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.