FOOD CULTURE IN CHINA: FROM SOCIAL POLITICAL PERSPECTIVES.

AuthorTian, Robert Guang
PositionReport
  1. Introduction

    In the ancient Chinese society with the state political power as the center, people's diet activities and eating behaviors were controlled or influenced by political ideology, and they tended to break away from the material joy of the diet itself and transform into non-diet social functions (Huang 2001). This is mainly manifested in the link between eating behavior and state governance by seeking the rule of governance in the theory of food and cooking; including social food activities in the political and ethical order of 'rites'. Through food reward or offering food as tribute to the emperor, diet being treated as political means for winning others' support or as a political tool for officialdom, and the sharp social contradictions arise from the large disparities of food consumption and food resources possession among people (Lin 1997). The development of traditional Chinese food culture has presented a distinctive feature of political ideology, because the social diet behavior has always been consciously or unconsciously interfered or influenced by social politics.

  2. Food culture and social consciousness in China

    Food folklore is initiator of many cultural phenomena. For example, an important concept in Chinese aesthetics is 'beauty', which originated from people's daily eating activities. The aesthetic consciousness of Chinese culture originally came from people's gustatory organs, which can be seen from the meaning of the character [phrase omitted](beauty). [phrase omitted]is composed of [phrase omitted](lamb) and [phrase omitted](big) and means [phrase omitted] (sweet and pleasant) in its structure. Namely, the Chinese original aesthetic consciousness arose from the taste sensitivity of fatty mutton, and then extended in turn to the senses of smell, sight, touch and hearing and further to mental consciousness. It was finally involved in nature and human society, extending to all aspects that could bring about beauty and aesthetic feeling in the spiritual and material life (Lin 1996). There is a close relationship between the eating tools and cultures between the Chinese and the Western one, the use of knife and fork is matched with the split dining system, which gives rise to the cultural characteristics of Westerners' attention to independence and individuality. Chopsticks are, on the other hand, suitable for family members to sit together at a table, highlighting the family unit, thus letting the Orientals have quite strong family values and concept of harmony (Yin and Han 2007).

    The Chinese food culture has the characteristics of inheritability and development, and throughout the history of Chinese food culture, it has maintained its momentum of development since its primitive society. Neither the change of dynasty nor the change of social system has had a profound influence on it, and the philosophy of supplying enough food to people and food being the top priority was very popular. Eating was a top priority for people in China. Confucius long ago said that the desire for food and sex is part of human nature. As such, in the Chinese culture, which emphasizes human nature, food became the priority. Because of the attention to diet, Chinese people would, when they had leisure time or abundant raw materials, work out a variety of food. In the event of a disaster, they tried to develop all sorts of wild vegetables and weeds for survival. Therefore, the number of food breed and design continued to rise, which caused many Westerners to have the illusion that the Chinese dare to eat all the edible items. What's more, Chinese cooking is flexible, which is characterized by saying that there is no fixed taste and what is delicious is valued. In Chinese cooking, there are ways but no rules, making Chinese dishes have infinite names, designs and colors (Zhou 2007).

    The beauty of food is one of the important roots of Chinese aesthetics, which inspires people with the stimulation of eating. Triggering art inspiration is the inevitable result of Chinese food culture pursuing complete and beautiful color, fragrance, taste, shape, and utensils. It makes food culture a comprehensive art containing multiple cultural connotations of diet, diet mentality, beautiful utensils and etiquette, food enjoyment and eating. Chinese foods have not only exquisite craftsmanship and rich nutrition, but also elegant and graceful names, which are literary and romantic, poetic and fancy (Zhou 2004).

    When one reviews the historical development of Chinese food culture, it is not hard to find that, since the rise of the Zhou Ritual, etiquette system of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C.-256 B.C.), the social public eating behavior was included in the category of "the ritual". The daily diet activities embodied the ideas or bore the function of "the ritual", which was the most prominent social characteristics of the ancient food culture.

    As a matter of fact, the origin of the ritual was diet. The initial meaning of ritual refers to the sequence of having a meal, which was directly generated from worship activities by offering food and fruits to gods, ghosts and ancestors. Before eating and drinking, even in the case of vegetables and soup, people must worship and let the ghosts and departed ancestors eat first. They dared not to eat the fruits or rice of the new harvest until some had been sacrificed for the ancestors to taste first. As a result, in the sacrifice of food, heaven, earth, gods and ghosts were the first to be taken care of. The living would neither eat nor drink until their deceased ancestors had done so. These sequences of having a meal thus constituted the initial meaning of the ritual. Then, the connotation of the ritual was continuously expanded, and eventually evolved into a series of political ethical orders of respect for seniority, superiority, affinity difference, gender difference, which strictly defined the identity of social members. Of course, some scholars have questioned the argument (Li and Tian 2014).

    To strengthen the political ritual order of differences between men and women, men enjoying higher status than women in the social ethical relationship, the ancient diet activities also bore the function of practical moralization. This was reflected in the fact that females were often excluded from public banquets in terms of participation in social diet activities. This kind of phenomenon, i.e. men and women did not eat at the same table, was an inherited family rule and custom inside the general feudal family or patriarchal clan. Even in the family life of an individual small family, the inequities between genders shown in eating were commonly seen (Tylor 2004).

    The traditions of any culture would not remain invariable beyond time and space. Without exception, they follow the rule of life that happens, develops, and declines. It is not advisable to treat a cultural tradition with reluctance to part with life and the most beautiful feeling of life. Cultural tradition itself is in contradiction between life and death, and life cycle is its way of existence and movement process. It is advisable and feasible to treat or inherit and carry forward cultural traditions cognitively and actively in a scientific way. There have been many ethnic cultures in the history of world civilization, and some ethnic groups who created certain culture are no longer able to survive. The tradition of Chinese food culture also faces such challenges, which are opportunities as well (Wolff 2006).

    Chinese food culture traditions are under the process of evolution and updating. The food industry development in China lags, and there are conflicts between traditional diet modes and manufactured foods. The impact resulting from ideas will spread from heavily to lightly through the whole stage of transformation. Overall, China's food industry is adjusted to the general trend of modernization, and the proportion of processed foods increases year by year, which is an objective trend. Nevertheless, how to process traditional food resources into modern foods that are popular with consumers is a problem that the suppliers have been facing through the process (Leach 1991). This is because the generalization process of food industry may not be able to eliminate the cultural differences and traditional customs of groups. Modernization always goes abreast with localization. It is the modernization coming out of the tradition that has the continued momentum and influence of localization, which can be widely accepted by general consumers. At the same time, people's consumption level and purchasing power are crucial factors. Since the reform and opening, the diet of the masses has improved greatly, and their consumption level has gone up significantly. Most people can have sufficient food, and quite a few of them have already eaten well enough, which means the problem of food and clothing has basically been solved. Many people are in transition from eating well to eating more scientifically and rationally by considering nutrition, function, economy, convenience and civilization (Zhao 2000).

    China's food industry is growing rapidly, but there are also structural problems. The reasons are as follows: First, people lack the ability to buy manufactured food, especially peasants far away from cities and towns cannot play the role of major consumers of industrial food. In the second place, people's consumption structure restricts the investment into the purchasing power of industrial food, which restrains the growth of purchasing power. The Chinese family child care and education investments are too heavy (especially the latter; statistics show that 43% of Chinese savings is used for their children's education), which are followed by expenses on housing, medical treatment, and so on. All these are crucial factors constraining food expenses, and the Chinese tradition has been the tightening of belts. The third reason is that, affected...

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