for almost anything by Chinese and Tibetans, but is not known to have any empirically demonstrable benefits.  Many other mss. on mushrooms, as well as taro, herbal medicine, edible insects, wild game animals, pine nuts, dogs, and other edibles have crossed my desk, but in preliminary or partial forms that cannot be cited here.

Yamamoto and Nawata have provided an extremely detailed and well-documented study of Taiwan aboriginal food, including Tabasco chile pepper use by these groups (Yamamoto and Nawata 2009).  Names and genetics show varieties in the southern areas of Taiwan were introduced from the Philippines (and often to the Philippines from Indonesia).  These small hot chiles are used not only for food, but for ornament, medicine, and ritual.  Young leaves as well as fruits are eaten.  This all indicates a long and interesting history.  The plants must have been introduced soon after the Spanish occupied the Philippines in the 16th century.

            To Katy Hung (Biggs) and Tammy Turner I am deeply indebted for information on Litsea cubeba, known as may chang, mu jiang, or shan hujiao (“mountain black pepper”), or in Atayal, a Taiwan Aboriginal language of the Austronesian phylum, as magao or maqaw.  It is so important to the Atayal that a park is proposed, with that name, to save it.   It is also widespread on the mainland, in tropical areas.  It is valued for its berries, which have a lemony flavor that Ms. Biggs finds exquisite.  The scientific name shows its use as a substitute for cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba), formerly imported to China from Southeast Asia.  Another flavoring food there is Rhus javanica, whose sour berries are used for salt.  (Information by email exchange, Dec. 6, 2014.)

            The indefatigable Ms. Biggs, who is Taiwanese in spite of her Irish name, reports that in southern Taiwan noodles are made from catfish meat (Facebook posting, Dec. 14, 2014).  Dumpling skins are made from fish meat mixed with sweet potato flour.  This adds a whole new dimension to Chinese noodle cuisine.  The snakehead catfish is referred to as “dog mother fish” (gou mu yu, or kiau mu yu in Taiwanese) from its resemblance to a lizard, “dog fish snake” in Taiwan Chinese, which is considered lowly.  She also reminds us that mudskippers are good food, and I can add walking gobies from experience eating them with Chinese in Malaysia.  Mudskippers (fei yu seems to be the name) are apparently fancy restaurant fare in southern Taiwan.

            Southeast Asian food and its history has been reviewed in an excellent historical study by the Japanese scholar Akira Matsuyama (2003).  This book is particularly good on fermented foods, and provides an opportunity for someone to do a really major study by comparing them with those documented in Huang (2000).  Ties with China are very clear.

Globalization and Diaspora:  Chinese Food Outside China

Much research on Chinese food in recent years has focused on the process of globalization. This has led to questioning just what Chinese food is (King 2020). In most arenas, globalization has meant the spread of American pop culture at the expense of everything else. It is currently a bit politically uncorrect to say this, but look at any photograph of any street in any city in the world, and think where the clothing styles, sign styles, building styles, car styles, and other styles originated.  The only serious exception to Americanization, outside of local scripts on the signs, is the religiously-entailed women’s clothing in the more conservative Muslim cities.  In foodways, however, the Chinese have more than held their own.  Chinese food has been going global for centuries, since it spread along the Silk Road and along land and sea routes to Southeast Asia. 

China’s most far-flung restaurants have been chronicled by the intrepid researchers of Gastro Obscura. They now occur in northern Alaska, Easter Island, the south tip of South America (in Ushuaia), over 14,000 feet up in Cerro de Pasco, Peru, and Greenland (Wong and Thuras 2021:126-127). Old railroad and mining towns all over western North America have very old Chinatowns, dating from the use of Chinese labor building the lines, mining, or servicing other workers.. Many very old buildings survive, as well as treasure troves like the medical records of a frontier Chinese doctor in Idaho. The food was classic chop suey house fare, and often still is, though now often cooked by recent immigrants who can also produce more upscale dishes.

One result of the food diaspora has been the rise of white experts on Chinese cooking and the neglect of Chinese experts.  Mea culpa, of course, but I have tried to acknowledge, cooperate with, and coauthor with Chinese experts.  Clarissa Wei (2017) has written an insightful article on the problem.  (She is willing to forgive competent experts, but not the newspapers and the white chefs.  I am more forgiving—but I am not a disinterested observer here.)

            The long process of blending Chinese and Southeast Asian food thus commands attention, and has received it in several excellent studies (see Tan [ed.] 2011).  Notable is one on Chinese food in Singapore.  Chinese settled in southern Malaya by the 1500s, and a fusion cuisine, “Nonya” food, arose as they married into local communities.   It influenced both parents:  returning migrants brought Sinicized versions of Malay foods back to China, and Malay food has adopted countless Chinese ingredients and techniques.  It differs from both parents in a strong emphasis on turmeric and lesser galangal; it uses more hot spices than Chinese food, but less than Malay.  A very similar evolution has taken place in Indonesia, where the peranakan (Indonesian-Chinese) communities developed fusion cuisines and influenced Indonesian food profoundly.  (Ultimately, they influenced the whole world, through such inventions as ketchup.)  “Nonya” cuisine (“nonya” is a local word for a Chinese woman of status) has been self-consciously revived and modernized in Singapore (and to a lesser extent in Malaysia).  Thus, it has progressively changed.  However, Chinese identity is still marked.  Holvor Helland (2008), studying Penang, found about what I found in 1970: Chinese food reinforced Chinese identity, with pork a particularly strong ethnic marker because it is banned to the Muslims who form most of the rest of the population there.  Chinese have adopted local ingredients but cook in Chinese ways.  At least in 1970, that meant Hokkien ways, but I suspect the same thing has happened in Penang that has happened in Singapore: a blurring of Chinese ethnic lines and a spread of Cantonese cuisine across Chinese ethnicities.  (One may argue that there is a good reason for that, given the contrasts in cooking between Cantonese and Malaysian Hokkien foodways in the old days.)

            The initial diaspora of Chinese food was almost entirely from the south coastal provinces, Fujian and Guangdong (Anderson 1988; Tan 2011).  Southeast Asian Chinese food is primarily from Fujian, with varying degrees of Guangdong and other influences.  The names for foods show this:  they are almost entirely in Hokkien (Southern Min), the language of southern Fujian and neighboring northern Guangdong (Anderson 1988; Tan 2011).  The Philippines seems slightly more complicated, with some highly Tagalog-influenced Chinese words that do not always show clear Hokkien roots.  Carolyn Ang See (2011) provides an excellent account with full food vocabulary; words can be Tagalog, Hokkien, Cantonese (e.g. siomai for siumai) or even possible Mandarin with much Tagalog influence.  Sometimes the etymology is astonishing:  the standard Philippine noodle dish pansit is from Hokkien pian sit (Mandarin bian shi), “fast or convenient food.”  On top of this, Philippine languages have borrowed many Spanish words for dish types and ingredients.  Sometimes these Spanish words were in turn borrowed from native American languages; for instance, various pronunciations of the Nahuatl (“Aztec”) word camote have become the usual namesfor the sweet potato.

            Fishing went with Chinese settlers to every coastal area they settled.  In North America, Chinese got into fishing quite early, dominating some fisheries.  This did not totally satisfy demand, so much was imported from China, especially since certain gourmet items like salt croakers and dried squid were hard or impossible to produce in the new land. 

            J. Ryan Kennedy (2017) has studied the mix of Chinese-caught, Anglo-caught, and imported fish available to early Chinese Californians. San Francisco Chinese firms (jinshanzhuang, “Golden Mountain firms”) imported dried fish, including the southeast Asian snakehead catfish Channa micropeltes (Kennedy et al. 2021). This catfish was possibly imported as a health aid, since ability to breathe air and squirm through wet grass between ponds gives the various snakehead catfish the reputation of being sheng yu, “living fish,” whose flesh makes one resist cancer and other such diseases. However, I was gravely assured in Hong Kong that some are “bone-transforming dragons” (fa kuat lung in Cantonese), that if eaten will make the eater disappear completely, even his bones. The catfish are thus cooked with a piece of pork, to see if it disappears. I was told of people who had seen this happen, but never met any or heard believable accounts.

            Chinese moved quickly into the abalone fishery, since that snail is among the most valued gourmet health foods in eastern Asia.  Todd Braje (2016) studied abalone fishing camps on the Channel Islands, where particularly well-preserved ones on San Clemente give insight into Chinese and western fishers.  These authors summarize a long literature on these subjects.

In the Western Hemisphere, Chinese food meant Cantonese food—from central Guangdong—until recently.  The standard food names are Cantonese, sometimes in the Taishan (Toisan) dialect; most of the early Cantonese migrant were from Taishan or the nearby “four districts” (the sei yap of California Chinese history) that speak a closely related dialect. 

Only in the last 40 years have Sichuanese, Shanghainese, north Chinese, and other regional cuisines spread much beyond China’s borders.  Another aspect of the mix has been the recent emigration of vast numbers of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries.  They have started restaurants that not only reflect the fusion cuisines of their homelands, but also reflect fusion in their new homes with local traditions.  It is thus common in the United States to find “Vietnamese” restaurants that serve sinicized Vietnamese staples, standard south Chinese dishes, and American Chinese dishes like beef broccoli and ginger beef. 

An eclectic cuisine has developed and become almost universal.  “Chinese” restaurants in North America and Europe, for instance, typically serve the more famous dishes of several regions.  This regional fusion was looked upon with some disquiet by traditional gourmets, but it is now quite standard in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as in diaspora communities (Wu 2011 gives excellent descriptions and provides his full share of the disquiet). Sidney Cheung has written on the assimilation of Shanghai foodways into Hong Kong life (2020).

            Americans first learned of Chinese food in China itself, and developed a stereotype of it (based on Canton experience) as a lot of unsavory dishes of cut-up cats, dogs, and such (Coe 2009; see pp. 32 ff for colonial racist quotes).  Chinese emigrants came to America in the Gold Rush and in much larger numbers in the late 19th century, bringing rural Cantonese food, especially from the Taishan (Toisan) district of Guangdong).  This food was not necessarily China’s finest, and only slowly won acceptance.  Coming of more variety and quality led to an explosive growth of acceptance, making Chinese food universal and beloved (Coe 2009; Newman and Halporn 2004). 

            Tofu was brought to America by a rather striking individual, Dr. Yamei Kim.  She was born in Ningbo in 1864, orphaned, adopted by American missionaries with medical background, raised in Japan and the United States, and became a doctor.  She worked with new foods in WWI for the United States, introducing a variety of soybean products including tofu (Roth 2018).  She was obviously not the first to bring it, but she seems to have made it more visible to the American elite world.  She lived a colorful life, being very much a showperson and champion of both modernity and Chinese tradition. 

            More recently, Chinese restaurants from Korea and Japan to America and Europe have developed local versions of Chinese food.  (On this, there are several excellent recent studies, notably Arnold et al. 2018; Banh and Liu 2019; Newman and Halporn 2004; Roberts 2002; Wu and Cheung 2002; Wu and Tan 2001.  For Korea, a superb article by Kim Bok-rae, 2009, chronicles in detail the changes involved.  Here the main influence was from Shandong, not south China. For France, see Sabban 2009.)   They accommodate to local tastes by changing spices, substituting local ingredients, etc.  Many stories of particular restaurants, and memoirs of restaurant families, have been collected recently (see Banh and Li 2019 and references therein).

They also, alas, often use much cheaper and worse ingredients than they would dare to use at home, though this is rapidly changing.  American Chinese food has gone through several stages in my lifetime.  When I was young, most American Chinese came from impoverished backgrounds, and cooked (by necessity) rather cheap, simple food.  Accommodation to American ways led to making this cuisine even cheaper and simpler, resulting in the food of the “chop suey joints” of old (Coe 2009).  These were small local restaurants that served very humble food—“chop suey” is from Cantonese tsap sui, “miscellaneous leftovers.”  It is a dish from the Toisan and Sei Yap area of Guangdong province, originally made by vegetable growers, who at the end of the day would cook up the “miscellaneous leftovers” that were too small or odd to sell (information from former vegetable growers in Hong Kong, 1975). 

The dish is actually widespread in China; the Mandarin pronunciation is za sui. The dish is venerable. The first mention is in China’s great fantasy novel, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. The trickster-hero Monkey threatens to make chop suey from the organs of a demon if it swallows him. The demon gives up the project (vol. 1, p. 75, reference from Facebook posting by Jim McClanahan, Jan. 2022).

“Leftovers” is more often used to refer to the odd bits of animals, and the dish has another past as a way of using up chicken gizzards, intestines, lungs, and the like, as pointed out by Hai-Ming Liu (2009) and Miranda Brown (2021). This makes the dish comparable to Mexico’s menudo (“little parts”) and birria (“leftovers”), made from tripe and from the leftovers of sheep and goat butchering respectively. In America, it first appeaed in New York, then appeared in San Francisco around 1900, becoming famous there (Coe 2009; Peters 2013).

Recently, this once-humble dish has occasioned a publishing explosion. Major authorities have devoted books and articles to it. These include Miranda Brown (2021), Andrew Coe (2009), Haiming Liu (2009, 2015), Anne Mendelson (2016) and Yong Chen (2014) have chronicled the progress of chop suey and other Chinese-American foods; Yong Chen gives some recipes.

Other memorable foods of the old chop suey houses were chow mien (chao min, fried noodles, with sauce), egg foo young (fuyong, omelet-like stirred eggs), tofu dishes, won ton soup, and stir-fried meat with vegetables that consisted largely of undercooked vegetables with tiny shreds of meat.  Another standard was yatka mien, from Cantonese yat ko mien (or min or men), “one bowl of noodles.”  This normally meant just regular noodles, with some green onions, barbecued pork, and the like, but the irrepressible culinary genius of New Orleans has made it into a whole new dish, yakamein.  This is a hangover cure, sometimes known as “Old Sober,” and made of “spaghetti, chopped beef, green onions, and chopped hard-boiled eggs, drowned in a tangy beef broth, spiced up with hot sauce and soy sauce, and sprinkled with liberal amounts of Creole seasoning” (Gastro Obscura, online newsletter, 2019).

Ever-present was the fortune cookie, based on the Japanese tea wafer, but converted in the United States to something like a sugar cookie; it was and still is folded (when still pliable) around a slip of paper bearing a “fortune” or a wise saying.  They were invented in San Francisco (though San Franciscans like to blame them on Los Angeles).  Makoto Hagiwara started the trend around 1900, at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.  The fortunes were apparently added during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, by the Benkiyodo bakery, possibly in relation to the Sperry Flour Company’s huge display at that fair (Peters 2013:179-180).  They were quickly picked up by Chinese restaurants.

New waves of ever-more-affluent, ever-more-educated immigrants brought higher standards, and now the best restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco are as good as any (except perhaps the very best) in Hong Kong or Taiwan.  The Los Angeles area now has highly specialized restaurants; one excellent one specializes in hui tou, a shallow-fried dumpling like a pot-sticker but larger and juicier, with a rather thick wheat-flour skin surrounding finely minced, highly flavored pork or beef.  Vegetarian and Buddhist restaurants exist, as do ones specializing in Zhuang minority food, Manchurian food, medical food, and countless other items.  Dumplings are so popular that non-Han experts are emerging.  Christopher St. Cavish, from Florida but now resident in China, has made a study of the xiao long bao (“little dragon dumpling,” a big meat dumpling boiled in soup, a Shanghainese specialty).  He found that the ideal skin was thinner than 1.36 mm (which is very thin), 20% soup within, and folded with many pleats at the top (18-20 seems ideal but perhaps excessive; see Makinen 2015). 

The southeast Asian immigration to America has brought thousands of ethnic-Chinese Vietnamese, Cambodians, Thai, and others, many of whom start complex fusion restaurants.  My wife and I delighted in the Mien Nghia Noodle Express in the San Gabriel Valley, which is Teochiu-Vietnamese. It serves almost exclusively noodle dishes, with all sorts of noodles: fine rice to wide rice, small egg-wheat noodles to large ones, and so on.  The food is a Vietnamese-influenced fusion of Cantonese and Teochiu.  The menu is in Chinese characters, English, and Vietnamese (in that order).  Similarly complex blends, involving many Chinese and Southeast Asian traditions, abound in the San Gabriel Valley.

Far from all restaurants come up to this standard.  Even the old-fashioned “chop suey joint” survives in rural communities; it has become all but extinct in urban America.

An odd side note on China in America is the development of the Bing cherry by Ah Bing, a six-foot-tall northern Chinese man working for the Quaker farm family of Lewelling in the late 19th century in Oregon.  Seth Lewelling generously named the cherry after Bing (Newman 2019a).

Similar progress is documented for Australia, Japan, England, and elsewhere, with perhaps less eclipse of the low-end (Cheung and Tan 2007; Wu 2011; Wu and Cheung 2002).  David Wu, anthropologist and self-described Chinese gourmet, has traveled widely in the world, and eaten at every sort of Chinese restaurant from the humblest New Guinea émigré shack to the finest and most expensive restaurants in China and Taiwan.  He provides us a memoir (Wu 2011) with his reminiscences and frank opinions of Chinese food around the world—finding it very lacking indeed in many of the émigré communities.

In western South America, where Chinese restaurants are known as chifa (presumably a corruption of Mandarin chi fan or Cantonese sik faan “eat rice”), food of the old “chop suey joint” style survives and flourishes, providing cheap, filling food.  New “wine palaces” in the central cities have not displaced the old chifas.

            In Hawaii, the old “chop suey joints”—fondly remembered by working-class sand student-class Hawaiians—have given way to “all you can eat buffets” that provide modernized but bland fare (Wu 2008; similar restaurants exist on the mainland, but are not so common).  There are many Native Hawaiian and mainland Anglo-American influences in the cuisine.  Emphasis has been on providing cheap, filling food to a varied but typically nonaffluent clientele.  David Wu, veteran of countless meals in the Chinese diaspora and long resident in Hawaii, concludes that, in Hawaii, “[i]t is very difficult at this time to identify any Chinese restaurants that provide a fine dining and exquisite culinary experience” (Wu 2008:23).  Fortunately, this is not true of the Pacific Coast mainland.

            Saimin noodles—from Cantonese for “small noodles”—have become rather Japanified, leaving the Hawaiians in doubt as to whether they were originally a Chinese or Japanese dish, but very clear that they are now a Hawaiian dish (Hino 2017).

            Chinese overseas continue to celebrate with traditional foods—long-life noodles for birthdays, cakes and sweets for life-passsage rites and at New Year, buns, dumplings, roast meat (Newman et al. 1988).  In general, as Chinese immigrants acculturate to receiver societies, drinks and snacks change first; traditional festive dishes change last.

Noodles have received their own excellent and thorough history, Slippery Noodles by Hsiang Ju Lin (2015). This book actually tells the whole story of Chinese food, but focuses on the rise and development of this favorite item. An odd recent fad was knife-shaved noodles, cut off a block of dough (Wank 2015). These briefly went worldwide in Chinese restaurants. Chinese food is as prone to fads and fashions as any other, and always has been, as have fashions; “changeless China” did have some slow-to-change aspects, like the reliance on millets and rice, but some things change fast.

One of the oddest creations of the Chinese diaspora was the fortune cookie—an ordinary American sugar cookie wrapped around a slip of paper with an oracular line on it.  This strange food was invented in California, either San Francisco or Los Angeles (McDermott 2000).  San Franciscans tend to blame it on Los Angeles and vice versa.  One Anglo-American man in San Francisco made a career of writing the fortunes for the restaurants there.  The fortune cookie found chroniclers in Jennifer 8 Lee (2009), and in Terry McDermott (2000), who researched it thoroughly for an article (a very humorous one) in the Los Angeles Times.  Many of the fortunes are recycled bits of Western wisdom literature, and many of the fortune-writers are not Chinese.  A counter-theory had it invented in Japan (Andrew Coe, pers. comm., Feb. 2010). 

            It turns out the fortune cookie does indeed come from Japan (Alexander Akin, Facebook posting, Nov. 24, 2013; Peters 2013).  It is a cut-down, Americanized version of a Kyoto temple cookie, and seems to be first recorded in the US at the Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, around 1900.  Apparently it converged there (or near there) on the American sugar cookie.  The fortune in the cookie goes back to the Golden Gate Park tea garden, and is found in Kyoto at least in recent years.  Fortune cookies were a new and strange item in Hong Kong when I was first there in 1965; restauranteurs could not imagine why American tourists were insisting on them as inevitable Chinese restaurant trappings.

I have developed an interest in cultural ways that “swim upstream,” i.e. that not only survive in the face of Americanization but actually invade America itself.  Chinese food and Italian food are the clear winners in this sweepstakes, though Andean and Celtic music, Australian Aboriginal art, French and Australian wines, and various other cultural entities are noteworthy as well. 

In general, things that “swim upstream” have to be really good, and they have to be actively merchandised.  It helps if they are purveyed by prestigious urban communities, but this is obviously not necessary, given the success of Australian Aboriginal art and Andean indigenous music.  Some things fail simply because they come from cultures that do not like high-pressure salesmanship.  A comparison I did between Finnish food and Chinese food in America revealed that Finnish restaurants failed not because the food was bad but because traditional Finnish hospitality requires that guests be fed without charge! 

Other immigrant communities (the Ethiopian, for instance) were less charitable and did well, but kept restaurants going just long enough to put their children through college, whereupon the children became engineers, lawyers and other white-collar workers.  A brief burst of Ethiopian restaurants in major American cities has narrowed to a small number of dedicated survivors in areas where some immigration still goes on.

By contrast, the Chinese, even when college educated, love to start restaurants.  The distinguished Sinologist and anthropologist Vivienne Lo, for instance, continues to carry on the family tradition; her father was the famous chef and restauranteur Kenneth Lo.  Now, she helps her sister Jenny Lo with professional cooking and cookbook writing (Lo and Lo 2003).  Chinese food is taking over the world more surely than American fast food is.  One reason is the dedication of Chinese in all walks of life to good eating.  Another is the popularity of Chinese food with virtually everybody. 

            Meanwhile, American food, inevitably at its worst, has invaded East Asia.  A superb collection of studies edited by James Watson (1997) records the progress of McDonald’s Hamburgers in Asia.  Yan Yunxiang (1997), writing in Watson’s book, records how McDonald’s in China became the “in” place for sophisticated, worldly young people to be seen—a far cry from its identification in its homeland with more humble social realms.  I have seen the same thing in Hong Kong.  It always amazed me to see Hong Kong citizens, arguably the most food-conscious gourmets that have ever existed on this planet, flocking to a restaurant of this nature.  (Incidentally, McDonald’s started in the next city to where I live: the hardscrabble city of San Bernardino, California.  The McDonald brothers first opened a roadhouse a few miles to the west of the town, then settled in San Bernardino and began to branch out.  The real spread of the chain, however, took place after they retired and sold out to Roy Kroc, who internationalized the chain.  See Schlosser 2002.) 

            There was in 2012 a vast potato chip boom in China.  Lay’s had the largest market share, but there were local imitations.  Growers are displacing grassland and herders in Inner Mongolia to grow the potatoes.  Quality control is the main problem—only 1 out of 3 big potatoes usually makes the cut (!).  The sustainable grassland-herding economy is giving way to a probably unsustainable potato boom (K. D. Anderson and Isenhour 2012).

With globalization, international influences have also influenced Chinese food in its homeland.  First, the worldwide mid-20th-century fondness for meat, oil and sugar influenced Chinese food, which became far less healthy than it had formerly been.  This process ran from about the middle 1960’s to the 1990’s.  By the 1980s, a reaction was beginning, again tracking trends elsewhere.  The emphasis returned to healthier fare, with smaller portions, more vegetables, more delicate cooking, more attention to fresh high-quality ingredients, and above all less fat and sugar. 

This may have been “nouvelle” cuisine in France and America, but it was, for China, a return to the status quo ante.  It has certainly led to what almost anyone would describe as a marked improvement, if one compares a good Chinese restaurant today with one 20 years ago.  But the great restaurants of 40 and more years ago remain, in my opinion, unequalled today.  The biggest difference is in the ingredients.  Few if any restauranteurs today will raise their own chickens and feed them entirely on sesame seeds, for instance.  And, more tragically, the superb sea foods of the old days simply do not exist any more.  They have been fished to extinction.

            On the other hand, nouvelle cuisine is alive and well in China’s newly opulent cities with their nouveaux riches desperate for status consumption (see e.g. Farquhar 2002).  Cantonese cuisine has benefited, or suffered, depending on one’s taste, and the resulting challenge to Cantonese tradition has been the subject of a stunningly good and thorough review by Jakob Klein (2007).  Klein documents the rise of expensive nouvelle Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong and Guangzhou; meanwhile the traditional food suffers some eclipse, partly because of the difficulty of getting good ingredients in these environmentally-sad times.  Klein’s investigation of the sociological and personal experiences that result defies summary and needs serious reading.  Klein has also given wonderful accounts of the revival of traditional Cantonese food in Guangzhou; some old-timers are not satisfied, but at least they have something of the good old days back (Klein 2006, 2007).  Klein tells of Old Uncle Lu, who complains of sloppy cooking but still eats at the venerable teashop in the center of town.

            “Fusion cuisine” has become a fad in California and some other multicultural environs.  Chinese food is often blended with French, Japanese, Italian, and other “great” cuisines (D. Wu 2012).  The results are always striking and sometimes (!) successful….  One remembers that this is no new phenomenon; fusion cuisine at its most fused (so to speak) is documented in the Yinshan Zhengyao and many similar medieval works. 

            All this raises the question of “authenticity.”  Obviously, by now, “authentic” Chinese food is a very slippery concept.  Hamburgers are not authentic Chinese food, but what do you say about the split bao buns stuffed with flattened Chinese meatballs that were popular a few years ago in teashops?  They were thoroughly traditional in taste, but made to look like the prestigious hamburger.  And what of the thousands of species of fish and shellfish now used in Chinese restaurants round the world?  Most were unknown in old China, but they are now cooked in thoroughly Chinese ways, and they taste just fine.  And it always makes me feel a bit weird to eat hot-and-sour soup (suanlatang) that doesn’t have dried daylily buds or coagulated blood in it.  But, in much of the world, you can’t get daylily buds, and people won’t eat blood.  So, hot-and-sour soup adapts.  Some westernization is a total disaster, such as using sherry instead of Chinese “wine” in cooking, or thickening sauces with flour.  Other westernization works fine, such as adopting asparagus and other newly-Asianized western vegetables.  One has to look case by case.  (Lo and Lo’s 2003 cookbook talks thoughtfully about such matters; see also David Wu, op. cit.) 

            So I prefer to talk about what is traditional—what has been around for generations—and what is new.  Then I care about whether the result tastes good.  I let someone else worry about “authenticity.” 

Food as Medicine

            Since Pillsbury’s classic article (1978) there have been several studies of “doing the month”—recovering from childbirth.  Pregnant women are at first cold for three months, then neutral, then hot,  and have to eat accordingly.  Women after childbirth still stay warm and quiet and eat high-protein, high-iron foods; the custom, so valuable if restricting, has not changed as much as most traditions in this modern world.  Pork liver is a favorite for this and for building blood—it works, being the richest in iron and vitamin B12 of any common food.  Pigs’ feet cooked with vinegar and Chinese wine provide calcium and other minerals.  Also valued are eggs—often in incredible quantities—and greens.  Red foods such as red jujubes, peanuts (Chinese peanuts have red skins), and red wine are used for buillding blood, but with less excuse—they have some value, but their color is the main draw.  By similar magical thinking, black foods—black jujubes, black chickens, black dog meat, Guinness Stout (called “black dog” in colloquial Chinese)—are used to build body.  Their saturated color is thought to indicate their strength.  Variants of “doing the month” occur widely in Eurasia, from Bangladesh to Spain and thence to the New World, so it may be a part of the Greek humoral medical tradition that shares that distribution.  Some scholars have seen it as part of the repression of women common in those cultures, but the fact is that “doing the month” involved rest, warming, and diet that was necessary to the survival of mothers and infants in the old days.  It now receives some support from modern medical writers—at least the milder forms involving rest and good protein-rich food, not the mother-roasting and restriction to the house.  Those made sense in the old days of rampant infection, but no longer do.

            Infant feeding methods in old times were studied by B. S. Platt and S. Y. Gin (undated separate from Archives of Disease in Childhood, ca. 1938).  In the 1930s, Chinese (largely Yangzi Delta people) breastfeeding was almost universal.  Thirty-six families had used a wet nurse; otherwise, mothers nursed their infants, though six mothers used powdered milk (having been apparently unable to nurse) and one claimed, unbelievably, to have used only rice powder.  Rice powder was used as supplement from very early.  From five or six months, soft rice supplemented the milk, and from about eight months, soup, eggs, and the like.  Chinese jujubes often came in at this point to promote blood and body; the jujubes do have iron and vitamin C.  Mothers ate pork, dry beans, cuttlefish, chicken, shrimp, sea cucumber, Chinese wine, wheat cakes, and millet to produce more milk.  They were aware of the nutritional value of silkworms, which are indeed very rich in vitamins and minerals.  Interestingly, soymilk was not used for feeding babies.

The myths die hard.  I heard in Taiwan in the 1970s that certain rich and powerful individuals abstained from rice noodles, humorally dry foods (such as peanuts), etc., eating instead a good deal of easily digested, nutritious food like chicken and vegetables and fruits.  They drink honey and use little oil.  This enables them to enjoy many lovers, which in turn built more vigor, since they could absorb yin energy from them.  They even eat ground pearls to supplement yang force.

            Of course, some plants really are nutritionally superior.  In addition to the pine seeds noted above (and now threatened by overharvesting; Allen 1989), the berries and leaves of Chinese wolfthorn (Lycium chinense; go qi zi and go qi zai respectively) are so rich in vitamins and minerals that they have served as de facto vitamin pills for millennia.

            The dietary combinations (shiwu xiangfan or shiwu xiangke—“food things that mutually dominate”) so feared in Chinese tradition have received some further attention since my coverage in The Food of China; see Lo (2005).  Incompatibilities between medicine and food have a different name, fuyao shiji.

            Tea is proving itself; green tea, in particular, turns out to be preventive of cancer,  heart disease, and other degenerative conditions.  This confirms the long-maligned enthusiasm of the famous Dutch “tea doctor,” Bontekoe, who was long ridiculed for insightfully making these claims in the 17th century.  This is apparently because of the tannins and other bioflavinoids and polyphenols that tea contains. “White tea”—tea leaves steamed at picking and then dried, so that they retain more of their chemical compounds—is better still.  It slows bacterial growth and kills fungi (Conis 2005).

Then there are other medicinal matters….  Cockroaches, boiled to treat colds and pimples, found a more subtle yet direct use in the Castle Peak Bay community where I lived for two years.  When a child was “shamming sick” to get out of going to school, his or her mother would quickly brew up some cockroaches and say, “All right, here, take this.”  The usual response was, “No, no, I’m fine, I’m going to school!” 

More serious is the use of endangered species as bu pin (supplementing foods; supposedly strengthening and tonic) or other uses.  Pangolins are now endangered worldwide because of the alleged, but wholly imaginary, medicinal value of their scales.  The Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola; huangxiong wu) formerly occurred in tens of millions.  It is now down to tens of thousands.  Always a popular food but able to survive heavy hunting, it was first hit hard by Mao Zedong’s anti-sparrow campaign.  That campaign quickly died when huge insect outbreaks followed the slaying of sparrows, buntings, and other small birds, but then the bunting came increasingly (at least since the 1990s) to be seen as a bu pin, and massacred accordingly, though it is now protected.  The world population is down to a few tens of thousands, and the bird may soon be extinct (Yali Wang et al. 2019).

            Several hallucinogenic plants were known to Chinese traditional medicine, including henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), datura (Datura spp.), marijuana (Cannabis sativa), and toxic mushrooms including Amanita and a “laughing mushroom” that may have been a Panaeolus (Li 1977).  These plants made people see ghosts or “devils.”  Some plants that are toxic but not really hallucinogenic were classed with them; Phytolacca and Ranunculus, for instance.

            Moving from historical research to China today (see e.g. Farquhar 1993, 1994; Kleinman et al. 1975):  A brilliant new group of experts on Chinese medicine has arisen, many forming a network based around the Needham Institute at Cambridge.  Their research has focused largely on clinical treatment practice (Hsu 1999, 2001), but food cannot be neglected in any study of Chinese medicine, and they do not neglect it (see esp. Engelhardt 2001; Engelhardt and Hempen 1997).  Livia Kohn has reviewed much practice in a new book (Kohn 2005).  The Newman and Halporn (2004) anthology noted above has several articles on food and medicine, including one by myself (Anderson 2004).  Chinese traditionally focused on trying to maximize longevity—not a surprising concern in a country whose traditional life expectancy was in the 25-30 range.  Equally unsurprising, given China’s history of famine, was the fact that they were most concerned with nutrition.  Poetry reflected health beliefs; Taoist poetry is full of medical views (Cheng and Collet 1998).

            Chinese food is indeed very healthy, or once was.  Ironically, much of the health value comes not from the foods believed to be good for you, but from the humble, often-despised everyday grains and greens.  Studies by Cornell University in the 1980s and 1990s showed that Chinese under traditional rural conditions had incredibly low levels of cholesterol (average 127—vs. over 200 in the contemporary USA), were lean and in good shape, and had very low rates of heart disease, many cancers, and other circulatory and degenerative ailments (Campbell and Campbell 2005; Campbell and Chen 1994; Chen et al 1990; Lang 1989).  Some areas, at least, had rather high rates of cancer.  Cancer incidence can increase from having too low a cholesterol level (Barbara Anderson, personal communication).  But, in general, traditional Chinese food was healthful.  Some “long-life villages” in south China—often Thai-speaking villages—have especially long life expectancies (as do villages in parts of southern Japan, notably Okinawa).  The secret seems to be mountain air and water, mountain exercise, and a diet of whole or nearly-whole grains, vegetables, some fish, and little meat. 

            Chinese women traditionally breastfed for a long time, sometimes three years (but usually half of that).  Frequent pregnancy and long lactation, and frequent spells of malnutrition, meant that women rather rarely menstruated, which may explain Chinese beliefs about menstruation as a rather strange and dangerous state (Harrell 1981).  A large number of fascinating medical beliefs about breasts, breastfeeding, and breast health went—in general—to support breastfeeding in traditional China, but some were complex medical beliefs with obscure origins (see Wu 2011).

            On the other hand, liver flukes abounded of old, thanks largely to eating raw or undercooked carp and similar fish.  Opisthorchis viverrini is particularly common today.  “Many still believe that the O. viverrini parasite can be killed through fermentation, preparation of raw fish with chilies or lime, or consumption with alcohol” (Ziegler et al 2011).  No, and even freezing, salting and drying do not kill it.  There is no solution except thorough cooking.

Today, the situation is changing, and not always for the better.  Eating more meat, fat, and sugar, and less vegetables, bean curd, and unprocessed grain, has led to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes.  Longevity increases with modern medicine, but heart attacks are commoner.  Moreover, the Chinese government has turned away from its spectacular early successes in medical care, which more than doubled life expectancy from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Health spending as a part of total government spending declined “from 28% to 14% between 1981 and 1993, allocation to the rural ‘cooperative medical-insurance system’ decreased from 20% to 2%,” while rampant corruption and price-gouging have denied care to the poor (Dong, Hoven and Rosenfeld 2005:573-574).  Given the epidemics of SARS and AIDS as well as the drastic decline in healthy eating, China is in deep trouble.  Problems for the future include not only obesity and diabetes, but specific deficiencies, such as anemia (chronic in China for millennia) and folic acid deficiency (an emergent danger with the decline in eating vegetables and whole grains).  Folic acid deficiency is probably the major cause of birth defects round the world, and is probably increasing in China.  (The double “probably” reflects the dismal state of knowledge of this terrible, insidious problem.) 

On the other hand, life expectancy continues to increase (so far), and the Chinese live almost as long as Westerners.  In Taiwan, and parts of south China, they live as long as do the inhabitants of many European nations.  Food and medical care continue to be reasonably adequate, and the scale of differences from two generations ago are almost unparalleled in world history.  However, public health care is declining seriously in rural areas (Arif Dirlik, talk of May 26, 2005, UCR), threatening the future.

            Meanwhile, Chinese medicinal food has spread to the western world, not only via books but also via such restaurants as the TT Chinese Imperial Cuisine of San Gabriel, CA—a restaurant serving medicinal foods to the local Chinese community.  In China itself, restaurants serving yaoshan—“medical dining,” traditional medicinal dishes—have been growing in number and elaborateness since their beginning around 1980 in Sichuan.  They use variously-updated recipes from the medical-nutrition classics.

            And the classic four tastes—salt, sweet, sour, and bitter—have been increased to five:  the human tongue has receptors for glutamate, giving us the taste known in Japanese (and now in English) as umami.  This gives the spark to MSG and many Asian ferments.  And to end this ms with a correction: In 1988 I reported that MSG could cause flushing and discomfort, the “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”  This seems to be a rare allergy, not a normal event; the syndrome was usually psychosomatic. 


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