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Archive for July, 2009

A Cultural Treasure of China

Calligraphy is the quintessence of Chinese culture. There have emerged some 1,000 kinds of written languages in the world. First, they were used to record events and what people wanted to say. In writing, people strive to make the scripts look beautiful and elegant. To meet special needs, they are written in artistic styles. The writing of Chinese characters has been developed into a special high-level art. Chinese calligraphy has flourished for several thousand years. Like painting, sculpture, poetry, music, dance and opera, it is a full member of the family of arts.

Calligraphy can be found everywhere in China, and is closely linked to daily life. In addition, it leads other arts in the number of people who practice it.

Chinese Traditional Foods

There is a saying, the reason that great differences exist between eating habits of various regions of the world is the result of a multitude of factors, including limitations in ecological environment, the population volume, level of productivity and others. Most meat dishes are from areas where population density is relatively low and the soil is either not needed or unable to sustain agriculture. Reliance on meat has possibly stimulated economic activities of sharing and trade. In comparison, a dietary habit of mainly grain, and plants’ roots, stems, leaves and less meat is usually associated with an environment where supply cannot meet demand. The food supply in these places is more dependent on self-growing.

However, dietary habits are not status quo, and with no classification as good or bad. But with migration of people on a global scale, dietary traditions that are once fixed to a region might be accepted and adopted by more and more people; and the original regional dietary habit evolves to contain more new elements. People could possibly see from the long standing Chinese food culture the footprints of the common development of humankind.

China is one originating source of the world’s agriculture. The Chinese have invented ways of irrigation at a very early time; building canals and using sloped land to develop agriculture by irrigation, as well as other means of farming. As early as 5,400 B.C., the Yellow River region already saw growth of foxtail millet (Setaria italica, also called foxtail bristlegrass, meaning the seed of broomcorn millet), and has already adopted the method of crop storage in underground caves. By 4,800 B.C., areas along the Yangtze River have been planted with rice (with the distinction of sticky or non-sticky rice, the earliest “rice” refers to the glutinous types of rice only). Since entering the agricultural age, the Chinese have formed a dietary composition with grains as the principal food and meats as supplement, and such tradition has continued to this day.

There exists an old piece of writing in China by the title of Huangdi Ne?ing. It China is an important center of origin for citrus fruits in the worlddescribes the food composition of the Chinese as “The Five Grains as life support, the Five Fruits as complimentary aide, the Five Meats as added benefits, and the Five Vegetables as substantial fill.” The grains, fruits, and vegetables are all plant foods. Grain crops in ancient times were referred to as “The Five Grains” or “The Six Grains,” and usually consist of shu (broomcorn millet, sometimes referred to as “yellow rice,” a small glutinous yellow grain), ji (what we call millet today, has the title of “Head of the Five Grains,” shu and ji were the principal cereals of Northern China at the time), mai (including barley and wheat), dou (the general term for all pod-bearing crops, grows in wet lowland areas, and is the main source of protein for the Chinese), ma (refers to the edible type of hemp, was the principal food for farmers in ancient times), and dao (rice). Shu and ji are both indigenous to China, and were introduced to Europe in prehistoric times. On the other hand, both the mai and dao are not indigenous to China. It is usually believed that dao (rice) came from India and Southeast Asia.

From archeological sites uncovered from early Neolithic Age, earliest rice cultivation in history was found. Mai (wheat) originated from Central and West Asia, and were introduced to China in the Neolithic Age. Also, the sorghum is an indigenous Chinese crop as well, and was introduced to India and Persia (present day Iran) during the first century A.D.. During every Chinese New Year celebration, the Chinese use the idiom “Good Harvest of the Five Grains,” which really means to bless the New Year with good harvest of all crops, so as to bring prosperity.

This is enough to show that in a large country where “The masses regard food as their heaven,” the production of crops has held enormous importance since olden days Experiences from cultivating land gave way for the Chinese to learn about many edible plants that are unknown to the West. And they have discovered that many of the human body’s essential nutrients can be obtained from plants. The beans, rice, broomcorn millet, millet and other foods that the Chinese often eat are all rich in proteins, fatty acids and carbohydrates.

Foods made from grain come in many varieties and take on many forms. The the terraces reclaimed by people of the Zhuang nationality in Guilinnorthern Chinese’s principal food was wheat. Therefore, most dishes on the dinner table are various types of pastry or pasta. Wheat flour is made into buns, pancakes, noodles, stuffed buns, dumplings, wonton and so on. On the other hand, in the southern part of China, the principal food is rice-based. Besides plain rice, there would be thin rice noodle, thick rice noodles, rice cakes, stuffed glutinous rice balls in soup and other types of rice-based foods to be found everywhere. Rice spread from south to north, and with barley and wheat passing from west to east contributes significantly to the shaping of Chinese dietary habits.

Bing, or Chinese pancakes, was one of the earliest forms of pastry. The earliest method of making bing, is to ground the grain to a powder, make into dough by adding water, then boil in water until cooked.  In time, there has come to be steamed, baked, toasted, fried and other kinds of pancakes. Bing also has the most varieties among all dough-made foods. It comes in all sizes and thickness, some with stuffing. Even the stuffing comes in no less than several dozen varieties. The non-stuffed pancakes are single or multi-layered. Those with good skills can make around a dozen layers in a pancake, each layer being as thin as paper. The sesame seed cake is the most popular baked pastry, and can be found in both the north and the south.

Noodles are also a type of traditional food made from flour. The earliest way of making noodles was nothing but to cook in boiling water or soup. It was only after the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), did there come to be meat or vegetarian pasta sauce. Noodles have a close correlation with Chinese festivities. In the north, there is the belief that “on the second day of the second month (lunar calendar), the dragon raises its head.” So people have the custom of eating Dragon Whisker Noodles, to pray for good weather and harvest during the year. In the southern regions, on the first day of the lunar year, “New Year’s Noodles” are to be had. In addition, Longevity Noodles are for celebrating birthdays. When a child reaches one month in age, together the family shall have “Soup Noodle Banquet.” Though the art of noodle-making may look simple, it is actually a complex task that requires many different skills, such as rolling, rubbing, stretching, kneading, curling, pressing, and slicing.

The Chinese at around the 3rd century A.D., have mastered flour  fermentation techniques by using the easily fermented rice soup as a catalyst. Later, bases were experienced to neutralize the fermentation process when making dough. The advent of the steam basket, the Chinese griddle and other cooking utensils, together with fermentation techniques, have helped to provide the endless possibilities of pasta dishes and pastry. The most common food made from flour, since the development of fermentation techniques, would be the mantou, or plain steamed bun.

Plain steamed rice is the most commonly encountered type of rice-food, and is the principal food of the southern Chinese. But more characteristic of traditional Chinese rice-foods is still zhou, or Chinese porridge (congee). Porridge has had thousands of years of history in China, and the way people eat porridge varies from region to region. There are also countless varieties of Chinese porridge, where just the basic ingredients are divided into six main groups, namely the grains, vegetables, fruits, flowers, herbs and meats. And the way of eating rice dressed with porridge has existed for quite some time.

Thirty years ago, rice and white flour were considered “fine foods,” which most common folks are not able to have at every meal. Its counterpart, the “rough foods,” were the real main dietary components of the Chinese, including corn, millet, sorghum, buckwheat, oats, yams, beans and so on.

Among all the “rough foods,” soybeans gave the greatest contribution. The earliest record of soybean planting was in the West Zhou Dynasty. Soybeans at the time were the food of farmers. It was not until the West Han Dynasty (26 B.C. – 25 A.D.) after the emergence of tofu, or bean curd, did soybean become acceptable to the bureaucrats and the literati class in Chinese society. To the present day, there are well over a hundred kinds of tofu and foods made from soybean milk. Chinese-grown soybeans and soybean in Successive Years, which shows people’s best wishes at the beginning of the New Year” products provide for an important source of vegetable proteins, and can be made into many premium sauces. Bean curd is placed somewhere between the category of principal and supplementary foods. It has since its creation evolved into many kinds of dishes, and has become typical Chinese home cooking. Different when China is an important center of origin for citrus fruits in the world. Original wild orange types grow in many places such as Hunan, Sichuan, Guangxi, Yunnan, Jiangxi, Tibet and so on. (Photo by Shen Yu, provided by Imaginechina) compared to westerners’ common use of butter and other animal oils, the Chinese mostly use vegetable oils such as soybean oil, vegetable seed oil, peanut oil, corn oil and so on.

In pre-Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.) writings, fruits to make the most frequent appearances are peaches, plums and jujubes; and after those come pears, sour plums, apricots, hazelnuts, persimmons, melons, hawthorns, and mulberries; making rare appearances are Chinese wolfberries, Chinese crabapples, and cherries. Most of these fruit trees are indigenous to temperate zones of northern China, or have been introduced to China in prehistoric times. Of which, peaches, plums, jujubes and chestnuts were often used as ceremonial offerings. Peaches were exported from northwestern China by way of Central Asia to Persia; and from there, the peach found its way into Greece and other European countries. So it is unlike the common belief of the Europeans that peaches originated in Persia. Many other fruits that were indigenous to southern China, including tangerines, shaddock (pomelo), mandarin oranges, oranges, lichee, longan, Chinese crabapples, loquat, red bayberries and more, are gradually being consumed in broader areas. During the transformation from a fishing-and-hunting society into agricultural society, meats were also once an important component of the supplementary diet of the Chinese, due to underdeveloped technology in the growing of vegetables. In the agricultural age, the Chinese considered cattle, sheep, and pig to be the three superior domesticated animals, called the “three sheng,” or sacrificial animals. When performing sacrificial rituals, the three animals were considered the best grade of all offerings. Horse, cattle, sheep, chicken, dog and pig together, were called the “six chu,” or domesticated animals. Under the influence of relatively high population density and limitations in the natural environment, as well as other factors, horses and cattle were most often regarded as principal assistants in agriculture, and not fed and raised as livestock for food.

Therefore, all the way until the Song Dynasty, the Chinese considered beef a rare delicacy, whereas mutton was seen as a very common dish. Lamb (meat from a young sheep) was considered the superior grade of meat from a sheep. The character mei in the Chinese script, meaning beauty, is associated with eating mutton in its meaning and form. Pigs and Chickens were also some of the earliest animals to be domesticated and used as food. Due to the early development of poultry breeding, eggs are the most frequently consumed animal-related food for the Chinese. A common feature of the Chinese countryside is that families raised pigs (excluding believers of Islam), as pork is the most common meat in Chinese food. With the same altitude towards lamb, the ancient Chinese believed that meat from a piglet tastes better than that of a fully-grown pig. In China’s past, dogs were animals that could be slaughtered at any time to be cooked as food. Though it is not as common as having pork and chicken, there were specialized professions in the area of dog butchers. The Chinese also invented the primitive egg incubator, breeding cell and many other poultry feeding devices.

Food for the Chinese since pre-Qin Dynasty period has been mainly grains, so meats were rare and cereals were abundant. With the advancement of vegetable growing techniques, vegetables were no longer the privileged enjoyment of the wealthy few. The list of vegetables that the Chinese eat is perhaps the biggest variety offering in the world. Common veggies include the Chinese cabbage, turnip and radish, eggplant, cucumber, peas, Chinese chive (leek), wax gourd, edible fungi, plant shoots, and various beans, as well as edible wild herbs grown in small quantities. Wild herbs are supplementary foods with the main purpose of helping people to swallow food. This forces culinary technique to constantly improve upon itself. The various vegetable roots, stems, and leaves could be eaten fresh or cooked, and could be dried for storage, or cured for making different kinds of appetizers. The goal is to offer as much variety in texture and taste as possible.

When compared to a dietary composition of excessive animal-based foods, many nutritional scientists believe that the Chinese inclination towards grains as principal food, with fish, meats, eggs, milk and vegetables being supplementary diet components, helps to provide for a balanced nutritional intake and more benefits to health, and is also in accordance with the global call for energy conservation and environmental protection.

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