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Chinese Cultural Studies:
Chinese Food: Two Texts


A Spanish Diplomat Visits China

from J.H. Parry, ed., The European Reconnaissance, (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), as excerpted in William J. Duiker and Jackson J. Speigelvogel, World History, (Minneapolis/St. Paul: West, 1994), p. 662

[Duiker Introduction] Europeans approached China with considerable curiosity. In this extract, a Spanish member of a diplomatic delegation to the Ming dynasty in 1575 comments on Chinese eating habits, including the practice of eating with chopsticks. The mission had no immediate consequences, and the first Catholic missionaries did not arrive in Beijing until early in the seventeenth century.

The principal food of all Chinese is rice, for although they have wheat and sell bread kneaded therefrom, yet they do not eat it save as if it were a fruit. Their chief bread is cooked rice, and they even make a wine from it which is comparable with a reasonable grapewine and might even be mistaken for it. They eat seated at tables, but they do not use table-cloths or napkins; for they do not touch with their fingers anything that they are going to eat, but. they pick up everything with two long little sticks, They are so expert in this, that they can take anything, however small, and carry it to their mouth, even if it is round, like plums and other such fruits. At the beginning of a meal they eat meat without bread, and afterwards instead of bread they eat three or four dishes of cooked rice, which they likewise eat with their chopsticks, even though somewhat hoggishly. At banquets, a table is placed for each guest, and when the banquet is a formal one, each guest gets many tables and to explain this I would like to recount what sort of banquets they offered us, and the way in which they were served.

In a large room, at the top of the hall, they placed seven tables in a row for each one of the clergy, and along the side-walls five tables for each of the Spanish laymen who were there, and three tables for each of the Chinese captains who accompanied us. And next to the doors of the hall, opposite the clergy, sat the captains who had 'invited us, each one at his own table. In our room they had arranged on one side three tables bearing the covers for each one of us. All these tables were loaded as much as they could be with plates and dishes of food, save that only the principal table contained cooked meats, and all the uncooked food was on the other tables which were for grandeur and display. There were whole geese and ducks, capons and hens, gammons of bacon and other chops of pork, fresh pieces of veal and beef, many kinds of fish, a great quantity of fruits of all kinds, with elegant pitchers and bowls and other knickknacks all made of sugar, and so forth. All this which was put upon the tables, when we got therefrom, was put into hampers and carried to our lodgings. In sort that everything which is put their for display all belongs to the guests.


Using Chopsticks

an extract from Cao Xueqin, The Dream of the Red Chamber, from Liu Wu-chi, An Introduction to Chinese Literature, (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1966), as excerpted in William J. Duiker and Jackson J, Speigelvogel, World History, (Minneapolis/St. Paul: West, 1994), p. 665

[Duiker Introduction] This passage from The Dream of the Red Chamber is characteristic of the historical detail of the novel. It describes a country cousin's visit to the elegant mansion of her city relatives and the comic scene that she provokes by her naiveté. Such writing brings to life the wealth and luxury of the Qing dynasty and show that Europeans were not the only people who had trouble with chopsticks.

As soon as Old Dame Liu was seated, she picked up the chopsticks which were uncannily heavy and hard to manage. It was because Phoenix and Mandarin Duck had previously plotted to give her a pair of old-fashioned, angular-shaped ivory chopsticks gilded with gold. Looking at them, Old Dame Liu remarked: "These fork-like things are even heavier than our iron prongs. How can one hold them up!" Everyone laughed. By this time a woman servant had brought in a tiny food box and, as she stood there, another maid came forward to lift the lid. Inside were two bowls of food. Li Huan (Pao-yu's elder brother's widow) took one bowl and placed it on the Matriarch's table as Phoenix picked up a bowl of pigeon eggs to place it on Old Dame Liu's table.

Just as the Matriarch had finished saying, "Please eat, "Old Dame Liu rose from her seat and said aloud.

"Old Liu, Old Liu, her appetite as big as a cow!

She eats like an old sow without lifting her' head."

Having said her piece, with her cheeks puffed out she looked straight ahead without uttering another word. At first all those present were astonished, but upon a moment's reflection, all burst out laughing at the same time. Unable to restrain herself, River Cloud (Matriarch's grandniece) spluttered out a mouthful of tea; Black Jade was choked with laughter and leaning on the table, could only cry and groan, "Ai-ya" Pao-yu rolled down into the Matriarch's lap; joyously she hugged him and cried out, "Oh, my heart! my liver!" Madame Wang (Pao-yu's mother) also laughed, then pointed her finger at Phoenix, but could not utter one word. Aunt Hsueh (Precious Clasp's mother) unable to control herself, spurted out her mouthful of tea on the skirt of Quest Spring (she and the other ".Spring" girls were all Pao- yu's cousins and sisters), whose teacup fell on the body of Greeting Spring. Compassion Spring left her seat and pulling the wet nurse to her, asked her to rub her belly. None among the servants did not twist her waist or bend her back as they giggled. Some slipped out to have a good laugh while squatting down and others, having stopped laughing by now, came forward to change the dresses for the girls. Only Phoenix and Mandarin Duck controlled themselves and kept urging Old Dame Liu to eat.

Old Dame Liu lifted up the chopsticks but they were hardly manageable. Looking at the bowl in front of her, she remarked: "Well, well, even your hens are smarter than ours! They lay such tiny delicate eggs, very dainty indeed. Let me try one'" A11 the people had just stopped laughing but they burst out again upon hearing these words. The Matriarch laughed so much that tears dropped down; she just couldn't stop them and Amber (Matriarch's maidservant) had to pound her back to relieve her. The Matriarch said "This must have been the work of that sly, impish Phoenix. Don't listen to her."

Old Dame Liu was still exclaiming about how tiny and dainty the eggs were when Phoenix said jocularly to her: "They cost an ounce of silver apiece, You had better hurry up and taste one before they get cold." Old Dame Liu then stretched out her chopsticks to seize the eggs with both ends, but how could she pick them up? After having chased them all over the howl, she finally captured one with no little effort and was about to crane her neck to eat it when lo! it slipped off and fell on the floor. She was going to pick it up herself when a woman servant got it and took it out Old Dame Liu sighed; "An ounce of silver! How it disappears without making a noise!"