That the consumption of food is an essential part of the chemical process we call life, is obvious. But food is more than just vital to our continued physical existence. Food comforts, as well as sustains us, and there are few events or situations marking a person’s life that fail to involve eating. In most cultures, food is pivotal to ceremonies involving the living and the dead; birth and death are often accompanied by food rituals and superstitions. For the Chinese, these particular events are marked with the preparation and consumption of special foods with symbolic, and often punning, meanings.
Food semantics offer a fruitful inquiry into the Chinese social system. Even before the birth of a child, the celebration of his life begins. In many western cultures, a party or “baby shower” is given to help the new family. Gifts for the baby are given in order to assist the parents in clothing, protecting, and caring for the newborn infant. After the birth of the child, relatives and friends often prepare and deliver meals while the parents adapt to the routine of an infant. In China, numerous special foods and dishes attended confinement and childbirth.
Most frequently friends would send stalks of grain called man-t’ou which meant “share the pain. ” During the month following the baby’s birth, the mother will traditionally eat at least 1 poached egg a day, as well as some chicken or chicken soup with her meals. A variety of other internal animal organs, such as liver, kidney, brain, stomach and intestines are valued and desirable foods. After the birth of the baby, especially a son, the mother’s family will send over gifts of expensive foods such as wheat flour, wheat flour noodles, chickens and eggs. These are primarily intended for the new mother in order for her to regain her strength.
The father’s family makes a number of red-dyed eggs and distributes them to relatives and neighbors, much like the giving of cigars in America. In Judeo-Christian cultures, there are religious ceremonies that traditionally take place within one year of the baby’s birth. For Christians, the baby is baptized. In the Jewish faith, if the child is male, a bris (circumcision) is performed. Following both of these ceremonies, it is common for the parents to host a party honoring these rituals. At the very least cake and punch is served; however, there is often a more formal affair in which heavy hors d’oeuvres or a buffet and champagne are served.
In China, babies are traditionally not bathed for three days. On the third day, relatives are invited to view the newest family member. When the baby is thirty days old, an official celebration is held when friends join in the festivities. These are called “First Moon Parties. ” Each visitor brings the baby a gift of a brightly colored and often elaborately decorated egg. Parents also present red eggs to guests that symbolize life and joy. Good luck charms, necklaces, and lockets are also frequently given.
Tigers are a popular theme as they are symbols of strength and courage and the giver hopes the baby will grow up to be as strong and brave. The western custom of giving parties on birthdays goes back to the days when people believed that good and evil spirits appeared at the time of a child’s birth and influenced him throughout his life. Birthdays were believed to be filled with unknown dangers because they marked a time change from one year to the next. Having a party surrounded the child with good friends and relatives who shower him with good wishes, scaring away evil spirits so they could not get close enough to do him harm.
On the first birthday of a Chinese baby, a party is held. The baby is dressed in brightly colored new clothes with a round hat. These clothes will often be embroidered in gold and silver threads. At the party, the baby is placed in the middle of a table on which many objects are placed. Whichever object the baby reaches for first is thought to show his future. For example, if the child reaches for a book, he will be a scholar; if the object first sought is an abacus, he may become a businessman. At both the First Moon Party and the First Birthday Party, many delicious foods are served.
The more elaborate and expensive the dishes, the more prestigious for the family. Chicken, duck, fish and vegetables are common. Noodles are always served at any Chinese birthday dinner as they signify a long life. And because it takes many noodles to fill a bowl, they also mean “many happy returns of the day. ” Another custom is the serving of pastries molded and baked in the shape of peaches painted red. These symbolize an ancient Chinese legend about an immortal lady with her “magic” fruit and wish the child a long life. The Chinese have a deep belief and many superstitions surrounding ancestor worship.
Included as a large part of this worship was the ritual feeding of the dead. People offered food to their ancestors in the belief of keeping “hungry ghosts” happy. This showed the livings’ continued respect as well as ensuring that the departed would watch over and protect them in this world. In ancient China a poem related in the Li Yun section of the Li Chi states: When one died, they (the living) went up on the housetop and called out his name saying, “Come back, So-and-So. ” After this they filled the mouth (of the dead) with uncooked rice, and set forth (as offerings to him) packets of cooked flesh.
Archeological remains at burial sites indicate that a large number of graves contained pottery serving vessels. At two particular sites of the Chou (Zhou) period (771 – 256 BC), one near Sian and the other near Loyang, the overwhelming majority of graves contained vessels that served the whole range of foods. These were in sets in individual burial graves, including vessels for cooking and serving grain (li and kui), vessels for serving meat dishes (tou) and vessels for drinking (hu and kuan). The Chinese have clear and elaborate customs for the ritual use of food in mourning.
Food offered for death-day sacrifices (on an altar) is essentially the same food as common fare although it may be richer in meat. Chopsticks and bowls are always provided. After these offerings are made, the family and their guests eat the same food. On the third day after burial, the ceremony called “returning to the mountain” is performed. Four bowls of meat are offered along with a pair of chopsticks, a jar of wine, and a wineglass. It is on this day that the deceased returns to its former home seeking daylight.
An egg is prepared for him and placed in a bowl with a single chopstick in which to detain him (the concept being that it is difficult to eat an egg with only one chopstick). When the expected visit is over, the egg is given to a child in order to increase their courage. This is an example of the symbolic pun in Chinese culture: Tan-tze ta (the egg offering) is a pun on the word Tan – egg and Tan – gall which is considered the seat of courage in China. Food presented at graves, though potentially edible, are generally not soaked, seasoned or cooked.
These offerings consist of twelve small bowls of foodstuffs, including dry mushrooms, fish, meat, noodles, and bean curd. Although death ceremonies today are generally more spartan, ancient ceremonial trappings are making a reappearance. These include fiery offerings to the dead, i. e. , if a man liked good food and drink, cardboard and paper imitations may be burned at his funeral as a reminder to the gods to cater to his needs. The Chinese people are preoccupied with food, and food is at the center of, or at least accompanies or symbolizes, many social interactions.
The role of food as social language is determined by the occasion of the act and the status of the interacting parties. A meal is a common opportunity for getting together with family, relatives and friends but the food that is served can also wish long life and best wishes, convey sorrow at a loss, and show respect. Whether a husband makes wined-chicken for his wife who just gave birth, or a mother composes a special noodle dish for her child’s first birthday, or a woman prepares her deceased father’s favorite meal for his grave, words of affection are being delivered.
In this respect the Chinese are no different from any other people, but it is the specific food used and the rituals used in preparing them that make the Chinese stand apart. Properly understood, eating attunes the Chinese to the greater order of life through ritualistic preparation and consumption. These are an integral part of Chinese culture and the Chinese believe they ensure good societal health and long life.