Ancient Dietary Wisdom

A Veteran Western Practitioner

PureInsight | February 23, 2004

[] "Few other cultures are as food-oriented as the Chinese," said K.C. Chang, the editor of Food in Chinese Culture." (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1977) Why does Chinese food have such universal appeal? Granted, most of the delectable food served in Chinese restaurants in the U.S.A. is actually festival food and not representative of the daily Chinese diet. But what makes Chinese food so tasty? Why has its popularity lasted so long, and why have the types of food served and their methods of preparation not changed much for hundreds of years? Quick cooking of seasonal foods over an intense heat source, flavored and perfectly spiced, makes for tasty, healthful meals.

A healthy Chinese diet is based on much more than mere nutritional considerations that are so important to diet-conscious Westerners. Food for the Chinese is part of their culture, their heritage, closely linked with medicine and even the arts and politics of the ancients. Legend has it that Lao Tzu once said, "Governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish, " implying that governing a country requires just the right amount of seasonings and adjustment of preparations for a successful result.

Yi Yin, one of the ancient Chinese scholars who lived during the Shang Dynasty era, (1500 to 1000 B.C.) was conscious of nutritional values of foods and had expounded on the theory of relationships between different food attributes. This renowned scholar noticed a connection between the five flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, piquant and salty and the nutritional needs of the five major organ systems, the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys. Another source tells us that cooked scallions, (known as green onions to most of us), fresh ginger root, garlic, dried lily buds and tree fungus (a mushroom, sometimes sold in the U.S. as "cloud ears"), consumed in the right amounts and correct proportions, have properties that ward off certain diseases.

Foods that are said to ward off diseases are also found in the West. Most American are familiar with the adage, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." Nutritional sleuths have discovered that the pectin in apples is one of those substances that protect certain body systems. Carrots are valued for their high vitamin A content. In the Western scientific view, vitamin A destroys "free radicals" in the body that cause diseases.

Considering the two previous notions, it becomes evident that food has far more significance than merely keeping the stomach filled. Academicians from many areas and disciplines consider food in Chinese culture so important they hold a "Symposium on Chinese Dietary Culture" somewhere in Asia each year, an event presented by invitation only. The presenters and their topics vary from year to year, but experts do address such diverse issues as "Chinese Dietary Culture from a Global Perspective," "the Influence of Chinese Culinary Culture on the World," "Tea-Drinking Lifestyles among Ming Dynasty Literary Groups," " The Originas of Fermented Food and Drink in the Orient," "On the Scientific and Artistic Characteristics of Chinese Dietetics/Culture," and others.

Looking at these topics demonstrates that these ancient traditions are still applicable to present-day Chinese food – the growing, distribution and consumption of foodstuffs in China.

Is the consumption and preparation of certain foodstuffs the same all over the vast nation of China? The answer is a definite NO! Why? For many reasons! China and her people have a long history of ethnic diversity. The population is comprised of varying races and belief systems (many Muslims in the north-east; some Jewish people; a sprinkling of Christians), all of which had and still have a strong influence on food preferences. The other contributing factors relating to China's culinary differences are equally complex: only 8% of China's landmass is arable; strong climatic variations from subtropical to an almost Siberian landscape; huge windstorms in the Mongolian Steppes; deserts and also a frequent shortage or lack of water for domestic and animal consumption present a myriad of logistical problems.

One has to only look at a topographical map of China and consider latitudes and longitudes to become quickly aware of what can be grown where, and how to accomplish it, more or less successfully. Sixty-three percent of China today is still rural, in spite of urban headlines that scream of China's economic accomplishments. Individually owned farms, heavily taxed and subject to an arbitrary "fee" system, are tiny – many of them a mere 6 mu (1 mu = 0.165 acres). Farmers, for the most part, grow only enough to sustain their own families. Such small plots of land make it uneconomical to raise large livestock. Poultry and an occasional pig are the preferred food animals. The bulk of China's wheat crops are grown in the northern part of the country, and not sufficient at that. China imports immense quantities of wheat from other nations, mainly from the U.S. and Canada. The south of the country is "the rice bowl."

Seafood from the oceans, lakes and river systems contribute important protein to the diet, but their preparation and those of other foodstuffs vary greatly according to regional preferences and the seasons of the year. All manner of living things supply additional protein to the Chinese diet, things from which most Westerners would recoil (soy bean curd being an exception) – such as snakes, rats, insects, dogs, cats, civet cats (a species of weasels, the SARS carriers) and all manner of birds. A Chinese friend told me once that, "the only things that cannot be flavored are dog's hearts and wolf's lungs." Would I stick to plain rice and tofu in that case? Probably, augmented by a few colorful vegetables, laced with some of those incomparable Chinese spices and classical sauces. One of my favorite Chinese books, The Cooking of China, by Emily Hahn, time/Life Books, N.Y. 1968, features this quote, "Mounting on high I begin to realize the smallness of man's domain; gazing into the distance I begin to know the vanity of the carnal world. I turn my head and hurry home – back to the court and market, a single grain of rice falling – into the great barn." (Po Chu: I, 772-846 A.D.)

Confucius is supposed to have proclaimed, "A man can never be too serious about his eating." Westerners would probably assume this means "a seriously good meal," such as perhaps a steak, accompanied by a baked potato with sour cream, chives, bacon, a tossed salad and a rich cake desert. That is NOT what Confucius had in mind! Moderation is the key! Over-consumption of any food, red meat, fats and sugary, highly refined foods in particular, clog the arteries, which later in life creates all manner of health problems. It can also lead to obesity. (In ancient times, sugar was virtually unknown to the people of China. Those who desired sugar imported it from India. Chinese people sweetened foods with honey). When I once asked a traditional Chinese medical doctor friend about losing weight he replied tersely, "No fat, no wheat, no sugar!" I heeded his advice and within one year had lost 80 lbs. My two years of clinical nutritional training were not as helpful as this Chinese doctor's wisdom!

How is one to be serious about food, then, from an age-old Chinese dietary standpoint? According to ancient tradition, a properly balanced Chinese meal must have a correctly balanced quantity of both fan (grains and other starchy foods) and tsai (a combination of vegetable and meat dishes). I mentioned earlier that Chinese tradition looked upon food not only as something to fill the stomach, but also as medicine. From where does this theory arise? Fan and tsai can be classified as belonging to either yin or yang; bodily functions correspond to those principles, and if the body's yin and yang energies are out of balance, problems result, such as illnesses, strange moods, bad dreams, sweats, and other manner of undesirable physical and mental disharmonies. Confucius in the Analects, 10:8 also said the following, "Do not…eat your fill of polished rice, nor finely minced meat; eat not rice that has gone sour or fish or meat that has spoiled…Do not eat, except at proper times… never drink wine to the point of becoming confused… Never consume wine or dried meat brought from a shop." Such wisdom in the 6th century B.C!

Confucius, that well-beloved sage, pronounced other great ideas such as this one, "[Good] health is guaranteed if a moral life is led," He did not include the effects of karma from previous lives on present health; the cause-effect relationship between these two may be found in a marvelous book, Zhuan Falun, by Li Hongzhi. Confucius did say that kindness, justice, proper behavior, sound judgment and personal integrity, in addition to wholesome foods, assure health as well. Lao Tzu, on the other hand, proposed that the concept of The Three Jewels - compassion, humility and moderation – as well as following natural law, when combined with non-assertive actions and with simplicity of conduct would lead to balance of the yin (female; dark) and yang (male; light) and result in a healthful body state.

These historical Chinese "Prescriptions for Living," relating to wellness, medicines and dietary practices have been echoed during ancient Mediterranean and India times as well, although, as one contemporary American scholar had said, "Only six specific terms are common to all: gender (male/female); presence or absence of light (light/dark); moisture (dry/wet); moral value (good/evil); energy (strong/weak) and temperature (hot/cold)." (Quotes from Grivetti, Louis; "Food History of China," 2001 lecture; ).

Do these ancient relationships, between our food consumption and how we live and act, still hold value for us today? Even if the notions of yin and yang are foreign and meaningless to most contemporary Americans who are unaware of ancient Oriental cultures and how they relate to the total person – body, mind and spirit – they deserve consideration. The 2500-year-old Chinese dietary-medical system has been maintained and sustained for three millennia or longer. Such heritage bears merit. To quote a source that professor Grivetti, cited in one of his lectures: "Nature has fours seasons and five elements; climate; the four seasons; and five elements, wood, water, metal, fire and earth. Always be mindful of weather and the seasons. To grant a long life, the fours seasons and five elements store the power of creation within attributes of cold, heat, dryness, moisture and wind. Man has five viscera – liver, stomach, heart, lungs and kidneys, in which these five climates are transformed to created joy, anger, sympathy, grief and fear." (Nei Ching, 1966, pp 177)

The gremlins that tear at our emotional fabric – the joy, anger, grief, sympathy and fear- are the very culprits which, for eons, have created havoc in people's lives! According to ancient Chinese and Indian/Mediterranean culture, dietary practices influence our whole life systems. What we eat, how we eat it and how much of what we eat all have a bearing on our health and how we think and act. Each one of us has an incredible, awesome, Spirit-given power to make choices and act on the decisions we make. How we think and act will determine how we die and whereto we journey after we are gone. Let's make it a great journey.

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