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Food for Thought

Food for Thought


The entire human race, and particularly the Chinese, lives on a culture of food; all people eat. However, most people do not realize that what, how, where, and with whom they eat are matters related to culture. Although eating is considered a daily activity and natural behavior, it demonstrates cultural meanings and is significant for social identification. Other than culture, food is also associated with illnesses and health as well as concepts of beauty and fitness.

This paper focuses on how preparing food and consuming it influences human thoughts. It explores the various ways through which food preparation and consumption processes control people’s thoughts, hence, influencing their behaviors and social relations, especially gender roles. This objective will be achieved by reviewing texts by Chinese writers, and mostly Lu Xun, concentrating on how these artists respond to issues surrounding food and gender.

Food Preparation and Consumption

One of the most basic explorations of food’s influence on people involves a close consideration of the social relationships connected to power and authority between men and women revealed through food production and consumption; that is, who cooks? Who serves? And who eats? Answers to these three questions reveal the dimensions of inequality between people as dictated by the culture of food. Barriers of national or ethnic identity and social class are demonstrated by the different preferences of flavor, aroma, and texture among other features of food preparation, identified as measures of security and wealth (Leslie 4). Such preferences appeal to the brain, therefore, placing people with similar preferences together.

Similarly, the contradictory sets of table manners expectations also demonstrate economic divisions between partakers who seem indistinguishable. For instance, in a decent restaurant, people who eat, mostly men, expect a little respect from the servers who are mostly women, including the jovial egalitarianism of nice-day wishes, provision of serviettes and tablecloths as well as wine lists. Besides, restaurant diners expect incredible competence from the cooks. However, this situation changes when the same affluent individuals serve meals at their homes; it is upon them to select the ingredients, methods of preparation, and fashionable strategies to serve. These strategies accord them their social status in the eyes of their guests (Leslie 5).

Possibly, even more than the ethnic and national or class markers of identity, food is also associated with gender. In most professional kitchens, men are considered the most capable chefs, whereas women are regarded as mere cooks. This philosophy changes back at home, where women take the responsibility of both cooking and serving their husbands and children whose direct relationship with food is just eating it. Despite the single immediate relationship of men and children with food at home, they are still bound within the culture of food.

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The power of the mother, here regarded as the cook, as an older, larger, and gifted authority is very real. Nevertheless, it is conditional bearing in mind the context of the husband, also regarded as a father and provider, who sits down and waits to be served. Scholars have established that men who take the responsibility of cooking in their homes do not accept the responsibility as a morally upright activity as compared to women with the same responsibilities in their households. This state of affairs shows that there exists a gendered culture in the culture of food: although it is women’s duty to cook and serve, there is an immediate relationship with food to all the family members, despite the fact that men only wait to be served (Goldblatt and Lau 101).

Hidden Life Recipes in Food

Many symbolisms that saturate the Chinese food culture did not only influence the historical Chinese but exists to date, as well. Food appeals to the functioning of the human senses. A reflection at Chinese history shows that most advisers, ministers, rulers, and emperor counselors began their careers as either butchers or cooks. Cooking, feeding, eating, banqueting, and dining were jointly used as a criterion of selecting good and moral political leaders in traditional China. Butchers, stewards, and cooks exhibited some unique skills that directly related to the art of leadership. For instance, the capacity to combine different ingredients in their respective proportions without one ingredient overpowering the other symbolized the virtue of harmony. Similarly, chopping meat into equal pieces or controlling alcohol consumption during rituals and banquets demonstrated propriety, order, and self-control (the University of Cambridge 3).

Confucius, China’s most renowned thinker, stated that a morally upright person should not crave for overfeeding. He purportedly found pleasure in plain water and coarse food, never spoke while eating, and never ate to the full in the presence of someone mourning. Additionally, it is said that the Chinese sagacious would go through an entire day of ritual drinking but without getting drunk. These features, perhaps, made Confucius one among the most outstanding thinkers in global history. Many Chinese believe that borrowing a leaf from him would, similarly, enable one achieve as he achieved (the University of Cambridge 5).

It was also believed that food influenced people’s moral character, including the unborn. A mother was believed to have power to ‘instruct’ the fetus through the consumption of properly cut food from well-balanced dishes. Emperors and rulers were expected to regulate their food intake depending on the day circumstances. Such regulations would include economizing the amount of meals served at court during famine and switching to vegetables during droughts and famine. Food was used in ancient China to affirm the respective political hierarchies among the guests at a high table in Cambridge Colleges. Such distinctions would be determined by the number of dishes allocated, seating arrangements as well as the food vessels, cups, and utensils used during a meal. In addition, banquets were avenues where political matters and military honor would be resettled. Drinking parties would be prepared as a strategy to trick, eliminate, or humiliate political rivals (the University of Cambridge 10).

Women and Food

Women and food are most noticeably associated with the structure of gender, revolution, and materiality in most Chinese contemporary writings. Food shortage, with its hideous impacts in national economics, eugenics, and politics, has been demonstrated in China’s pursuit for modernization. However, when food shortage is considered in literary terms, it manifests itself in diverse typologies, ranging from drought caused by nature to revolution starvations dictated by the ideology.

Many Chinese writers perceive famine as not only an agricultural crisis, but also as a focus on the minds of modern thinkers who campaign for social welfare, particularly in politics. Additionally, national hunger is perceived in feminine terms, perhaps, referring to women’s somatic susceptibility during the man-made and natural food crises or to their conventional duty in the victimology semiotics. Hunger is an outstanding theme in contemporary Chinese writing, with women recurrently being portrayed as the protagonists (Wang 2).

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The works of Lu Xun are a viable example to affirm this proposition. In her short story, “The New Year’s Sacrifice,” a remarkable moment is highlighted when the narrator meets the doomed Luzhen, wife of Xianglin. Luzhen has been living as a beggar because of the snub of her townsfolk. When she meets the narrator, the ill-fated woman does not request for food. Instead, she begs for an answer to a nagging question: “After a person dies, does he turn to a ghost or not?” Caught off guard, the narrator only mumbles, “I am not sure” (Lu Xun 13).

During such a celebration, marked by plenty of wining and dining, Luzhen impresses the narrator with her hunger for something else other than food. She comfortably accepts the narrator’s empty answer and finally dies a pitiable death. The most ironic bit in the pathetic death of Luzhen is that it arouses the appetite of the narrator. Although he had failed to offer a satisfactory answer to the woman, he yearns to take shark fin soup to get peace of mind and acquire stomach satisfaction. Meaning is demanded where food is anticipated; although the words offered are meaningless to the narrator, food can fill his blankness (Wang 2).

There exists a pack of symbols between the narrator and Luzhen concerning the duality of oral functions: speaking and eating. Although Luzhen is a beggar, she does not accept mere food. Rather, she attempts to find answers to her life puzzlement. Nevertheless, her effort to speak and get some response is ruined by the narrator who offers her neither anything thinkable nor edible. According to Freudian theory, language is identical to the praxis of eating swapped to the speaking semiosis. This claim means that both eating and speaking are primarily communicative acts through which man makes the world suitable for existence. As it can be drawn from this short story, the reader can already perceive the short-circuiting effect of the oral duality. Whereas Luzhen dies a mute woman, her fellow townsfolk celebrate their New Year’s Eve feast in the clamor. This death suggests that she is the sacrifice of the occasion served in honor of the deities and ancestors in a cannibalistic celebration.

Food as Symbols of Female Empowerment

Just as the typical starving women in modern Chinese literature, an extensive line of women follow Luzhen. For example, Rou Shi’s short story, “A Slave’s Mother,” tells of a man who sells his hungry wife as a surrogate mother to save his family from dying of hunger. In Wang Jingzhi’s “Human Flesh,” some of the hungry men literally chop a starving woman into portions and eats her. Still in another incident, Wu Zuxiang’s “The Fan Village” tells of another hungry woman who commits matricide because her mother declines from lending her money to survive famine. Finally, in Xiao Hong’s “The Field of Life and Death,” a story is told of hungry women who go behind their men and oppose the Japanese oppression. This gallery of hungry women clearly shows the extra function of food: it is a symbol of political, economic, and social starvations (Wang 3).

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For Lu Xun and the other authors, food is used as symbols of powerful tokens that mark the melancholy of powerlessness within a cannibalistic society. The enthusiasm of these authors’ statements, on behalf of the peasant-hungry women, appeals to the reader to judge issues beyond the superficial typology of social cannibalism and injustice. As Luzhen’s case indicates, some aspects of female subjectivity are manifested in Chinese modern literature. Firstly, these are the consumptive and enunciative capabilities of women in pursuing economic and social selfhood. Secondly, it is the deployment of gender and biological resources in both the private and public spheres. Thirdly, it is the general assumption that hunger and femininity are possibly male fantasies of the material and metaphysical misery that overwhelmed modern China.

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Although people still believe that being obese is wrong, they lack the self-discipline to eat the good foods that will nourish their bodies with the required nutrients and, at the same time, spare their good body shape. Lack of discipline is portrayed through hefty consumption of junk foods that leave one overweight and with a feeling of unworthiness. Most obese people would be described as gluttonous individuals who cannot stop themselves from engaging in ravenous greed, hiding their eating habits from the people around them, and lying to even themselves about their eating habits. Confessing their sins is the only mechanism such people can use to lose some pounds of their weight. Most importantly, it is paramount to note that obesity is mostly caused by a lack of self-discipline in food intake (Counihan and Esterik 21).


Although most people consider eating a natural behavior, what, how, where, and when one eats tells more about him or her, and is central to social identification. Food is related to the intellectual functioning of all humans, and, therefore, influences their behavior. It is associated with concepts of beauty and fitness as well as illness and health. The various cultural meanings of food have been elaborated on above, paying special attention to the different ways through which food appeals to human thoughts. A general conclusion can be drawn that, indeed, by influencing human thoughts, food further influences areas of economy, politics, religion, and globalization.