Chinese New Year Food Culture

The culture and beliefs of a group of people dictate how they consume food and provide a framework on the etiquette and rituals surrounding food. This complex food tradition is also what we know as food culture. Studying food culture, will reveal the culture’s most important values and beliefs since food culture is practiced daily. In this assignment, I decided to research the values and beliefs within Chinese New Year food culture.

In order to fully understand Chinese food culture during New Year, I examined the development of Chinese food culture, values and beliefs embedded in Chinese food culture, then how Chinese New Year is appropriated to fit different cultural narratives.

In my research of the development of Chinese food culture, Dr. Ken Albala suggested three criteria are needed for a rich and complex food culture. First, the country needs to have a strong family tradition with multiple generations. Second, affluent court culture with social mobility. Lastly, a thriving restaurant culture. The Chinese were able to fulfill all three of these criteria. Through Confucius’ teaching of familial piety, the value of a strong family heavily resonates with the Chinese people. In addition to familial piety, a strong culture around respecting elders allow traditional cooking methods and skills to be passed down from generation to generation. The Chinese also had a rich court culture. The Chinese Civil Examination allowed people, rich and poor, to hold a job in the court system. This method of social mobility allowed people of all different classes to experience different styles of food and the culture associated with it. Lastly, the Chinese had a rich restaurant culture. Starting in the Song Dynasty, shopkeepers ate out more because of the increased business in urban areas. This phenomenon allowed many people to experience different food culture in public, not just in private settings.

The first day of the New Year is based on the Chinese lunar calendar and usually falls on the new moon between 21 January and 20 February. The food and rituals surrounding Chinese New Year “provides an opportunity to send away the misfortunes accumulated from the past and to prepare for starting afresh.” As I explored the values and beliefs embedded in Chinese food culture during Chinese New Year, I learned a few things.  First, food is important to Chinese culture. The hearth, or the kitchen, symbolizes the life of the family. In fact, it is so important, there is a “kitchen god” who reports the activities of the family to the Jade Emperor and rewards or punishments would given out based on that report. Second, to the Chinese people, spiritual things maybe affected by physical things or vise-versa. For example, we learned in class through Pu Songling’s short stories, ghosts can be harmed or captured by physical objects. In the same way, Chinese people believe that consuming certain foods can bring more wealth, luck, and better health to an individual or family. During Chinese Year, dumplings shaped like a Chinese tael are consumed, hoping to bring in more wealth for the year. Similarly, long noodles are served in hopes of a long, healthy life.

In modern times, Chinese New Year is still widely celebrated regardless of what country Chinese people may reside in. However, in a different place some rituals need to be changed due to geographic limitations. For example, in the us instead of making dumplings, many families often buy pre-made frozen ones. Many times, Western food such as pizza may also appear beside traditional Chinese New Year food because the kid’s do not have a palate for Chinese food. Many families, due to busy lifestyles may even just eat out with family and friends due to the amount of work needed to prepare a lavish dinner.

We can see through my research, food culture is complex and inextricably connected with one’s culture. How we view food and the rituals surrounding eating show us the values and beliefs we believe. These values and beliefs, for the Chinese people, are also easily modifie and are adapted to fit wherever the Chinese family may be.

4 thoughts on “Chinese New Year Food Culture

  1. Alyssa Tetreault

    Hi Stanley, thank you for the article. It was definitely interesting reading about the culture behind the Chinese new year. I found most interesting the three criteria for a rich and complex food culture. I also did a project on the food of a culture and how it affects their daily lives. I examined the ethnic minority Circassians in Turkey. What I find compelling is that the Circassian culture only hold one of these three criteria, mainly to their minority status, but they still have a very diverse and rich food culture. Of the three criteria Circassians only have strong family traditions that tie their culture to their cuisine. Like many other minorities in Turkey they do not have the same status or ability to participate as traditional Turks do. I think that this underlying connection of culture to its food is a theme among many groups around the world. the food itself often shapes the culture. I think that your examination of the culture around the new years was interesting and thorough. I think it is strange how two cultures can be so similar in how their food connects to their culture but so different in how the food and traditions are interpreted and modified. As you said in Chinese culture the traditions are modified for modern times. However in Circassian culture, there is no modification. Their traditions are straight forward and often are not changed unless their is cultural appropriation is happening in another country of inhabitance.

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  2. Heather Sartwell

    I thought your topic was very interesting to read and learn about. Within my Minority Report class, I looked into the culture of the Yazidi’s and tried to find some recipes that they used within their culture. Looking into the Yazidi’s culture, they sometimes have to hide who they are depending on the location of where they are living and based on that, they would either eat foods that were part of their culture or they would blend in with the rituals and traditions of the culture they are living in. Sometimes people take food for granted and don’t see the meaning of food within their culture and the importance it has for individuals all over the world. I really enjoyed reading the part about how the Chinese family traditions is a great impact on their eating rituals. I’m defiantly interested in learning more in the future.

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  3. Norman Paquette

    Interesting article, and very well thought out. Food culture is incredibly difficult to pinpoint across the board, but the explanation provided here is quite informative of Chinese food culture, and actually connects directly to some odd phenomenon seen within Austrian food culture as well. Restaurant culture in Vienna is quite prominent, and has a heavy focus on sweets which can, oddly enough, include dumplings. The Germknoedel is a traditional dumpling that can be found in Austria that has a sweet filling and is topped with butter. It’s quite popular, especially at ski resorts, and while traditionally made by hand, it can also be bought frozen similarly to the Chinese style dumplings found in the US. It’s origins can be connected to traditions that had to be changed due to outside influence, similarly to the Yazidi culture mentioned toward the end of the article. It’s amazing, while also rather sad, how much influence surrounding cultures can have on a particular culture, and that’s something that can easily be seen around the world.
    It’s also quite odd to me how widespread certain foods are. As mentioned previously, a certain type of dumpling can be found in Austria, and the dumpling in general is actually a type of food that can be found across the globe. NPR actually has an interesting article that can be found with a simple google search that actually lists off dumplings of various kinds that come from cultures across the globe, and actually offers an explanation of what classifies as a dumpling. I recommend reading it at some point.
    I definitely wasn’t aware of the widespread nature of Chinese New Year and food related to it. It’s often times so easy to forget that cultures can have such a wide influence, and it’s certainly interesting to see how cultures can mix depending on region. In particular, the mention of pizza alongside traditional Chinese food was quite humorous to me, as it reminds me of the various Chinese Food buffets that exist and the inclusion of entire booths dedicated to “American food” that are often found at them. It’s nice to see that these sort of things are allowed in family traditions, though I can’t help but see humor in it.
    I also find it odd how common these foods are compared to those found in areas like Austria. It is incredibly difficult to find Austrian food outside of Austria, and while traditional Chinese foods are a bit more difficult to come by than their more Westernized counterparts, I can at least find the ingredients to cook the more traditional foods easily . I attempted to make the previously mentioned Germknoedel, and was unable to find some of the most important ingredients of it, and couldn’t find its most common substitutes either. I’m sure some of the recipes that you found could be quite easily made.
    Overall, I found this to be quite an informative article. It’s global connection is clear, and shows how wide spread Chinese Food culture truly is. Now if only those that enjoy Austrian cuisine could be so lucky.

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  4. Jennifer Yee

    I resonated a lot with this article because I am Chinese and practice these sort of cultural things you had described. My family is very close-knit and food is definitely a big part of being together and celebration. I had no idea that there was a ‘kitchen god’ but it makes sense to have a god for that part of the house because it is where food is made to fuel a family. The three criteria you mentioned: “strong family tradition with multiple generations, affluent court culture with social mobility, a thriving restaurant culture” is very strong in Chinese culture so no wonder there is such a rich food culture within the country. Thank you for highlighting something that has been so prevalent to me and how that has had an impact on Chinese culture!

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