World Watching :
Food culture and meals in China

Professor Toshiyasu Ogawa, Faculty of Commerce

Sushi Restaurant in China
Sushi Restaurant in China. Pay attention to "Tuna Tatagi(lightly roasted tuna)"!
Popular menu of Yoshinoya in China, a rice bawl cooked with chicken and beef
Popular menu of Yoshinoya in China, a rice bawl cooked with chicken and beef

Time changes food culture.

China is changing rapidly, and the influence of this change extends widely. Chinese food is not an exception. All Chinese people appreciate that Chinese food is the best, but Chinese food itself has changed through interchange and fusion with other nations. Chinese food is now in a period of change.

We usually associate "Chinese food" with large serving plates on a round table surrounded by many people. In Japan, we eat our meals individual plates even when we eat with intimate friends, but in China, “sharing the meal” is very important. When a host serves out the dishes from a large plate, the guests thank him for it. In this way, they confirm their close relationship. The food and taste varies from Kwangton, to Shenzhen, and to other districts, but this ceremony is common in all areas.

Recently in China, people call the former socialist system “Big Pot Meal” and criticize the uniform equality. However, “Big Pot Meal” reflects well one aspect of Chinese society. Even if you share a meal from one plate, it is impossible for everyone to have an exactly the same share. As the Analects of Confucius say, “Scarcity is not the problem, but inequity is the problem.” This is the psychological structure that the Chinese have had since ancient times, so going to extremes to avoid inequality is the second best choice. When we substitute economy for food, we can understand why China developed her characteristic socialism.

However, since China adopted the “Reform and Openness” policy, they are displeased with scarcity and bad equality principle. People have become too busy to enjoy meals with their families. Some people eat take-out meals at work and eat out with their children. As in Japan, “dining alone” is commonplace in urban areas in China.

In Beijing, while the old traditional neighborhoods (hutongs) are disappearing in the urban redevelopment, big shopping malls are appearing everywhere and light meal shops serving dishes such as dim sum in upper parts of these buildings meet the demands of solitary diners. In Japan beef bowls and Chinese-style noodles (Ramen) are nowadays indispensable items for “dining alone”. Last summer, when my Chinese friend enthused, “The conveyor belt sushi bar is a wonderful fusion of high technology and traditional culture in Japan”, I didn’t know how I could answer.

I think that this “dining alone” is the key to the mystery of the penetration of Japanese food in China, which until now had been evaluated badly because they thought Japanese dishes did not have enough quantity and were tasteless. Unlike Japan, where we have bowl meals, noodles (“Ramen”) and sushi, China does not have such “individual meals”. Bowl meals have been considered nothing but B grade meals, but they now seem to fit the lifestyle of present Chinese people. Food culture is the mirror of the society. Even as Japanese food is becoming more like Chinese food, Chinese food must also evolve.

For more information...
Chou Kyou, “Cultural History of Chinese Food”, Chikuma Shobou, Publisher, 1997

Copyright (C) 2005 Student Affairs Division, WASEDA University. All rights reserved.
First drafted 2005 June 23.