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Bowl and lid, Jingdezhen, China. Museum no. C.794&A-1910

Bowl and lid, Jingdezhen, China. Museum no. C.794&A-1910. Porcelain painted in underglaze blue.

While people the world over must eat and drink, not many have felt the need to develop such a complex cuisine as the Chinese. Perhaps because famine has been a frequent occurrence in the past, the preparation and consumption of food has always been a matter of great interest to Chinese people. Special meals are served at family anniversaries and religious festivals and food is offered to gods and ancestors. Business deals are struck over a meal and presents often consist of food. The medicinal value of food in promoting good health is taken very seriously by Chinese people.

"There are forests of oak and poplar and beech, and wild pears and peaches, apples and apricots. Riding by, one can pick the little plums known as ulana, pale red like sharp cherries, and in Jehol there are cherries both white and red and the lard sour cherries, perfect in colour and taste; or one can eat the hazelnuts fresh fallen from the trees and mountain walnuts roasted over an open fire. There is tea, made from fresh snow on the little brazier slung between two horses. There is the perfect flavour of bream and carp from the mountain streams, caught by oneself in the early morning - you can keep something of the flavour for Peking eating if you enclose the fish in mutton fat or pickle them in brine before frying them up in sesame oil or lard. There is venison, roasted over an open fire by a tent pitched on the sunny slope of a mountain; or the liver of a newly killed stag, cooked with one's own hands (even if the rain is falling), and eaten with salt and vinegar. And in the northeast one can have bear's paw, which the imperial cooks value so highly."

K'ang-hsi, Emperor of China, about 1700, translated by Jonathan D Spence and quoted in Emperor of China: Self Portrait of K'ang-hsi, Jonathan Cape, 1974.

Rice and other food

Rice has been China's chief grain since the Song dynasty (960 - 1279), but it is not the only important staple foodstuff. Rice is grown and eaten mostly in south China. In north China, where the main cereal crops are wheat, millet and sorghum, noodles and steamed buns made from dough are more usual. These grains and starchy foods are called fan; vegetables and meat are called cai (prounounced 'tsai'). A balanced meal contains both fan and cai.

"The principal food of all Chinos is rice, for although they have wheat and sell bread therefrom, yet they do not eat it save as if it were a fruit. Their chief bread is cooked rice, and they even make a wine from it which is comparable with a reasonable grape-wine and might even be mistaken for it."

Fr. Martin de Rada (Portuguese missionary), about 1565, quoted in  Boxer, CR (ed) South China in the Sixteenth Century, Hakluyt Society, 1953.

Cooking and eating

Kitchen scene from a mural in an Eastern Han tomb, about 200

Kitchen scene from a mural in an Eastern Han tomb, about 200. From Wenwu 10, 1972, reproduced in Chang, KC (ed) Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, Yale University Press, 1977, illustration 9.

A densely populated land with limited fuel supplies needs a method of cooking that is economical of resources. Chinese cuisine relies on much labour being spent on preparation, in order that cooking can be done quickly. The most common, but not the only, method used by Chinese cooks is stir-frying, in which food is cut into bite-size pieces and cooked fast at high temperature. The food is brought to the table on serving dishes from which the diners help themselves. Each person usually has a bowl, a pair of chopsticks and a spoon. Chopsticks have been in use since Shang times (about 1700 - 1050BC).

Table and chair, 1550-1640. Museum nos. FE.67-1983, FE.27-1983, FE.41990, C.128-1928, FE.71-1977, C.127-1928

Table and chair set with a jade ewer and stemcup, a porcelain-lidded food box and a porcelain bowl. Ming dynasty (1368--1644).

Fine dining

Among the well-to-do it was the custom to have a separate table for each person. The narrow, rectangular tables were placed close together in a semi-circular arrangement or as three sides of a square.

Several people would have been able to sit round a square table. Raised edges on the table top stopped any spills from dripping in the diners' laps. Tablecloths were not used to cover the table top although the front and sides were sometimes draped with silk hangings.

"When feasting with a man of superior rank and character, the guest first tasted the dishes and then stopped. He should not bolt the food, nor swill down the liquor. He should take small and frequent mouthfuls. While chewing quickly, he did not make faces with his mouth. Do not [roll] the grain into a ball: do not bolt down the various dishes; do not swill down the soup. Do not make a noise in eating; do not crunch the bones with the teeth; do not put back fish you have been eating; do not throw the bones to the dogs; do not snatch at what you want. Do not try to gulp down soup with vegetables in it, nor add condiments to it; do not keep picking the teeth, nor swill down the sauces. If a guest add[s] condiments, the host will apologise for not having had the soup prepared better. If he swill[s] down the sauces the host will apologise for his poverty."

Concerning table manners, from the Li ji or 'Record of Ritual' compiled in the Han dynasty, 220 AD, translated by James Legge, The Li Ki: The Sacred Books of the East, F Max Müller (ed), Vols 27 & 28, Clarendon Press, 1885.

Wine warmer, 500-580. Museum no. C.432-1922

Wine warmer, 500-580. Museum no. C.432-1922.


Chinese people have drunk alcohol with their meals since the Neolithic period (about 5000-1700BC). Most alcoholic drinks are produced from cereal grains and some are drunk warm.

The little pot shown here, made between AD 500 and 580, was used for heating wine. The tripod legs would have straddled the heat source. The handle at the side of the pot is hollow to take a wooden extension for lifting it off the stove. At the same time a stick would have been passed through the ceramic loop on the opposite side to steady the hot pot.

The potters who made these wine-warmers sometimes added tails and beast-like heads or faces to the pot, or by giving the tripod legs hooves or paws.

Stemcups were only ever used for alcoholic drinks. The Chinese term means 'urging cup': the drinker toasts his companions and at the same time urges them to down another cup.


Tea Bowls, 1984 and 1000-1125. Museum nos. C.18-1935, W.3-1938, FE.51-1984

Tea Bowls, 1984 and 1000-1125. Museum nos. C.18-1935, W.3-1938, FE.51-1984. The tea bowl on the right was made in 1984 at the Zibo kiln in Shandong. The bowl on the stand, which dates from 1000 to 1125, came from the same kiln.


Tea is China's most popular beverage. Chinese people drink green unfermented tea, taken hot without milk or sugar, with meals and snacks and on its own throughout the day. Today, they use mugs with lids and handles, but up until this century tea was always drunk from small bowls.

Eight hundred years separate the two tea bowls made in the same kiln (Zibo, Shandong) shown in the image on the right. The bowl on the right was made in 1984. The tea bowl on the stand was made between 1000 and 1125, by which time tea drinking had become an everyday habit for most and an art for some.

Aristocrats and educated monks and nuns would gather together to taste fine teas and appreciate beautiful utensils. The powdered tea favoured at this time was whisked up with hot water in the tea bowl until it formed a froth. The white whipped topping showed up well against black tea bowls like this, which was one reason for their popularity. Tea making competitions were held, the winner being the person whose froth lasted longest.

The thick sides of stoneware bowls mean the heat of the tea is not lost quickly and the tea- drinker's fingers do not get scalded. Stands were used for serving or to raise steaming tea bowls to the lips.

Teapots, 1650-1660 and 1984. Museum nos. C.871-1936, FE.31-1984

Teapots, 1650-1660 and 1984. Museum nos. C.871-1936, FE.31-1984. These two teapots were made at the same kiln site at Yixing.

By the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) tea was no longer made in the bowl because leaf tea replaced powder and the dried and rolled up leaves were brewed in teapots. These were often quite small, just big enough to make one or two cups. The small size meant that good leaves were not wasted. Pots from the Yixing kilns are particularly suitable for tea-making. Stoneware keeps the tea warm and they pour well. They are manufactured in a wide range of imaginative shapes, such as the one on the right in the form of a water chestnut.

"The white porcelain jar is scrupulously clean.
The red charcoal is burning with great intensity.
The fragrant powdered tea is under the froth
Blossoms float atop the fish-eye bubbles.
The fine colour is presented in a bowl.
The fragrance remains after the feast.
(Poet's note: Exuberance over tea after a nap, in memory of Master Yang of Tongzhou)"

Poem about Tea by Bai Juyi, about 820 AD, quoted by Song Boyin in 'Tea Drinking, Tea Ware and Purple Clay Ware' Hong Kong, 1984.

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