Abstract: Food and drink have played a central role in Chinese religious and ceremonial life from ancient times to the present. The role of food and drink is conspicuous not only in terms of banquet and drinking etiquette, but also in a wide variety of religious practices observed throughout the Chinese-speaking world. These range from ancestral sacrifices, to the worship of deities, to the wearing of mourning to the observance of religious festivals and family holidays.

Citation: Cheung et al. (2022). Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

DOI:  To come

Keywords: Ritual; ancestor worship; sacrifice; etiquette; social values; mourning; exorcism; ceremonies; holidays; festivals

Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.

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Ritual in Chinese Cuisines

Miranda Brown, University of Michigan

The term ritual is hard to define. According to the religious studies scholar, Catherine Bell (1992), rituals can refer to a wide variety of phenomena, ranging from ceremonial occasions to sacrifice to repetitive, patterned activity. In the context of Chinese studies, the term is also a moving target, used as a placeholder for broad Chinese words as li 禮 (ritual, etiquette, propriety) and yi 儀 (ceremonies or ceremonial protocol). Given the difficulties of pinpointing the exact meaning of ritual, this article will survey the different activities and practices that scholars associate with sacrifice and etiquette, highlighting the role of food and drink in religious life, social relations, and family festivals.

Banquet Etiquette

From ancient times, the Chinese acknowledged that food and alcohol played a large role in social intercourse and in the regulation of social hierarchies. As sinologist Roel Sterckx (2005, 55) writes, not only was cooked food a mark of Chinese civilization, but occasions for feasting and banqueting supplied opportunities to observe and evaluate human character. The ancient Chinese ruling elite devised intricate rules of etiquette for feasting, ranging from the initial greeting of guests, to the seating of each member of the party, the sequence of dishes, and the pouring of the alcohol.  All of these rules emphasized the importance of hierarchy, as well as widely accepted social values, specifically deference or “yielding” (rang 讓), filial and fraternal piety (xiaoti 孝悌), and loyalty (zhong 忠) (Legge 1879, 438).

Idealized descriptions of ancient banquets are found in the canonical classics. The Record of Ritual (Liji 禮記), compiled in the Han 漢 dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) on the basis of earlier materials, contains the idealized description of a banquet hosted by an ancient ruler. The description reveals the banquet as a ceremonial occasion. The drinking of alcohol in particular was regulated by rules of etiquette and expressions of courtesy and deference:

The ruler sends the cup round among the guests in order; and when he has given a special cup to any, they all descend, and bow twice, laying at the same time their heads to the ground; after which they ascend, and complete their bowing:–thus showing the observance due from subjects. The ruler responds to them, for every act of courtesy must be responded to:–illustrating the observances due from the ruler and superiors. When ministers and inferiors do their utmost to perform service for the state, the ruler must recompense them with rank and emoluments. Hence all officers and inferiors endeavor with their utmost strength and ability to establish their merit, and thus the state is kept in tranquility, and the ruler’s mind is at rest.  (Legge 1879, 455–456)

Vestiges of ancient banquet rituals survive into the twentieth and twenty-first century (Chinese guests nowadays would bow rather than kowtow even to powerful hosts). One home economics manual, dating from 1919, revealed that the Chinese continued to conceive of banqueting in terms of ceremonial norms. Much like its ancient predecessors, this manual described the rules for hosting, from the placement of the seats to the use of utensils for eating the various offerings such as bird’s nest and various soups, to the offering of toasts, the giving of thanks, and finally, the order of the guests’ departure after the conclusion of the banquet. The manual also formulated rules of etiquette for attending a Western-style banquet, noting the differences between East and West in the seat arrangements of guests and the intermingling of the sexes, the utensils used for the meal, and the manner in which guests thanked the hosts (Gao 1919, Section 5, 3–5).

Ceremonies of Drinking

According to the Record of Ritual, the ancients regarded the consumption of alcohol—beer rather than the distilled liquor commonly consumed today—also in terms of rules of etiquette. According to the idealized picture presented in the Record, the ancients supposedly established a regular ceremony in the villages and hamlets to honor the elderly.  Once again, the importance of ceremonial expressions of deference is apparent from the passage:

The chief of the district with the accomplished and virtuous men belonging to it had the vessel of liquor placed between the room (on the cast), and the door (leading to the apartments on the west), host and guests sharing it between them.…The viands came forth from the room on the east;–being supplied by the host. All washing, took place (in the courtyard) opposite the eastern wing;–showing how the host purified himself and made himself ready to serve the guests. (Legge 1879, 436)

Sacrificial Uses of Food

In early China, food and drink figured prominently in ancestral sacrifices and worship, as well as in offerings to deities. The earliest written records from China—the divination records left by the Shang 商 rulers (ca. 1250 bce)—disclose that food and drink offerings were an intricate part of ancestral cult practices. The earliest Chinese rulers made regular sacrifices of animals and grains like millet to their royal ancestors and to the Lord on High, the chief deity of the Shang, to secure good harvests, victory against military enemies, freedom from illness, and success in royal child birth, meaning the live birth of a male heir (Keightley 2001). One such record, which was engraved on the back of turtle shells in response to the king’s toothache, offers a memorable example: “Divined: ‘(We) offer a dog to Father Geng (Ki8) (and) split open a sheep.’” (Keightley 2001, 153)

Archaeological excavations have revealed that sacrifices of meat and grain were placed in large and intricately designed bronze vessels—in tripods, cauldrons, and four-legged cooking vessels (ding 鼎). Grain-based brews were furthermore poured into ritual vessels, such as the jue 爵 and the zun 尊 (Cook 2005, 23–25). Such brews were not only offered directly to the ancestors, but also through human impersonators believed to have been possessed temporarily by a dead ancestor. The impersonators, typically a direct male descendant of the deceased ancestor, would consume food and alcohol on behalf of the ancestor (Cook 2005 13, Kleeman 2005, 143).  This practice is immortalized in one poem collected in the canonical classic, Book of Songs (Shijing 詩經), anthologized around 600 bce (Owen 1996, xv).

Very hard have we striven,
That the rites might be without mistake.
The skillful recitant conveys the message,
Goes and gives it to the pious son:
“Fragrant were your pious offerings,
The Spirits enjoyed their drink and food.
They assign to you a hundred blessings.”

(Waley and Allen 1996, 195)

The Shang rulers set the pattern for subsequent ages. Later Chinese offered food and beer sacrifices to gods, ghosts, deities, and even malevolent spirits believed to have visited sicknesses on people. One set of divinatory records from south China in the mid-fourth century bce hinted at the longevity of this tradition. The chronic illnesses of one nobleman occasioned the coordinated efforts of twelve diviners, who sacrificed no fewer than thirty-six pigs, six dogs, twenty-three sheep, nine oxen, and a horse—all expensive food items, and usually reserved for the feasts of nobles and kings (Kalinowski 2009, 384; Brown 2015, 28, 73; Cook 2006). The bureaucracy of the Qin 秦 dynasty (221–206 bce) took this tradition a step further. Bureaucratic records unearthed by archaeologists reveal that government officials kept supplies of salt, grains, and animals like sheep. All this was undertaken for the purpose of offering sacrifices to agricultural deities. Predictably, these offerings were made to ensure plentiful harvests (Sanft 2014).

To this day, food and alcohol figure in ancestral sacrifices in the Chinese-speaking world and parts of Asia influenced by Chinese religious traditions, including Japan. The Book of Songs, for example, describes one ancient sacrifice in the following manner:

In due order, treading cautiously,
We purify your oxen and sheep.
We carry out the rice-offering, the harvest offering.
Now baking, now broiling,
Now setting out and arranging,
Very harrowed was this service of offering;
Very mighty the forefathers.
The spirits and Protectors have accepted;
The pious descendant shall have happiness,
They will reward him with great blessing,
With spans of year unending.

(Waley and Allen 1996, 194)

Nowadays, food sacrifices to ancestors and gods typically include the offering of fruits such as oranges and peaches and steamed buns over animal entrails or whole animals. Yet there are clear continuities with the past, as these items are offered not only in the hopes of securing good health and male descendants, but also success in business and general economic prosperity for the family.

Mourning and Diet

The fasting from and choice of food also played a conspicuous part of traditional mourning practices.  Before the twentieth century, an elite Chinese man who had lost a parent was expected to withdraw from normal society and the sensory pleasures of everyday life for up to twenty-seven months. This was called three years of mourning (sannian sang 三年喪). The person, most often the heir of the deceased head of household, would wear mourning, meaning he would take off his normal clothes, and don rough, white garments of unprocessed hemp. As Sterckx (2005, notes), the mourner would also be expected to abstain from a normal diet of meat and grains, and in the process become emaciated, so as to demonstrate the depth of his grief. At the beginning of the mourning period, the mourner would also be expected to abstain from food for about three days. After this period, the mourner would then move to a diet of gruel or congee, with coarse grains gradually introduced over time. Only after a year would the mourner be given vegetables and fruits to supplement his diet. Only after two years from the beginning of the mourning period would the mourner be allowed to consume meat. The return to a full (elite) diet signaled the mourner’s reentry into what Sterckx (2005, 55) aptly refers to as “the realm of worldly flavor and sensory satisfaction.”

Ritualized Consumption of Food

Besides occupying a conspicuous position in sacrifice and ancestral veneration, food has long enjoyed a prominent place in festivals and holidays. At these times, Chinese normally eat specific foods, suggesting that the consumption of these foodstuffs have acquired a ritualized character. Nowadays, Chinese families around the world eat long wheat noodles to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, as such noodles are believed to symbolize long life. Chinese families in the diaspora celebrate the New Year twice: the first time coincides with the new year of the Gregorian calendar (1 Jan), and the second or the more traditional Lunar New Year usually falls between late January and late February. The latter is also called the Spring Festival, and is one of the most important holidays in China.  This holiday is associated with family members feasting together and the eating of a number of auspicious foods, including candied dates, sugary lotus roots, sweet lotus seeds, and peanuts. One of the most popular foods that are consumed over Spring Festival is niangao 年糕 (“new year”) cake, which is not a cake in the sense of a Western pastry, but rather a sweet block, made by steaming glutinous rice flour in a spherical block.

Ancient Chinese observed the Cold Food Festival (Hanshi jie 寒食節) beginning in antiquity, which was usually celebrated in early April, later known as the Tomb Sweeping Festival (Qingming jie 清明節). As the original name of the festival suggests, the foods were not served piping hot, but were consumed cooled or at room temperature. Foods associated with this holiday include a gelatinous dish made from powdered apricot kernels, nowadays called almond “tofu” (xingren doufu 杏仁豆腐) (Holzman 1986, 60). As one would expect, the holiday is an occasion for ancestral veneration: families typically return to the tomb of their immediate ancestors to sweep the tomb and to pay their respects.

The Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu jie 端午節), falling around the time of the summer solstice (or in late May or early June), is closely associated with the eating of zongzi 粽子. Zongzi comprise glutinous rice with filling and steamed in lotus leaves. One popular filling includes salted duck egg, pork, and peanuts; but sweet fillings, fashioned out of ingredients like adzuki beans, are also served.

Finally, the Mid-Autumn festival (Zhongqiu jie 中秋節) is another important holiday, second only to the Lunar New Year for its importance to families. The Mid-Autumn festival typically falls sometime in the second half of September. This holiday is closely associated with the eating of mooncakes, traditionally a rich and sweet wheat pastry that is either baked or deep-fried and filled with sweet fillings: a mix of nuts and pork, lotus-seed paste and salted duck egg yolks, or adzuki beans, to name but a few. Nowadays, “snowskin” mooncakes, made with glutinous rice and filled with ingredients like custard, are also popular According to one popular legend of dubious historicity, the holiday became associated with mooncakes at the end of the Mongol Yuan 元 dynasty (1271–1368), when anti-Mongol rebels sent military communications embedded in the pastry.

From ancestral sacrifices to business banquets to family holidays, food and drink has figured conspicuously in Chinese religious life, from the dawn of written history, if not earlier. While the ancients often thought of China as the realm of ritual and propriety, China is perhaps best understood as the realm of ritual and food. Indeed, Chinese religious and family life would scarcely be recognizable in the absence of the food and wine offerings to the gods and spirits.

Further Reading

  • Bell, Catherine. (1992). Ritual theory, ritual practice. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Brown, Miranda. (2015). The art of medicine in early China: The ancient and medieval origins of a modern archive. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Cook, Constance. (2005). Moonshine and millet: Feasting and purification rituals in ancient China. In Roel Sterckx (Ed.), Of tripod and palate: Food, politics, and religion in traditional China (pp. 9–33). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Cook, Constance A. (2006). Death in ancient China: The tale of one man’s journey. Leiden, the Netherlands, and Boston: Brill.
  • Gao, Jianhua 高劍華. (1919). Zhijia quanshu 治家全書. Shanghai: Jiaotong tushuguan.
  • Holzman, Donald. (1986). The cold food festival in early medieval China. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 46(1), 51–79.
  • Kalinowski, Marc. (2009). Diviners and astrologers under the Eastern Zhou: Transmitted texts and recent archaeological discoveries. In John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Eds.), Early Chinese religion, part one: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD) (pp. 341–96). Leiden, the Netherlands, and Boston: Brill.
  • Keightley, David N. (2001). The “science” of the ancestors: Divination, curing, and bronze-casting in late Shang China. Asia Major, 14(2), 143–87.
  • Kleeman, Terry. (2005). Feasting without the victuals: The evolution of the Daoist communal kitchen. In Roel Sterckx (Ed.), Of tripod and palate: Food, politics, and religion in traditional China (pp. 140–162). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Legge, James. (Trans.). (1879). The sacred books of China: The texts of Confucianism, 28, Part IV. Oxford, UK: Claendon Press.
  • Owen, Stephen. (1996). Foreword. In The Book of Songs (pp. xii-xxv). New York: Grove Press.
  • Sanft, Charles. (2014). Paleographic evidence of Qin religious practice from Liye and Zhoujiatai. Early China, 37, 327–358.
  • Sterckx, Roel. (2005). Food and philosophy in early China. In Roel Sterckx (Ed.), Of tripod and palate: Food, politics, and religion in traditional China (pp. 34–61). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Waley, Arthur, & Allen, Joseph Roe. (1996). The book of songs. New York: Grove Press.