Abstract: From antiquity, Chinese poets wrote about all aspects of food: its cultivation, its preparation, its prominence in celebrations, its importance in ancestral rites, its pleasures, and the pain of its absence. Poets contrasted lavish banquets with hunger and starvation; they crafted allegories and metaphors from food: an orange was compared to a virtuous man, bitter bamboo shoots were likened to frank criticism, and a pomegranate symbolized fertility.

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

DOI: 10.47462/200184410

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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Food in Chinese Poetry

Alfreda Murck, Columbia University

Food appears in Chinese verse from the earliest recorded poems. This entry will review a selection of Chinese poems, some that mention food as sustenance, some that reflect the role of food in social relations, and others in which edibles are metaphors. The temporal scope stretches from first millennium bce, before the unification of the territory that came to be called China, to the eighteenth-century Qing dynasty.

In the first millennium bce, two great anthologies formed the foundation of Chinese poetry. The Classic of Poetry (Shi jing 詩經), also called the Book of Songs) ranks first in date and canonicity. Dating between about 1000 and 600 bce, these Bronze Age poems had an enduring influence in part because it was said that they had been collated by the revered sage Confucius (551–479 bce); the anthology was therefore the focus of a continuous hermeneutic tradition of moral and social interpretation. The 305 polished folk songs, occasional pieces, and solemn court hymns established norms for discourse and poetic themes. They provided models for ancestral worship and became a part of the curriculum that was tested in the civil service examinations. About one-third of the poems in the Classic of Poetry mention agriculture and edibles of some kind: cultivating and harvesting crops, fishing, slaughtering animals, making offerings on ancestral altars, preparing dishes by roasting, simmering, steaming, broiling; feasting and celebrating a good king; and often lamenting the shortage of food. (Nylan 2001, 72-119).

The second early poetry anthology, Songs of the South (Chu ci 楚辭), dates to the late first millennium bce. The putative author of most of the poems in Songs of the South was the Chu noble Qu Yuan (屈原 ca. 340 bce–278 bce), the paradigm of the clear-seeing but maligned official. When his king rejected his advice and sent him away, Qu Yuan is said to have written “Encountering Sorrow” (Li Sao 離騷) as a declaration of his loyalty. Many of the poems began as shamanistic hymns but by the end of the Han dynasty they were allegorized as political commentary. The Grand Historian Sima Qian (司馬遷 ca. 145–ca. 86 bce) commended “Encountering Sorrow” as combining the virtues of the first two sections of the Classic of Poetry: sensuous without being licentious and plaintive without being seditious (Sima Qian 1959, 2484). To further declare his loyalty, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Milo River, inspiring—legend has it—the dragon boat festival and the leaf-wrapped rice zongzi that were thrown into the river to distract the fish from Qu Yuan’s body. The tone of Songs of the South is both aggrieved and flamboyant. Unlike the state-sponsored Classic of Poetry, the impassioned lamentations in Songs of the South took on the status of a handbook for officials out of office, dissidents, and shamans (Hartman 1986, 347–349).

One of the 305 poems in the Classic of Poetry is a farming calendar based on observation of the stars. The “Seventh Month” (七月 Qi yue) of the “Odes of the State of Bin” (Bin feng 豳風 ) is a vision of a well-ordered society. Farming families collaborate in cultivating crops and send grain and animals to the local lord, who reciprocates with a banquet. The monthly activities to produce food and clothing for villagers and for their benevolent lord are listed in random chronological order, interspersed with such seasonal pleasures as eating fruit and making wine.

In the fourth month the milkwort is in spike,                           四月秀葽
In the fifth month the cicada cries.                                                       五月鳴蜩
In the eighth month the harvest is gathered,                            八月其穫
In the tenth month the boughs fall.                                           十月隕籜
In the days of the First we hunt the raccoon,                           一之日于貉
And take those foxes and wild-cats                                          取彼狐狸
To make furs for our Lord.                                                                   為公子裘
In the days of the Second is the great Meet;                            二之日其同
Practice for deeds of war.                                                         載纘武功
The boar one year old we keep;                                               言私其豵
The three-year-old we offer to our Lord.                                 献豜于公

In the sixth month we eat wild plums and cherries,                 六月食郁及薁
In the seventh month we boil mallows and soybeans.             七月亨葵及菽
In the eighth month we dry the dates,                                      八月剥枣
In the tenth month we take the rice                                          十月获稻
To make with it the spring wine,                                              为此春酒
So that we may be granted long life.                                        以介眉寿
In the seventh month we eat melons,                                       七月食瓜
In the eighth month we cut the gourds,                                    八月断壶
In the ninth month we take the seeding hemp,                         九月叔苴
We gather bitter herbs, we cut the ailanthus for firewood,       采荼薪樗
That our husbandmen may eat.                                          食我农夫

(Waley 1996, 120–122; see also Legge 1871, 229–231)

In the eighth and final section, after the harvest is brought in, a young lamb is killed for a village feast. The men go into the lord’s hall and toast him, saying “Hurray for our lord; may he live forever and ever!”

If the “Seventh Month” depicts an ideal world with plentiful food, several poems in the Classic of Poetry, such as “Rain Without Limit” (Yu wu zheng 雨無正), address the opposite situation—great scarcity.

Broad and vast is mighty Heaven,                                            浩浩昊天
Yet it keeps its grace from us,                                                  不駿其德
But rather brings death and famine,                                         降喪飢饉
war and destruction to all the states.                                        斬伐四國

(Waley 1996, 172; see also Legge 1871, 325)

The poet laments heaven’s indifference and yet goes on to blame the calamity on his incorrigible king and ineffectual fellow officials. “As He Began” (Quan yu 權舆), from the “State of Qin” complains of hunger while giving an indication of what qualified as a sumptuous meal in former times of plenty.

He assigned us a house large and spacious;                      於我乎,夏屋渠渠

But now at every meal there is nothing left.                     今也每食無余
Alas that he could not continue as he began!                    于嗟乎,不承權权舆
He assigned us at every meal four dishes of grain;           於我乎,每食四簋
But now at every meal we do not get our fill.                   今也每食不飽
Alas that he could not continue as he began!                    于嗟乎,不承權舆

(Legge 1871, 203)

The family retainers enjoyed hearty meals with four dishes of grain that were gradually reduced. The inclusion of poems on hunger in the Classic of Songs earned the themes of famine and starvation canonical status.

Food production, so essential for sustaining the living, was also critical in caring for spirits of the dead. Soliciting the help of ancestors in life’s ongoing struggles was believed to be important in bringing benefits to a family. But spirits could be fickle. Supplicants are often uncertain about the arrival of spirits at rites designed to engage their help; the spirits had to be enticed (Sterckx 2011, 106–115). What better way than presenting prestigious favorite foods? Sections two and three of “Thick Star-thistle” (Chuci 楚茨) describe the preparations of food and drink for successful enactment of a ceremony in an ancestral temple:

We purify your oxen and sheep.                                               絜爾牛羊
We carry out the rice-offering, the harvest offering,               以往烝嘗
Now baking, now boiling                                                         或剥或亨

We mind the furnaces, treading softly;                                    执爨踖踖
Attend to the food-stands so tall,                                              為俎孔硕
For roast meat, for broiled meat.                                              或燔或炙
Our lord’s lady hard at work                                                    君妇莫莫
Sees to the dishes, so many,                                                     為豆孔庶
Needed for guests, for strangers.                                              為賓為客
Present the cup, and drink all around,                                      献酬交错
Every custom and rite is observed,                                           礼儀卒度
Every smile, every word is in place.                                        笑語卒获
The Spirits and Protectors will surely come                            神保是格
And requite us with great blessings,                                         報以介福
Countless years of life as our reward                                       萬壽攸酢

(Waley 1996, 194-195; Legge 1871, 369–371)

Scrupulous preparation and performance ensured the sanctification of the food offerings. The fragrances drifting up ideally attract the souls of the deceased. Here the supplicants are confident that the spirits have accepted the entreaties and have consumed the essence (qi 氣) of the offerings; the living participants happily feast on what remains.

Poems in Songs of the South itemize even more food offerings to entice spirits with the incorporeal fragrance of cooking meats, grains, and sauces. Shamans assisted in the ceremonies to help call back the souls of deranged sick people or of those who died away from home. Music and prayers complement the dazzling array of fine food in “Summons of the Soul” (Zhao hun 招魂):

O soul, come back! Why should you go so far away?   魂兮歸来!何遠為些
All your household have come to do you honor; all kinds of good food are ready:                      室家遂宗,食多方些
Rice, broom-corn, early wheat, mixed all with yellow millet;                                                稻粢穱麥,挐黄梁些
Bitter, salty, sour, hot and sweet: there are dishes of all flavors.                                                大苦醎酸,辛甘行些
Ribs of the fatted ox cooked tender and succulent;   肥牛之腱,臑若芳些
Sour and bitter blended in the soup of Wu;   和酸若苦,陳吴羹些
Stewed turtle and roast kid, served up with yam sauce; 胹鱉炮羔,有柘漿些
Geese cooked in sour sauce, casseroled duck,
fried flesh of the great crane;            鹄酸臇鳧,煎鴻鶬些
Braised chicken, seethed tortoise, high-seasoned,
but not to spoil the taste;              露雞臛蠵,厲而不爽些
Fried honey-cakes of rice flour and malt-sugar sweetmeats;                                                           粔籹蜜餌,有餦餭些
Jade-like wine, honey-flavored, fills the winged cups; 瑶漿蜜勺,實羽觴些
Ice-cooled liquor, strained of impurities, clear wine, cool and refreshing;                                    挫糟凍飲,酎清凉些
Here are laid out the patterned ladles, and here is sparkling wine.                                                   華酌既陳,有琼漿些

(Hawkes 1959, 107, lines 80–92)

As if that was not enough to persuade a soul to return, the poems then describe lovely flirtatious girls in finest silks, flushed with wine, singing the latest songs.

The culinary temptations in “The Great Summons” (Da zhao 大招), in Songs of the South include the ritually important five grains as well as exotica such as turtle with Chu sauce, roasted crane, and broiled green goose:

The five grains are heaped up six ells high, and corn of zizania set out;       五榖六仞,設菰粱只
The cauldrons seethe to their brims; their blended savors yield fragrance;      鼎臑盈望,和致芳只
Plump orioles, pigeons, and geese, flavored with broth of jackal’s meat:         内鸧鴿鵠,味豺羹只
O soul, come back! Indulge your appetite!                                          魂乎歸徕!恣所嘗只
Fresh turtle, succulent chicken, dressed with a sauce of Chu;                   鲜蠵甘鷄,和楚酪只
Pickled pork, dog cooked in bitter herbs, and zingiber-flavored mince,      醢豕苦狗,膾苴蓴只
And sour Wu salad of artemisia, not too wet or tasteless.                               吴酸蒿蒌,不沾薄只
O soul, come back! Indulge in your own choice!                                魂兮歸徕!恣所擇只
Roast crane is served up, and steamed duck and boiled quails,                     炙鴰烝鳧,煔鶉陳只
Fried bream, stewed magpies, and green goose, broiled.                     煎鰿膗雀,遽爽存只
O soul, come back! Choice things are spread before you!                   魂乎歸徕!麗以先只

(Hawkes 1959, 111, lines 27–37)

The five grains (wu gu 五穀) mentioned here and in other early texts were vital in performing rituals. Millet was the most prestigious followed by wheat, rice, hemp, and soybeans (Wilkinson 2013, 433–434).

In 221 bce, the consolidation of the empire under Qin Shihuang (秦始皇) provided an opportunity for the subsequent Han dynasty to expand to the west and the south. This unprecedented expansion brought exotic new foods to the imperial capital at Chang’an (present day Xi’an). Whereas pre-Han dynasty poems listed mouth-watering foods to persuade ancestor spirits or estranged souls to return, in the Han dynasty the list-making was as much an opportunity to display one’s erudition. Evolving from poems such as “The Great Summons” excerpted above, the Han dynasty’s leading poetic form was the rhapsody or prose poem (fu 賦), which was characterized by exhaustive description and intricate embellishments of objects, places, feelings, and phenomena.

An influential master of the new rhapsody form was Mei Cheng (枚乘d. 140 bce). His “Seven Stimuli” is an account of an effort to cure the bedridden prince of Chu, who is exhausted from chronic overindulgence. As a rhetorical device, the extravagant poem aims to both entertain and persuade. Mei Cheng first engages the interest of the prince through the voice of a visitor to his sick bed who details seven fabulous enticements: deeply moving music, a banquet, a chariot race, an excursion to a scenic place, a hunt, a view of Zhejiang’s tidal bore, and essential words and marvelous doctrines. Here we consider only the second, a banquet:

The visitor said: “The fat underbelly of a young ox         客曰:犓牛之腴
Is served with bamboo sprouts and reed shoots;               菜以笋蒲
A stew of fat dog meat                                                       肥狗之和
is cooked with mountain lichens.                                      冒以山肤
Rice from Miao mountain in Chu,                                     楚苗之食,
grain from the zizania plant:                                             安胡之飰
you roll them into a ball which does not crumble;                   抟之不解
But with a single bite it dissolves.                                     一啜而散
Then, they order Yi Yin to cook                                       于是使伊尹煎熬,
And Yi Ya to blend the seasonings:                                  易牙调和:
well-done bear paws,                                                         熊蹯之胹
well-spiced broth,                                                              芍药之酱
thin roasted dorsal fins,                                                     薄耆之炙
minced fresh carp,                                                            鲜鲤之鱠
autumn-yellow thyme,                                                       秋黄之苏
white-dew madder,                                                                   白露之茹
orchid blossom wine                                                          蘭英之酒
poured to rinse the mouth,                                                        酌以涤口
a course of pheasant,                                                        山梁之餐
the fetus of a tame leopard.                                               豢豹之胎
Whether a small bite or large drink,                                  小飰大歠
It all dissolves as easy as hot water melts the snow.         如汤沃雪
(Knechtges and Swanson 1970, 109–110)

This effusive account of delicious food fails to motivate the prince who responds, “I am too sick and cannot.” To the patient’s credit, he is finally moved by the last stimuli: the promise of miraculous insights through “essential words and marvelous doctrines.” Thus, his cure is ultimately moral rather than medicinal (Knechtges and Swanson 1970, 104).

In the post-Han period of disunion, a talented literatus changed the conception and practice of poetry. Tao Yuanming (陶淵明 365–427 ce) wrote heartfelt poems about his affection for rural life and his resistance to an official career. It is important to remember that holding a post in officialdom was highly prestigious. In The Analects (15.32), Confucius advised against a gentleman becoming a farmer: “A gentleman seeks the Way, he does not seek a living. Plough the fields and perchance you may still go hungry. Apply yourself to learning and perchance you may yet make a career. A gentleman worries whether he will find the Way, he does not worry that he may remain poor” (Leys 2014, 48). Pressed by his wife to take an official position to support the family, Tao held a series of minor posts, but increasingly he found the protocol absurd and demeaning. In his last post, he resigned after eighty days, declaring that he would not bend his waist (i.e., bow) for five piculs of rice. It is not clear if this undated poem, “Begging for Food” (Qi shi乞食), was before or after his experiences in the bureaucracy:

Driven by hunger I leave my home                                          飢來驅我去
With no idea where I’m heading                                              不知竟何之
But walk on until I come to this village;                                  行行至斯裏
I knock at the gate—too embarrassed for words.                     叩門拙言辭
The master of the house knows what I want,                           主人解余意
Gives me food so my coming isn’t in vain.                              遺贈豈虛來
We talk and joke the whole day till dusk;                                談諧終日夕
Wine is brought in, cups are constantly emptied.             冥報以相貽

(Liu and Lo 1975, 53)

Tao Yuanming then describes his delight in having found a new friend and drinking companion. Composing poetry was often an entertainment at gatherings and writing a poem to thank a host was common. In the second half of the poem, acknowledging his debt of gratitude, Tao Yuanming mentions the story of a washerwoman taking pity on a starving young man who years later handsomely repaid her with a thousand ounces of gold. Tao’s life and poetry offered well-educated men an example of a satisfying life outside public service.

Hunger and Plenty

A frequent consequence of warfare, famines were also caused by exploitative taxes of corrupt officials.According to the poets, insufficient food was sometimes the result of a failed government that allowed bandits to flourish. When famine was caused by calamities such as floods, droughts, and locusts, those too were often blamed on the government because the popular understanding was that heaven was punishing a ruler for bad behavior, ineffectual rule, or insincere sacrifices.

Du Fu (杜甫 712–770 ce) is generally regarded as China’s greatest poet, combining emotional power, authenticity, and moral authority. He led the perfecting of regulated verse (lüshi 律詩), which became China’s most popular poetic form despite its demanding requirements. Regulated verse, which exploited the tonal qualities of the language, has eight lines (four couplets), with a poem having either five or seven characters per line. Adding to the challenge and interest is verbal parallelism in the middle couplets.

Du Fu’s life, and those of many of his contemporaries, was defined by the An Lushan rebellion, which shook the Tang dynasty from 755 to 763 ce. The “Fair Ladies: A Ballad” (Li ren xing 麗人行), parodies Prime Minister Yang Guozhong, one of the most powerful officials at Emperor Xuanzong’s court. He accompanied Emperor Xuanzong and his beautiful concubine Yang Guifei along with her sisters on an outing to Twisting River Park. The food is so abundant that the overfed picnickers stop eating even while eunuchs arrive with more dishes:

Purple steak from camels’ humps served from azure cauldrons,   紫駝之峰出翠釜
White flesh of fish set out in rows of crystal dishes.               水精之盤行素鱗
but the satiated ones stay their rhino-horn chopsticks,            犀箸厭飫久未下
In vain did the phoenix knives cut threadlike slices.               鸞刀縷切空紛綸
Yet still the palace eunuchs arrive, reining in their horses
without so much as stirring dust,                                           黃門飛鞚不動塵
in continuous stream the Royal Kitchen
sends eight precious foods…                                                  御廚絡繹送八珍

(Owen 2016 (modified), v. 1 2.43, 117; see also Liu and Lo 1975, 120)

The contrast between luxury and poverty is the theme of another Du Fu poem. At the time, he was a low level official with an impoverished family in the countryside. In the poem, he tells of his learning that his infant son died of starvation. He is angry that the court continues to hold sumptuous parties (he mentions one at the hot springs at Mount Li, where the court moved for part of winter), oblivious to the suffering of common people and refusing to recognize signs of General An Lushan’s impending rebellion. In the one-hundred line poem, lines 63 to 70 contain a cutting reproach:

Cloaks of sable warm the guests,                                             煖客貂鼠裘
moving notes of flutes follow clear zithers.                             悲管逐清瑟
Guests are urged to taste camel-hoof stew,                              勸客駝蹄羹
frosty oranges weigh upon sweet tangerines.                           霜橙壓香橘
Crimson gates reek with meat and ale,                                     朱門酒肉臭
while on the streets are bones of the frozen dead.                               路有凍死骨
Splendor and privation, a mere foot apart,                               榮枯咫尺異
so upsetting it is hard to recount further.                                 惆悵難再述
(Owen 2016, v. 1 4.6, 213–215)

Circulating angry comments on the culinary excesses of the court while commoners froze to death would have been dangerous; presumably Du Fu kept these compositions to himself or wrote them retrospectively. Having faced extreme hunger during wartime, Du Fu several years later listed the local produce to reassure friends that life in a remote hamlet was comfortable. Lines 131 to 136 in a 200 line poem begin with the purple and white of court of court regalia:

For purple I get taro from the Min Mountains,                        紫收岷嶺芋,
For white we plant Lu Pond lotus;                                           白種陸池蓮
Fine-hued pears rosier than cheeks,                                         色好梨勝頰
Branches thick with chestnuts bigger than fists;                      穰多栗過拳
Commanding the cook: only one flavor,                                  敕廚唯一味
Seeking satisfaction: sometimes three eels.                             求飽或三鱣

(Murck 2000, 269. See also Owen 2016, v. 5 19.41, 204–205)

The last line on eating one’s fill refers to the story of a stork depositing three eels at the gate of the Eastern Han scholar Yang Zhen; people took it as an auspicious sign that he would rise to a high position, which in fact he did.

Bai Juyi (白居易 772–846 ce), a compassionate Tang-dynasty official, wrote dozens of poems about the hardships of people during times of war. Written in 806 ce when he was magistrate of Zhuji, “Watching the Wheat-reapers” describes well-to-do farm families. Bai continues:

Then there are those poor womenfolk,                                     復有貧婦人
their children clinging to their side.                                         抱子在其旁
With their right hand they pick up leftover grains;                 右手秉遗穗
On their left arm dangles a broken basket.                               左臂懸敝筐

To hear their words of complaint—                                         聽其相顧言
All who listen will grieve for them:                                         聞者為悲傷
Their family land stripped lean to pay tax,                              家田輸税儘
They now glean the field to fill their stomach.                        拾此充飢腸

(Liu and Lo 1975, 202)

Bai Juyi is anguished when he compares their dire lot to his own comfortable situation with an official salary of three hundred piculs of rice.

In times of food scarcity, people resorted to famine foods (jiuhuang 救荒), substitutes such as plants, weeds, and things they would normally never consider eating. In “Song of Chongling” (Chongling xing 舂陵行), Yuan Jie (元結719–772 ce) described the meals of starving people: “breakfast is grass roots, supper is tree bark” (朝餐是草根,暮食乃樹皮) (Qiu 1985, juan 19, 1695). The Taoist diet offered some options. Du Fu, when he was eager to find some protein, wrote to his older friend Li Bo:

I’m a simple man when it comes to meat and fish,                  野人對羶腥
But vegetables will not satisfy my hunger;                              蔬食常不飽
Is there no black essence meat to be had                                 豈無青精飯
to bring color back to my cheeks?                                            使我顏色好

(Liu and Lo 1975, 118)

“Black essence” was a food for fasting described as leaves of southern flamegrass mixed with bark that was cooked in a broth and steamed to give it a dark color, after which it was dried in the sun.

The Tang-dynasty poet Li Bo (李白702–762) is best known for his flamboyant poems designed to shock his contemporaries and to accentuate his wine-loving eccentricity. But his social consciousness is revealed in poems that empathize with the poor, such as “Staying at the home of Old Lady Xun at the Foot of Five Pine Mountain” (Su Wusongshan xia Xun ao jia 宿五松山下荀媼家).

At the foot of Five-pine Mountain                                                       我宿五松下
I stay alone, with small comfort.                                              寂寥無所懽
Farm folk toil hard in the autumn,                      田家秋作苦
My neighbor husks her grain in the chill night.            邻女夜舂寒
Kneeling, she offers me a dish of diao-hu:                               跪進雕胡飯
Moonlight makes the white plate sparkle.                月光明素盘
With a pang I remember the washerwoman of old;                 令人慙漂母
I thank her again and again, but I cannot take of her food.     三謝不能餐

(Yang and Yang 1984, 34)

The diaohu that Li Bo was offered was a cheap substitute for rice made from seeds of the wild rice Zizania aquatica. It made Li Bo think of the story of the compassionate washerwoman whom Tao Yuanming earlier cited.

Su Shi (蘇軾1037­–1101) and his Buddhist friend Canliao (參寥) discussed a banquet poem by Du Fu.   Du Fu had described his discomfort at a banquet held in the aftermath of the An Lushan rebellion. He was preoccupied with refugees and inadequate food in a country still at war, while the young officials who gathered at Magistrate Zhong’s riverside villa are focused on comradery and a good time. Du Fu feels old and out of place. He withdraws from the hubbub of the party and finds a quiet space outdoors overlooking the Yangzi (Chang) River:

The River in Chu and Wu Gorges is half in clouds and rain,        楚江巫峽半雲雨
Clean mats, thin bamboo shades, I watch a game of chess.        清簟疏簾看弈棋

(Murck 2000, 53)

These lines prompted Canliao to comment, “This couplet could be painted, but I’m afraid a painting wouldn’t capture the feeling.” Expecting Canliao to display more detachment, Su responded, “You are a Chan Buddhist. Yet you also love these beautiful lines?” In explaining, Canliao resorts to a food analogy: even those who are indifferent to food, when seeing river scallops, can’t avoid smacking their chops (Murck 2000, 53–54). The charming disjuncture between elegant poetry and “smacking chops” is unexpected; also surprising is a Buddhist comparing verse and mouth-watering scallops: Canliao had forsworn harming any sentient being, let alone killing them for food.

Su Shi and Canliao were discussing the above poem when Su was in exile in a small hamlet on the Yangzi River. The cause of his banishment to Huangzhou was “great disrespect” (dabujing 大不敬) to the emperor, which was based on sarcasm found in his poems critiquing the hardships caused by the government’s New Policies. Because the government tightly controlled a salt monopoly, many people in the countryside were forced to go without salt:

An old man of seventy wears a sickle at his waist,                  老翁七十自腰鎌
He’s grateful the bamboo and bracken on spring hills are sweet!         慚愧春山筍蕨甜
Is it Shao music that made him forget the taste of food?         豈是聞韶解忘味
It’s been three months since he had salt with a meal.              邇來三月食無鹽

(Egan 1994, 40–41)

“Forgetting the taste of food” is a classical reference that even commoners would have known. It refers to Confucius being so transported by hearing the Coronation Hymn of legendary King Shun that he was unaware of the taste of meat for a full three months (Leys 1997, 30). This quatrain, both humorous and empathetic, was popularly chanted in the streets, which undoubtedly contributed to the court’s case against Su. In exile at Huangzhou, Su Shi wrote two memorable poems during the Cold Food Festival. Occurring just before Qingming grave sweeping, the Cold Food Festival caused Su Shi to lament the empty kitchen and his inability to visit his ancestors’ graves (Egan 1994, 254-55).

Famished artists at times exchanged paintings or calligraphy for food with varying success. In “I tried to Exchange Two Paintings for some Grain But Failed,” the prominent painter Xu Wei (徐渭 1521–1593) awoke one day to find the cupboard bare.

In my family there are two famous paintings                           吾家兩名畫
which we have treasured and taken everywhere with us. 寶玩長相隨
But one morning, we found ourselves without a thing to eat       一朝苦無食
so I took out the pictures to barter for grain.                            持以酬糖秕
It’s not that these masterpieces were not precious to me  名筆匪不珍
but the pangs of hunger are hard to bear!                          苦飢亦難支

(Chaves 1986, 311)

Having failed, Xu Wei tells of returning home and hanging the paintings as a distraction from gnawing hunger. The Yangzhou eccentric painter and calligrapher Jin Nong (金農 1687–1764) was more successful in “Inscribed on a Lichen-Covered Wall in My Hut” (Ti xi xie zhi lubishang 題昔邪之廬壁上):

Three Lines of “clerk script” calligraphy—reclining waves!       隸書三波折偃
One branch of ink bamboo—swept by the wind!                     墨竹一枝風斜
My boy servant takes them to town to barter for rice:             童子入市易米
in whose home will I become famous now?                             姓名又落誰家

(Chaves 1986, 427)

Most of the Yangzhou eccentric artists sold their art works even while they maintained their status as high-minded literati.

Specific Dishes

Poets rarely took up the act of eating, perhaps because of admonitions against reckless indulgence and condemnation of gluttony. According to tradition, a person demonstrated an understanding of civilization through restraint in consuming food, both out of polite deference to guests and for reasons of health (Sterckx 2011, 36–40). The nature-loving official and historian Shen Yue (沈約441–513 ce) wrote affectionately of a meal shared with a young love:

I recall the times she ate,                                                          憶食時,
Above the dishes changing her expression,                             臨盤動容色
Starting to sit and then too shy to sit,                                       欲坐復羞坐
Starting to eat and then too shy to eat,                                     欲食復羞食
Holding small morsels in her mouth as if not hungry,             含哺如不饑
Raising her cup like one who’d lost her strength.                    擎甌似無力

(Liu and Lo 1975, 70)

Her shy reticence must have fulfilled Shen Yue’s expectations of an ideal female companion.

Cold Noodle Soup

Du Fu broke conventions when gobbling up cold noodle soup made with leaves of Sophora japonica, also known as the Japanese pagoda tree and the Chinese Scholar Tree (huai 槐). Part of the attraction of “Cold Noodle Soup with Sophora Leaves” (Huaiye lengtao 槐葉冷淘) is his undisguised pleasure and his worrying that he would not get his fill. That and his reluctance to share with others might have been considered selfish. Only in the tenth line does he belatedly urge others to eat, dishing out portions as if distributing precious gems:

Green are the high Sophora tree leaves,                                   青青高槐葉
we pluck them and send them to the kitchen.                          采掇付中廚
Fresh noodles from the nearby market                                     新麵來近市
are combined with the juice and crushed leaves.                     汁滓宛相俱
They are put in the kettle to ensure they will be quickly done,          入鼎資過熟
I eat more, worrying that it will soon be gone.                        加餐愁欲無
Emerald freshness shines together on the chopsticks,             碧鮮俱照筯
fragrant rice along with reed shoots.                                        香飯兼苞蘆
Passing my teeth it is colder than snow,                                   經齒冷於雪
I urge others, offering them like pearls.                                   勸人投比珠

(Owen 2016, v. 5 19.9, 129)

The first half of the poem translated here may have been written as a compliment to the cook—“Your noodles were so good I couldn’t help myself!” As if compensating for the levity of the beginning, the second half of the poem expresses Du Fu’s ambition to deliver this humble dish to the imperial palace. The impulse is telling in light of the lavish feasts that he wrote about in Chang’an and cited above.

Braised Pork

Renowned for his love of food and drink, Su Shi wrote poetry, essays, and informal notes on ingredients and favorite dishes. His style name “Eastern Slope” (Dongpo 東坡) has been applied to a pork dish that he is said to have loved. Although Dongpo pork (Dongpo rou 東坡肉) is probably not a Song-dynasty dish, Su Shi did record in the “Hymn to Pork” (Zhurou song豬肉頌) his method of braising pork when he lived in exile in Huangzhou (Knechtges 2012, 15).

Wash clean the cooking pot, put in a slight amount of water;       淨洗鍋少著水
Damper the firewood so the flames do not rise high.               柴頭罨煙焰不起
Let it cook thoroughly by itself, do not force it;                      待他自熟莫催他
When the cooking time is sufficient, it will be good on its own.           火候足時他自美
People in Huangzhou are fond of pork;                                   黃州好豬肉
It is cheap as mud.                                                                    價賤如泥土
The rich are unwilling to eat it;                                                貴者不肯喫
The poor do not know how to cook it.                                     貧者不解煮
In the morning I get up and pour two bowls;                           早晨起來打兩椀
I am so full and satisfied, no thought of the sovereign.           飽得自家君莫管

(Knechtges 2012, 15)

The last couplet is ironic in its assertion of his contentment in exile. By insisting that he is not thinking of the emperor, Su still has the emperor in the back of his mind.

Very similar to Su Shi’s technique, except for seasoning, is the method that the maid Song Huilian used in Chapter 23 of the sixteenth-century erotic novel The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jinping mei 金瓶梅). Huilian placed the pig’s head in a braising pan with a dipper of water and a perfectly proportioned mixture of oil, soy sauce, and star anise. She fit the lid on tight, and let it simmer on the stove over one stick of firewood for almost two hours. The triumphant result is reported in a couplet: “The skin was separated and the flesh falling apart. /Redolently fragrant: All five flavors were fully represented.” (Roy 2001, v.2, 44) The only food preparation described in the novel, the braised pig’s head enhanced maid Song’s reputation with the ladies of the household. (Liang 2014, 58)

Simple Food

In the Ming dynasty, Li Kaixian (李開先 1502–1568) wrote about an arduous trip up a mountain in “A Trip to a Mountain Village” (You shanzhuang 遊山莊). When he and his two servants, dusty and exhausted, reach the village, the farmers greet them with joy and go about preparing a meal:

To go with the millet, a chicken must be killed—    為添必殺鶏
but the chicken has flown into the neighbor’s courtyard! 鶏飛過鄰廬
A jug is opened, and thick wine poured out;                            開甕出濁醪
wild vegetables are cut, and brought in a basket              提筐剪野蔬
Drunk and sated, I lie on a rope-bed,                                       醉飽臥繩床
and dream at once that I have traveled to paradise.                 一夢遊華胥

(Chaves 1986, 282)

Li Kaixian’s relishing the simple repast recalls Tao Yuanming’s Peach Blossom Spring where for centuries villagers went about their peaceful lives unaware of the cataclysmic dynastic changes outside their secluded valley. When one day a fisherman discovers the valley, the people of Peach Blossom Spring are astonished, but react with the hospitality that Li Kaixian reported: they immediately invite him to have some wine while they kill a chicken for a feast (Hightower 1970, 254–256). Tao Yuanming’s fisherman stayed for several days. Li Kaixian declares he would have stayed for a month but worried about burdening the villagers.


In his novel the Story of the Stone, also known as Dreams of Red Mansions (Honglou meng 紅樓夢), Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1715–1763) included a few entertaining poems on food. The youngsters who populate the Jia family garden form a poetry club. The only boy in the club, Jia Baoyu, is the male heir of the Jia family. His home tutoring has included the Classic of Poetry but his father dismisses it as trivial compared to the other orthodox classics. The poems that the adolescents compose focus on themes of garden scenery, moonlight, flowers, incense, love, and death. In Chapter 38, the Crabapple Blossom poetry club members meet on Double Nine (the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, an annual occasion to gather with friends) to eat crabs and admire chrysanthemums. After twelve poems on chrysanthemums are created, recorded, recited, and evaluated, they order more hot crabs from the kitchen. Baoyu proposes that they write poems on crabs. He leads off with his original regulated verse that borrows liberally from the Song-dynasty scholar Su Shi mentioned above:

How delightful to sit and a crab’s claw to chew                      持螯更喜桂陰涼
In the cassia shade—with some ginger-sauce, too!                 潑醋擂姜興欲狂
Old Grim-chops wants wine, through he’s got no inside,                    饕餮王孙應有酒
And he walks never forwards, but all to one side.                   横行公子却無腸
The “yolks” are so tasty, who cares if we’re ill!                   臍間積冷饞忘忌
Though our fingers we’ve washed, they are crab-scented still.            指上沾腥洗尚香
“O crabs,” Dongpo said (and his words I repeat)                     原为世人美口腹
“You have not lived in vain if you’re so good to eat!”            坡仙曾笑一生忙

(Hawkes 1977, 2.256)

Su Shi wrote one of the most famous couplets on eating crabs: “If you have not visited Lu Mountain, you have short-changed your eyes; If you have not eaten crabs, you have short-changed your stomach” (不到廬山辜負目,不食螃蟹辜負腹) (Su Shi 1996, 1031-32). The poem that Baoyu quotes is significantly transformed, but Su’s original meaning is not inappropriate for Baoyu. Upon arriving at Huangzhou, his exile destination, Su Shi opened the eight-line verse with:

I laugh that all life we are busy because of our mouths,          自笑平生為口忙
Everything I’ve done up to now has become frivolous.           老來事業轉荒唐

(Su Shi 1996, 1032)

“Busy because of our mouths” means scrambling to get food, but also refers to Su Shi’s outspoken criticisms such as the poem on salt above. His mouth got him into trouble. Baoyu’s erudition did not impress his cousin Lin Daiyu: “One could churn out that sort of poem by the dozen.” (Hawkes 1977, 2.256) Indeed, thousands of such occasional poems were churned out at banquets over the centuries.

Food Metaphors

From the earliest poems, authors created useful food metaphors and allegories. Soup without seasoning was likened to a ruler getting only advice that matched his own point of view. A diversity of opinions was said to be like cooking fish and meat with a harmonious balancing of flavors—vinegar, pickle, salt, and plums (Legge 1872, 679, 684). In most cases, simple edibles became literary metaphors because of memorable stories often involving famous people.

Oranges—Filled with Virtue

The maligned minister Qu Yuan of the Songs of the South is credited with authoring a poem, “Hymn to the Orange” (Ju song 橘頌), praising a southern variety of orange. The lush description anthropomorphizes the fruit as a virtuous person:

Fairest of God’s trees,                                                              后皇嘉樹
The orange came and settled here.                                                       橘徠服兮
Commanded not to move                                                          受命不遷
But only grow in the south country                                          生南國兮
Deep-rooted, firm and hard to shift:                                         深固难徙
showing in this his singleness of purpose;                               更壹志兮
Leaves of green and pure white blossoms                                綠葉素荣
delight the eye of the beholder,                                                紛其可喜兮
And the thick branches and spines so sharp,                            曾枝剡棘
and the fine round fruits,                                                          圓果摶兮
Green ones with yellow ones intermingled                              青黄杂糅
to make a pattern of gleaming brightness.                                文章爛兮
Orange on the outside, pure white within,                                           精色内白
the fruits yield a parable for human conduct.                          類可任兮

(Hawkes 1959, 76–77)

The subsequent twenty-two lines praise the beauty of the orange tree and the tree’s principled stance against the vulgar tide. The author admires it for never having fallen into error and for being free from selfishness.

Stem Lettuce

If Qu Yuan elevated the orange tree to a moral paragon, Du Fu performed a similar feat for a green vegetable. As a former official, Du Fu qualified for a government stipend and was paid for performing some tasks for the local magistrate. But he also cultivated his own produce including stem-lettuce (wo ju 萵苣or wo sun 萵筍), a crunchy-stemmed vegetable common in southwest China. He explained in a poem preface:

Rain has just fallen; it is already autumn. I cleared a small plot before my dwelling and planted several mats of long-stemmed lettuce, spacing them well. Twenty days have passed, but the stem-lettuce has not yet sprouted. Only the wild weeds are green. I deplore the present, when superior men late in life may receive only small stipends, and blocked at every turn, cannot advance. Therefore I wrote this poem.

His frustration at finding weeds flourishing with no sign of the anticipated stem-lettuce seemed a fitting allegory for his thwarted career. In his poem “Planting Stem-lettuce” (Zhong woju 種萵苣), the stem-lettuce is the educated gentleman and the weeds are self-serving, corrupt bureaucrats:

Wild weeds, Where did you come from?                                 野莧迷汝來
Thick clumps ever more substantial;                                        宗生實於此
But how can that lot have no autumn?                                     此輩豈無秋
A covering of cold dew and they will die too.                         亦蒙寒露委
Upheaving, sprouting quickly,                                                 翻然出地速
Growing thickly, obliterating the path.                                    滋蔓戶庭毀
And so we know how the corrupt harm the upright                 因知邪干正
pressing them until they perish.                                                掩抑至沒齒
Even if a Worthy Man receives an official stipend,                賢良雖得祿
He still holds to the Tao, not benefiting himself.                     守道不封己
Fragrant orchids are ruined by crushing,                                  擁塞敗芝蘭
Thorns and brambles flourish with crowding.                          眾多盛荊杞
When the central garden is betrayed by wicked weeds,          中園陷蕭艾
an old gardener will always be ashamed…                              老圃永為恥

(Murck 1995, 36–37. See also Owen 2016, v. 4 15.65, 219–221).

Du Fu compared the long-stem lettuce to cymbidium orchids that were an image for the refined gentleman established as early as the Songs of the South.

Bamboo Shoots

Many officials discovered the simple pleasures of spring bamboo shoots when posted or banished to remote places. In “Eating Bamboo Shoots” (Shi sun 食筍), Bai Juyi wrote enthusiastically about the bamboo shoots that were plentiful in the countryside:

This province is truly a land of bamboo,                           此州乃竹鄉
in spring the sprouts fill hills and valleys.                        春筍滿山谷
Men of the hills snap them in armfuls,                              山夫折盈抱
and bring them to market as soon as they can.         抱來早市鬻
Things are cheapest when plentiful,                                  物以多為賤
for a pair of coppers a whole bunch can be had.               雙錢易一束
Just put them into the cooking pot,                                   置之炊甑中
and they will be done along with the rice.                        與飯同時熟
Their purple sheaths, shreds of ancient brocade,             紫籜坼故錦
their pale flesh, broken chunks of newfound jade.           素肌掰新玉
Every day I eat them more than I need,                            每日遂加餐
through their whole season I yearn not for meat.              經時不思肉
I was long resident in Chang’an and Luoyang,                 久為京洛客
and never had my fill of the taste of these.                       此味常不足
Eat while you can, don’t hesitate,                                     且食勿踟躕
soon south winds will blow them into bamboo.                南風吹作竹

(Owen 1996, 499–500)

Recalling his service in the Tang-dynasty capitals Chang’an and Luoyang, where fresh bamboo shoots were rare, Bai plans to indulge in this tasty country fare before the shoots grow into bamboo.

Bamboo shoots figure in a prose-poem by the scholar-official, poet, and calligrapher Huang Tingjian (黃庭堅1045–1105). Huang had a tumultuous career in the imperial bureaucracy of the Northern Song. His appointment as drafter of a history of the previous reign became a source of misfortune when he was accused of sarcasm, which was punished with exile to southern Sichuan. Using a basic premise of herbal medicine—if the concoction is not bitter, it will do the patient no good—Huang insisted that bitter bamboo shoots were as good for people as bitter advice was good for a government. Thus his words in “Rhapsody on Bitter Bamboo Shoots” (Ku sun fu 苦筍賦):

The bamboo shoots are bitter but flavorful,                             盖苦而有味
like loyal remonstrance that enlivens a country;                     如忠諫之可活國
much [criticism] need do no harm,                                           多而不害
just as scholars thereby all become wise.                                 如舉士而皆得賢
Because the shoots absorb the essence of rivers and mountains, 是其鐘江山之秀氣
they can grow strong in the rain and dew                                故能深雨露
and not be hurt by strong winds.                                            而避風烟
At banquets they are used as an appetizer;                              食肴以之開道
for wine drinkers they are a mouth-watering snack.                酒客為之流涎[Mild tasting] Cassia-rose and
Menggong bamboo shoots also can be had here,                    彼桂玫之與夢汞
yet they can never compete [with the bitter kind].          又安得與之同年

The people of Shu say:                                                             蜀人曰:
that bitter bamboo shoots are not fit for eating.                       苦笋不可食
If eaten, they will revive old diseases                                      食之動痼疾
and make people thin and weak.                                              使人萎而瘠
I, however, have never turned them down.                              予亦未當與之下
By the same token, superior officials don’t talk but know,        盖上士不談而喻
Average officials when in court appear to agree,                                中士進則若信
but on leaving court fall into confusion.   退则眩焉
Pedestrian officials believe everything they hear,                               下士信耳
but not the evidence before them;                                                        而不信目
their thick heads cannot be penetrated.                                    其頑不可裯
Li Taibo once said:                                                                   李太白曰:
Enjoy being drunk;                                                                   但得醉中趣
never offer the sober an explanation.                                       勿為醒者傳

(Original manuscript, Taipei Palace Museum 1962)

Huang likens the frank opinions that got him into political trouble to the wholesome bitterness of “medicinal” bamboo shoots. Deriving health from bitter bamboo shoots is equivalent to the government’s benefitting from unpleasant criticism. But the bamboo shoots lead Huang to lambast his former colleagues in the bureaucracy; there are the smart officials who know the truth but say nothing, there are the average ones who seem to agree but after leaving the emperor’s presence are confused; and the most hopeless: those who trust only their ears and ignore the evidence before their eyes.

Auspicious Foods

Many “auspicious” foods figure in poems. All foods associated with fecundity and producing sons are considered auspicious. A prime example is the pomegranate (shiliu 石榴) with its many seeds. Auspiciousness is evoked through puns as when fish (yu 魚) stands for plenty (yu 餘), or needed rain (yu 雨), or when dates and jujubes (zaozi 棗子) sound like “having a son early in a marriage” (zaozi 早子). Other auspicious foods derive from ancient stories such as the peaches of longevity (shoutao 壽桃, pantao 蟠桃). Since antiquity, they were believed to bring a long healthy life based on the legend of the Queen Mother of the West, who grew them in her orchard. Fruiting only once every three thousand years, the peaches could confer long life (Bartholomew 2006, 249).

Another kind of auspiciousness occurs when two plants grow as one. Since the Han dynasty, this omen implied the influence of a charismatic leader. In 1372, at the beginning of the Ming dynasty, a farmer found two melons sharing a single stalk. He presented his melons to Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), who as the founder of the new dynasty ruled as emperor Taizu (r. 1368–1398). Ministers cited precedents to assure him that this was Heaven’s response to his great virtue. Having been a farmer himself, Emperor Taizu was skeptical. The court official Song Lian (宋濂 1310–1381) composed a hymn on the ripe melons: “Their hidden chambers both sweet, / icy jades competing in loveliness.” He went on to interpret the melons as a symbol of imperial conquest:

I pray that, as these melons
cooperate in auspiciousness and join in blessing,
there will also be peace in China,
growing until the azure [sky] is its cover

(Source same as below?  YES.)

Song Lian was predicting that the empire would expand to encompass everything under the azure blue sky (Schneewind 2006, 10–11). Emperor Taizu suspected his ministers of flattery (indeed he had most of them executed in the following years, including Song Lian). He rejected the notion that the melons were a sign from Heaven, but noted, “If throughout the space between Heaven and Earth the times are peaceful and the harvest abundant, that is the sign of kingly rule. Kingly omens do not exist among trivialities!” (Schneewind 2006, 95).

Four-hundred years later in the subsequent Qing dynasty, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–1795) was less humble when writing a quatrain in praise of the Hami melon. In “Thoughts While Eating Hami Melon” (Shi hami gua you gan 食哈密瓜有感), he was confident of his mandate over all under the blue heaven.

Snowy mountains Scallion Peak, the road stretches far           雪山葱嶺路途遙
The Shao orchard and Wang gardens do not yet have sprouts       紹圃王園未有苗
They don’t resemble the famous colt seeking faraway regions       不似名駒求絕域
Rather they’re like wrapped oranges offered as tribute to the court. 却如包橘貢中朝
(Qianlong 2007, 19.6b)

The snowy mountains refer to the Kunlun Mountains in the west beyond which Hami melons grew. Even though the year is too early in Beijing for plants to have sprouted, the melons are arriving at court as tribute. In honoring the position of the emperor, the quatrain fulfilled the Qianlong emperor’s own definition of poetry. In the 1770s, during the compilation of the Full Library of the Four Branches of Learning (Siku quanshu 四庫全書), the Qianlong Emperor rhetorically asked, “What is poetry?” His response was specific: “It is an expression of the writer’s loyalty to the Throne and piety toward his parents. Poetry that does not fulfill these functions, I do not count as poetry at all.” (Waley 1970, 169). Fortunate for the legacy of poetry, that narrow definition was rarely embraced.

Reflections on a Culture

This entry is but a small sample of food in poetry and its symbolism. A daily necessity and often a great pleasure, food was a natural topic for poets. Yet the admonitions against over-indulgence, the condemnation of greediness, and the instruction to share a meal however modest somewhat inhibited poets. Moreover, there are hundreds of poems on drinking for every poem on food. There was a fine line between enhancing one’s status through enthusiasm for food and inviting condemnation for gluttonous excess. In the end, the substantial body of poetry that mentions food offers a consideredformal presentation of a distinctive preoccupation of Chinese culture.

Further Reading

  • Bartholomew, Terese Tse. (2006). Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum ­– Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture.
  • Chang, K. C. (1977). (Ed.). Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • Chaves, Jonathan. (Trans. and Ed.). (1986). The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry: Yuan, Ming, and Ch’ing Dynasties (12791911). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Egan, Ronald. (1994). Word, Image, and Deed in the Life of Su Shi. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Council on East Asian Studies.
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