Gastronomy in Ancient China, by Donald Harper

Cooking for the sage king

Photo by Tim Chow (@timchowdoingthings)

Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.
—Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, M.F.K. Fisher trans.

The beginnings of Chinese gastrono­my (by which I mean the art and science of delicate eating) go back at least to the third century B.C., when the oldest extant gastronomic treatise appeared. By that time clear distinctions had been established between gluttonous indulgence and gastronomic refinement, between the vulgar eating habits of the ignorant and the rarefied diet of certain wise men. The flora, fauna, and minerals of the earth were potential aliments, each to be assessed for gastronomic value. Only the most subtle examination might reveal how to utilize these materials—how to eliminate their noxious effects and combine them into dishes which both pleased the palate and nourished the body.

From the time of earliest civilization in China there was a keen awareness of the effects of food on the body, and the Chinese applied their culinary skills to the preparation of dishes which promoted physical well-being. Although documentation of attitudes towards food is scant in sources earlier than the third century B.C., notions of raw, cooked, cold, warm, dry, moist, and the like were already ingrained in the culinary code of Shang and early Chou times (sixteenth-eighth centuries B.C.). The flowering of gastronomy was in China part of a revolution in spiritual and intellectual ideas which is documented in the speculative writings of the fifth to third centuries B.C. At the core of the teachings expounded in this literature, be it the ethical philosophy of Confucius and Mencius or the naturalism of Chuang Tzu, was the belief that humankind was perfectable. A person needed only to undertake the appropriate program of self-cultivation in order to experience the transformation into a sage.

It was inevitable that food should become a matter of the greatest importance in the daily life of a would-be sage; and dietary regimens proliferated which were designed to aid the adept in the cultivation of body, mind, and spirit. Just what kind of diet was deemed most appropriate was a controversial subject. Teachings ascribed to the fifth century B.C. philosopher Mo Tzu, for example, appear to be directly critical of the trend in eating habits:1

The sage kings of antiquity in fashioning the model for drinking and eating let it be sufficient to fill the empty stomach, sustain the vital vapor, strengthen the limbs, make the ears and eyes sharp and clear, and then desisted. They did not carry to extremes the blending of the Five Tastes or the harmonizing of fragrant aromas. They did not import rare oddities and marvelous substances from distant realms.

Those dietary niceties which, according to Mo Tzu, the legendary kings did not practice were of course the very practices being promoted in contemporary gastronomic circles.

The antithesis to the utilitarian attitude towards food professed by Mo Tzu, and the oldest manifesto of gastronomy, is an essay in the Lü Shih Ch’un Ch’iu (Spring and Autumn of Sire Lü, a compendium of spec­ulative ideas compiled in the second half of the third century B.C. The essay is entitled “Pen Wei” (“Seeking the Root of Taste”).2 The core of the essay provides a counter ­statement to Mo Tzu’s dicta on eating, and the practices Mo Tzu criticizes may be the very ones espoused by the authors of  ”Seeking the Root of Taste.” There is also evidence of the physiological and therapeutic orientation of ancient dietary practices in this essay; for gastronomic arts were fundamentally concerned with the effects of food on a person’s physical well-being, not simply with the pursuit of culinary delight for its own sake. Food was considered to belong to the resources of materia medica. The theory and technique of food preparation paralleled pharmacy—the cook and pharmacist practiced a similar art.

This dual role is apparent in the figure of I Yin, the master of gastronomy in “Seeking the Root of Taste.” I Yin was a cook whose accomplishments became known to King T’ang, the founder of the House of Shang in the mid-second millennium B.C. King T’ang recognized I Yin’s virtue, sought him out, and made I Yin his chief advisor. The legend of I Yin the cook is recorded elsewhere in early literature: how he first delighted T’ang with his culinary expertise and then rose to assist the king in establishing the Shang dynasty. Another version of the I Yin legend emphasizes his knowledge of drugs. According to later tradition, I Yin was the first cook of herbal medicine, for he was the creator of medicinal decoctions.

It is in the guise of I Yin’ s inaugural lecture to King T’ang that the gastronomic theory of “Seeking the Root of Taste” is presented:

I Yin delighted T’ang with a teaching on the Culminant Taste. T’ang said, “Can this bepracticed?” I Yin responded, “My Lord’s do­main is small and will not suffice to provide for it. Become the Son of Heaven and then it can be provided for. Now, of the three groups of creatures, the water-dwellers have a rank fishiness; the carnivores are rancid; and the herbivores are malodorous. Stinking and foul, they are still excellent; and each has its use. At the root of all tastes, water is primordial. Among the Five Tastes and Three Materials, and the Nine Simmerings and Nine Transformations, fire serves as the regulator. At times brisk and at times slow, fire eliminates fishiness, removes rancidness, and eradicates malodorousness. It must be done so that the ingredients are con­quered without losing their inherent qualities.”

From the outset I Yin makes it clear that only the supreme individual ordained by Heaven as son, the king by divine right, can expect to successfully practice it. The image of the true king was a common trope for the cultivation of the sage in the ancient speculative writings, and thus the promise of initiation to gastronomic secrets for those who adopt the teaching is implicit.

In the first part of the teaching I Yin sets out the principles of cooking. Water and fire are the primary forces at work in cooking. Water is the elemental liquid in which all tastes are resolved; fire acts to modulate the cooking process so that the food is brought to the ideal condition of maturation. What transpires in the cooking pot is an imitation of the effects of mois­ture and heat in nature; a notion also evident in the word shu, which in ancient usage denoted both properly cooked food and perfect ripeness for grain, fruit, and vegetables. However, the correlation with natural processes involves a more complex symbolism which was still being elaborated in the third century B.C. Gradually evolving as the Chinese sought to penetrate the mysterious operation of the world, the concept of Yin and Yang dualism and of Five Actions (wu hsing) provided the base for a symbolic theory of correspondence which meshed the manifold phenomena of the world into a single fabric.

Photo by Tim Chow (@timchowdoingthings)

Water and fire were the first of the Five Actions to emerge in the cosmic creation according to the cosmogonic sequence of the Five Actions as established in sources earlier than the third century B.C. ( the se­quence is: water, fire, wood, metal, earth).3 Thus, declaring water to be primordial accords to water the same role in cooking as in the original creation. And the fire that arose after water is present in the fire burning in every stove. Unlike classical Greek theories of the elements in nature, the Chinese theory of the Five Actions associated water, fire, wood, metal, and earth with qualities native to their respective substances and with various cyclical processes in nature. All aspects of human existence were susceptible to analysis in terms of these qualities and cycles. By the third century B.C. Yin Yang and Five Action theories were well-developed in astrology and calendrics, serving to correlate celestial motions and seasonal passages with the microcosmic human realm below. They were also being applied in physiological speculations, although it was another few centuries before the model of the human body based on Yin Yang and Five Action theories was formalized in Chinese medicine.

Reference to the Five Tastes in I Yin’s teaching constitutes early witness to the importance of Five Action theories in the analysis of foodstuffs. The tastes as correlat­ed with the actions are: salty/water, bitter/fire, sour/wood, acrid/metal, sweet/earth. The purpose of identifying the tastes is to know the ingredients and proportions which will result in a perfectly balanced dish. While fire is the chief actor among the Three Materials (water, fire, and the wood which is the fuel), Nine Simmerings, and Nine Transformations, if the tastes of the ingredients are not properly chosen then the dish will fail. The concern for the tastes of ingredients was shared by pharmacy. In the oldest materia medica the taste of a drug according to the five-fold schema is standard information; the individual drugs used in a compound are referred to as the “tastes” of the compound. The very notion of a Culminant Taste in gastronomy is premised upon seeking the supreme harmo­nization of the tastes of the ingredients. And this is the subject taken up by I Yin in the second part of the teaching:

In the business of harmonious blending, one must make use of the sweet, sour, bitter, acrid, and salty. Whether things are to be added earlier or later and in what amounts-their balancing is very subtle and each thing has its own characteristics. The transformation which oc­curs in the caldron is quintessential and wondrous, subtle and delicate. The mouth cannot express it in words; the mind cannot fix upon an analogy. It is like the subtlety of archery and horsemanship, the transformation of Yin and Yang, or the calculations of the four seasons. Thus it is long-lasting yet does not spoil; thoroughly cooked yet not mushy; sweet yet not cloying; sour yet not overpoweringly so; salty yet not deadening; acrid yet not caustic; mild yet not insipid; unctuous yet not unpalatable.

What better choice of a spokesman could have been made than I Yin to counter the opinion voiced by Mo Tzu that the sage kings of antiquity “did not carry to extremes the blending of the Five Tastes or the harmonizing of fragrant aromas”?

Orchestration is the essence of fine food. Selection of ingredients for taste, correct proportions, and timing are the three factors noted by I Yin in achieving the perfect medley. The cook who undertakes this enterprise oversees a wondrous transformation, for which the shooting of an arrow to strike a distant target and the operation of Yin and Yang in the world are the closest approximations. It is important to appreciate the emphasis on harmoniza­tion and blending in I Yin’ s gastronomical model, which is a characteristic of Chinese cuisine to this day. Gastronomy was a way of maintaining balance through the creation of dishes which were themselves perfectly balanced. In terms of theory and practice there was little difference between the gastronomer-cook and the pharmacist. The former applied his knowledge of aliments to healthful nutrition on a normal daily basis. The latter, whose stock of drugs in­cluded the cook’s foodstuffs, blended his potions to deal with medical crises.

In the third part of the teaching I Yin turns to a consideration of the ingredients required by one who hopes to realize the Culminant Taste. Naturally, the refined diet of which he speaks is not prepared from the standard comestibles in the ancient larder. Each item named represents a superlative specimen in its category. Many are the exotic products of distant regions known only in legendary geography; truly unobtainable save by the one Son of Heaven, the paragon of gastronomers. Is this not the very predilection for imported marvels criticized by Mo Tzu? Some are monsters and others magical plants which stirred the imagination of ancient Chinese and defy the attempts of modem scholars to affix prosaic identifications to them.

I Yin’ s gastronomic lecture to King T’ang concludes with an admonition:

One who does not first become the Son of Heaven cannot provide for it. One cannot be­come the Son of Heaven by force; one must first realize the Way. The Way lies in dispen­sing with other things and concentrating on the self. Having perfected the self, one becomes Son of Heaven. When one becomes Son of Heaven, then the Culminant Taste is provided for. Thus scrutinizing what is near is the way to know of what is distant. Perfecting the self is the way to perfect others. Such is the essence of the Way of the sage king! What use indeed to engage in many futile exertions!

Photo by Tim Chow (@timchowdoingthings)

The role that food and diet was to play in early Chinese speculations on the issue of spiritual and physical cultivation was spurred by ideas concerning the nature of ch’i, “vital vapor”. An archaic word in the Chinese language connoting steamy, vaporous emanations, by the fifth century B.C. ch’i had come to be regarded as the stuff of life. The world itself was composed of this vital vapor, which all things generated in the world likewise possessed. Both the material body and the spirit consisted of ch’i; and human life depended upon maintaining the store received at birth. Physical strength and the sharpness of the senses resulted from its circulation through the body.

Food possessed ch’i which underwent transformation when ingested and supplemented the supply of vital vapor in the body. The idea that people relied on this supply, which might grow or dwindle de­pending on how they lived their life, was a generally accepted principle. It is evident, for example, in Mo Tzu’s belief that people should only eat enough to ”fill the empty stomach, sustain the vital vapor, strengthen the limbs, make the ears and eyes sharp and clear, and then desist.” If all substances introduced into the body were believed to affect the body’s supply of vital vapor, it followed that artful eating might so enrich a person’s store that the vigor of youth might be retained—life itself might be pro­longed indefinitely.

Such were the hopes raised by gastronomic cultivation. This kind of thinking was associated most closely with practices which early sources refer to as “nurturing life” (yang sheng). Part of the reason for their sometimes hostile reception among certain moral philosophers lay in the emphasis which the practitioners of “nurturing life” placed on the positive value of human desires. Rather than insist that the path to spiritual and physical perfection necessitated the repression of the appetite for food and sex, “nurturing life” philosophy vaunted the benefits of these desires. The pleasures of the table and the boudoir were both exploited for the purpose of self-cultivation. Their practice was always directed towards a higher goal—the enhancement of vitality and life-and indulgence of the pas­sion for food and sex was strongly warned against. Careless indulgence could only lead to disease and death.

The discovery of valuable aliments, the study of the nutritional properties of food (based on the theories of ch’i, Yin and Yang, and the Five Actions), and cookery (what I Yin calls “the transformation which occurs in the caldron”): these were the special concerns of alimentation in the practice of “nurturing life” which deserve the title of gastronomy. Gastronomy was, of course, one facet among many of the “nurturing life” philosophy, which embraced pharmacy, alchemy, therapeutic exercise, and breath cultivation in the pursuit of a material, physical immortality. The magical products which I Yin tantalizingly names for King T’ang must have elicited thoughts of wondrous elixirs in the minds of eager adepts. For some believers the supreme transformation was achievable only through the alchemical elixir or through diets which rejected all forms of ordinary food; [b]ut for anyone who accepted a daily diet based on the available foods, “nurturing life” gastronomy offered a model for eating habits. ♦

1 Mo Tzu (Chu Tzu Chi Ch’eng ed.), p. 102.

2 Lu Shih Ch’un Ch’iu (Chu Tzu Chi Ch’eng ed.), pp. 139-143.

3 The cosmogonic sequence was one of many patterns in which the Five Actions could be construed. There is still scholarly disagree­ment over the antiquity of the theory, but no one would date it to later than the early fourth century B.c.

Abridged from Parabola Volume 9, No. 4, “Food,” Winter 1984. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.

By Donald Harper

Donald Harper is the Centennial Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Chicago.