The History of Chinese Imperial Food
Chinese imperial food dates back to slave society. Ever since there were emperors and palaces, there has been imperial food, which was served mainly to the emperors, their wives and concubines, and the royal families. Emperors used their power to collect the best delicacies and called upon the best cooks to make delicious food for them. Imperial food represented a dynasty’s best cuisine.

Although imperial food was made exclusively for the royal family, generals, ministers, and nobility, it was the peasants, herders, and fishermen who provided the raw materials, craftsmen who made the kitchen utensils, the cooking staff who provided the service, civil officials who named the dishes, and protocol officials who drafted the dietary and culinary rules. Imperial food comprised the dietetic culture of the Chinese palaces and it is part of China’s valuable cultural heritage.

Imperial foods often were improved dishes invented by the common people. The inventors were not princes, dukes, or ministers, but cooks and commoners. The original model for a dish might have been similar to a dish you once prepared for yourself.

Food preparation is impossible without cooks, so emperors in ancient times cherished excellent cooks. The Historical Records by Sima Qian, a famous historian of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220), reports that Yi Yin, the first famous prime minister in known Chinese history, helped Tang (the first ruler of the Shang Dynasty, enthroned 1766 B.C. – 1760 B.C.) destroy Jie (the last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, enthroned 1818 B.C. – 1766 B.C.).

Yi Yin had been a famous cook before he became prime minister. Yi Yin, whose original name was Ah Heng, was a slave of the Youxinshi family. He wanted to convince Tang of his good ideas, but lacked a way, so he brought his kitchen utensils with him and won Tang’s trust by demonstrating his cooking skills. Tang described him as cooking delicious dishes and having the ability to govern the country, so he appointed Yi Yin as his prime minister.

Later cooks also participated in politics. Peng Zu, who is called the founder of Chinese cooking, was chef to Emperor Yao around the beginning of the 21st century B.C. Yi Ya of the Qi State in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 B.C. – 476 B.C.) won the trust of Prince Huan of Qi by being good at cooking and identifying flavors. Shao Kang, the seventh emperor of the Xia Dynasty, had been an official in charge of the kitchen service for Youyushi before the Xia Dynasty was founded.

Zhuan Zhu of the Wu State was an assassin in the late years of the Spring and Autumn Period. In order to help Prince Guang ascend to the throne, he learned the unique skill of “roasting fish ” from a famous chef. Through his cooking skills, he was able to meet Prince Liao of the Wu State and assassinated him.

In the late Shang Dynasty (16th century B.C. – 11th century B.C.), the government became corrupt and held lavish banquets and feasts in the palace. The following was written of the reign of Emperor Zhou (the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty, enthroned 1154 B.C. – 1122 B.C.): “With a pool of wine and a forest of hanging meats, men and women chased each other naked, drinking all night.” (Records of Kings and Princes) This lavish and licentious lifestyle led to the fall of the Shang Dynasty.

Chinese imperial food originated around the Zhou Dynasty (11th century B.C. – 476 B.C.). Although China’s dietetic culture developed and grew prior to the Zhou Dynasty, it truly flourished during the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties (1122 B.C. – 220).

The Spring and Autumn Period witnessed an unprecedented development in the history of Chinese thinking. Theories from the different schools of thought touched upon the universe, society and life. Pragmatic thinkers studied how food and drink related to the everyday life of the people. As medical science developed, the idea of dietotherapy arose and attention was given to dietetic hygiene.

Chinese eating and drinking habits differ greatly from those in the West. Westerners eat more meat while Chinese eat more vegetables, especially the traditional cereals. (Cereals are said to have been discovered by Shen Nong, the chief of the ancestors of remote antiquity.) China began growing the five cereals as food crops during the Zhou Dynasty.

The Zhou Dynasty was the most prosperous period of the slave society, and during this time politics, economics and culture advanced greatly. It was the strongest of the three slave dynasties: Xia, Shang and Zhou.

The imperial cuisine of the Zhou Dynasty was a great improvement over the cuisines of the Xia and Shang dynasties. Beginning with the construction of the Xia Dynasty palace and the establishment of the imperial court, an organization was set up to prepare and serve food to the emperor and empress. Officials were appointed, royalty began seeking pleasures, and an imperial kitchen system was conceived.

The Shang Dynasty imperial cuisine was even better than the cuisine of the Xia Dynasty. The foods for the emperors, princes, and dukes were stratified, and a system of stratified foods for the nobility was developed, however, a system for managing imperial food was still lacking.

During the Zhou Dynasty, such a complete system was developed. It included procurement, diets and preparation as well as staffing, supervising the imperial food, and developing grades for the emperor, princes and dukes. Everything was done in a fixed order according to the “eating rites.”

The Zhou Dynasty imperial food was of a higher standard than the imperial food of the Xia and Shang dynasties, and famous dishes, feasts and banquets appeared one after another. During the Zhou Dynasty, Chinese imperial cuisine took shape. Staple and non-staple foods were plentiful and many imperial and famous dishes were developed.

The fairly advanced economy in the Western Zhou Dynasty resulted in abundant cereals, vegetables and meats. The cereals available included rice, corn, millet and beans. The Book of Songs states there were in excess of 130 plants, which included more than 30 kinds of common vegetables. Fruits and nuts included peach, plum, apricot, date, wild jujube (Chinese date), chestnut, hazelnut, pear, sweet crabapple, persimmon, melons, cherry, orange, tangerine and shaddock (a fruit similar to a grapefruit).

Around 100 different animals were available. These included the ox, sheep, dog, pig, horse, deer, bear, wolf and elephant. There were several dozen varieties of fowl, such as the chicken, peasant, sparrow, and wild goose; and nearly 20 kinds of cold-blooded creatures including the carp, triangular bream, turtle, snake and shark. The imperial cuisine used these abundant meats, fish, fowl, cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables, and nuts as well as vegetables pickled in vinegar and soy sauce.

The imperial drinks were known as the six clears, five qis, and three jius. The six clears were water; thick liquids, such as vinegar and sour wine; sweet wine, a wine made from cooked rice; mellow wine, a wine thinned by adding cold water; Yi wine, a wine made from yeast and rice porridge; and ye wine, a wine made from thin porridge.

The five qis were five wines residue made from rice, sorghum, and millet. They were fan qi, a sweet wine with thick, floating matter; li qi, a very mild, sweet wine made soaking half liquid and half grain overnight; ang qi, a turbid; slightly clear; sweet wine; ti qi, a red wine with more clarity than ang qi; and shen qi, a wine with bottom sediment and clear liquid above.

The three jius were wines that had been filtered to remove the residue, and which differed from the five qis. The qis were used for sacrificial rites, while the jius were used for drink. The three jius referred to the categories of wine. Shi jiu, also known as occasion wine, was made immediately whenever there was a special occasion. Xi jiu was an aged wine that took longer to make. It usually was made in winter and matured in the spring; its liquid was clear and mellow. Qing jiu was aged even longer and its liquid was even clearer than Xi jiu. It was made in winter and became mature in the summer.

The four drinks were clear, which referred to the clear wine that remained after the li qi of the five qis was filtered; mellow, which was a wine made from rice porridge after yeast was added; thick; which was a sour, vinegary wine; and yi, which was a wine made from thin porridge. (Some history books say yi was made from millet porridge.)

Under the rules described in the Rites of the Zhou Dynasty, “when the emperor took a meal, there were 12 deep bowls with legs and 12 plates. Music was played to urge him to eat.” This was the custom during the Shang Dynasty. The Western Zhou Dynasty continued the custom in its early years but later made adjustments. The rites indicate the foods served at the emperor’s three daily meals were beef, mutton, pork, fish, cured meat, intestine, stomach, small pieces of cooked meat, fish, and fresh cured meat.

A diet system later was instituted for the emperor, princes, dukes, and ministers. According to the Book of Rites, ”There were 26 bowls for the emperor, 16 for the princes and dukes, 13 for the marquis, 8 for the senior officials, and 6 for the junior officials.” There were five grades of meals, one each for the emperor, princes and dukes, marquis, senior officials, and junior officials. Meals were arranged according to this rule.

Banquets and feasts given by the emperor and his officials also had rules. According to the Rites of the Zhou Dynasty, “When the emperor gives a banquet, there must be six cereals and six animals for food, the six clears for drink, 120 delicacies, eight dainties, and 120 urns of sauce.”

The six cereals included rice, millet, broomcorn, sorghum, wheat, and wild rice stem. The six animals were the horse, cow, sheep, pig, dog, and chicken. The six clears were water, thick liquid, li wine, chun wine, yi wine, and ye wine. The 120 delicacies referred to all the delicacies the emperor ate.

Regarding the meals for senior officials, the records of the Ceremonial Rites say: “Senior officials have 20 delicacies more than junior officials, including peasant, rabbit and quail.” According to the annotations for the Book of Rites by Zheng Xuan, “The meals for senior officials included broomcorn, millet, rice, sorghum, white millet and yellow sorghum.” The non-staple foods included cow, sheep, pig, roast beef, beef pieces cooked in soy sauce, minced beef, roast mutton, mutton pieces cooked in soy sauce, roast pig, minced fish, pheasant, rabbit and quail.

Junior officials’ meals included the same staple foods as the senior officers’ meals. Their non-staple foods included cow, roast beef, beef cooked in soy sauce, minced beef, roast sheep, mutton piece cooked in soy sauce, roast pig, pork pieces cooked in soy sauce and minced fish.

A complete organization was responsible for the imperial food served in the Zhou Dynasty palace; it included a large staff and a clear division of labor. The functions and responsibilities of the different departments and staff follow:

Chief cook: The chief cook was in charge of the food, drinks, dishes, and delicacies for the emperor, empress and crown prince. The emperor’s food included the six cereals, six animals, six clears, 130 delicacies, eight treasures, and 120 urns of sauce. The chief cook held an official rank.

Internal cooks: The internal cooks cooked the dishes for the emperor, empress, and crown prince. They chose the foods and tasted them. Internal cooks carried a title of nobility and were ordinary officials.

External Cooks: The external cooks cooked dishes for the sacrificial rites. External cooks carried a title of nobility and were ordinary officials.

Assistants: The assistants were responsible for food preparation, serving, maintaining the cooking fires, and carrying water for the kitchen.

Nutritionists: The nutritionists studied the nutrients in the emperor’s food and drink.

Wine officers: The wine officers were responsible for the drinks for the emperor, and crown prince.

Altogether, there were 22 departments with more than 2,300 staff. Thus it can be seen that the organization surrounding the imperial foods in the Zhou Dynasty was huge, the establishment was complete, and the division of labor detailed and clear. This guaranteed a standard of performance and quality for imperial meals, state banquets, and sacrificial feasts.

As the ruling class extended imperial food to include sacrificial rites as well as banquets given when the emperor met with princes and dukes, imperial food became linked with politics. Lao zi, a famous thinker during the Spring and Autumn Period, said: “Governing a big country is like cooking a small fish.” He meant that when governing a large country, one should not make too many changes, and policies should remain stable.

Even 50 years ago, the old Chinese government still called the job of the chief executive “making adjustments to the tripods”. Tripod in ancient Chinese refers to all sizes of cooking utensils. “Making adjustments to the tripods” means adjusting the flavors of the dishes being cooked in the pots and pans to please the palates of the diners.

The relationship between food and politics was especially important during the Zhou, Qin, and Han Dynasties (circa 1122 B.C. – A.D. 220). Banquets and feasts were the norm whenever the emperor met with princes or dukes or whenever the latter met with each other.

Chinese dietetic culture flourished after the Han Dynasties (206B.C. – A.D. 220) and became a conscious matter. Numerous writings on dietetic culture appeared, including the Book of Foods, by Cui Hao and some parts of the Essentials for Common People (on food), by Jia Sixie in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 - 535). These writings, which record the popular thoughts on diets during this period and tell how to cook many dishes, mark the beginning of cooking as a specialty.

During the Han and Wei Dynasties (206 B.C. – A. D. 265), imperial food and drink followed the system initiated in the Zhou Dynasty. By this time China’s strengthened economy and its cultural exchanges with other countries had provided new sources of raw materials, better cooking utensils and cooking skills, wider adoption of ironware, and higher standards for imperial dishes.

The Seven Advices was a book written by Mei Cheng, a politician in the State of Wu, to give advice to the crown prince of the State of Chu in the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 8). Although the book exaggerates the deliciousness of the food, it still gives a glimpse of imperial food at that time:

Tender calf meat, fresh bamboo shoots and vegetables, thick soup of flattened dog meat, good cooked rice covered with fresh rock mushrooms, rice cooked with mushrooms and made into balls that melt the moment they enter the mouth. It was just as if Yi Yin were in charge of the cooking and Yi Ya had cooked the dishes of tender bear’s paw mixed with seasonings, roast tenderloin slices, raw fish slices, flavored autumn eggplant, vegetables so fresh they still had dew upon them, and wine with an orchid flavor. Rinse the mouth after eating. Mountain pheasant, domesticated leopard fetus, less rice, more porridge, as if the hot soup were splashed upon snow, making it easy to digest.

The Han Dynasty imperial kitchens grew vegetables in hothouses, so their availability was not limited by the season. In the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty food sweetened with honey began to appear in the palace.

It is said that during the period of the Three Kingdoms (A.D. 220 - 280), Cao Zhi, Prince of Chenliu and son of Cao Cao, made a thick soup of camel’s hooves that cost 1,000 ounce of gold. Cao Zhi called it “Seven-Treasure Soup.” Cao Cao usurped the power by taking the emperor hostage and acting in his name during the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty, so their eating habits were representative of the palace customs. They paid great attention to the variety, taste, and flavor of food, and to the quality of the dinnerware. By that time, it had become fashionable to drink tea in the palace instead of wine.

Stir-frying was the chief cooking method during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (A.D. 420 - 589), and stir-fried dishes became popular as everyday meals among the common people. Buddhism was spreading in China by this time, and vegetarian dishes began appearing because the Buddhist monks ate vegetarian food. In response to the demand for vegetarian dishes, the cooks of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (502 -557) introduced the use of gluten.

After the Han Dynasty, thick soup became a less important non-staple food, and roasted, broiled, and baked meats were eaten only when people drank wine; they were not eaten with cooked rice. Some famous delicacies appeared during this period, and they were given special names that reflected Chinese history and culture. In previous dynasties, the names of dishes reflected how the dishes were cooked. (The naming of dishes is discussed in greater detail in the later chapter, “How Chinese Dishes Were Named.”)

The technique of using fermentation to make staple foods, such as steamed buns, stuffed buns, and steamed cakes, which are still popular foods today, was already being used in the final years of the Han Dynasty. Other staple foods were baked cakes and noodles.

The system of people taking separate meals, which was popular before the Han Dynasty, changed gradually into joint meals with several people or a family sitting together around a table, as is done today. The gradual change began with the use of wooden armchairs. This transition took more than 1,700 years.

The imperial food of the Sui, Tang, and Song Dynasties (581 - 1279) followed the system and rules of preceding dynasties, but the varieties of food and meal procedures changed tremendously. During Yang Di’s reign in the Sui Dynasty (enthroned 605 - 618), seafood appeared much more frequently on imperial menus.

The imperial dishes of the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581 - 907) had far greater variety than did the dishes of previous dynasties, and more attention was paid to their flavor, taste, color, presentation and naming. Famous imperial dishes that have been passed down to today include fried ringing bells, quick – fried prawns, crab rolls, crystal dragon and phoenix cakes, and steamed Mandarin fish without soy sauce.

The characteristics, habits, and customs surrounding food in the Southern and Northern Dynasties and in the Sui and Tang Dynasties belong to the same period. There were also similarities in the imperial food prepared and served in the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960 - 1368). And, there is almost no difference between the food of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 - 1911) and the food served today.

Several hundred writings about using food and dietotherapy for better health have appeared throughout Chinese history. A few examples, listed by dynasty, follow:

The Book of Food, by Cui Hao and the Transactions of Famous Physicians, by Tao Hongjing during the Southern and Northern Dynasties.

The Book of Food, by Xie Feng and the Collection of Writings and Copyings in the North Hall, (the section on wine and foods), by Yu Shinan, an outstanding calligrapher (558 - 638) in the Sui Dynasty.

The Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold for Emergencies, (the article on dietetic treatment), by Sun Simiao; the General Descriptions of Diets, by Lou Juzhong; and the Experiences of Chefs, by Yang Ye in the Tang Dynasty.

The Records of Chefs, by Zheng Wangzhi; the Remarks on Delicious Dishes, author unknown; the Records of Mutual Influences of Things, the Simple Remarks on the Hows and Whys, (the part on animals, fowl and fish), by Su Shi; and the Five Looks of Officials at Meal Time, by Huang Tingjian in the Song Dynasty.

The Collection of Dietetic Systems in the Yunlintang, by Ni Zan (a famous painter, 1301 -1374) and the Principles of Correct Diet, by Hu Sihui in the Yuan Dynasty.

The Health Building of the People in the Song Dynasty, by Song Xu; the Gentlemen’s Remark on Diets, by Chen Jiru (an outstanding painter); and the History of the Ming Palace- Preferences for Diets, by Liu Ruoyu in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644).

The Grand Secrets of Diets, by Zhu Yizun; the Chance Leisure for Enjoyments, (the part on diets), by Li Yu; and the Menus of the Sui Garden, by Yuan Mei in the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911).

Scholars, literati, medical specialists, calligraphers, painters, or historians wrote most of these books. This implies those diets, cooking, and dietotherapy to maintain good health constituted an important part of ancient Chinese culture.

To some extent each nation is closed, and this sense of being closed makes the uniqueness of a nation possible. Being closed often means adopting an attitude of hesitation or refusal toward things foreign, nut a willingness to adopt the strong points of others, especially their foods. Many historians hold that after the Ming Dynasty, China gradually closed its door to the outside, yet many foods from the South and West entered China. Chinese brought them to China not by Westerners and their warships, but on their own initiative.

Some people brought foods into China even at a risk to their own lives. The sweet potato entered China in the middle of the Ming Dynasty. Texts say that Lin Huaizhi, a famous physician in Wuchuan, practiced medicine in Vietnam, where he cured many people. The king of Vietnam gave him sweet potatoes to eat. Because he wanted to bring one back to China, he asked for an uncooked sweet potato. The king gave him one, but Lin only ate two bites and kept the rest. At that time Vietnam prohibited anyone from taking sweet potatoes out of the country. When Lin left, a frontier guard discovered the sweet potato, but because Lin had cured his illness, the officer let him keep the sweet potato as a tribute.

Corn, which originated in America, came to China during the Ming Dynasty, but it was not commonly grown and was regarded as a rare and treasured delicacy. Kaoling or sorghum, which originated in Africa, also entered China during this period.

Soybeans originated in China, but other beans came from abroad. Mung beans (green beans) came from India during the Northern Song Dynasty.

Potatoes, which are eaten both as a staple food and as a vegetable, came from the West. They are believed to have been brought to China by pirates during the Ming Dynasty and were grown in the coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang.

After the Han Dynasty, vegetable oils gradually replaced animal fats as the main heat conducting medium and flavoring agent in cooking. Daily-use vegetable oils came to include sesame, rapeseed, peanut, soybean, and sunflower. Sesame came to China during the Western Han Dynasty and soybeans were native to China, but the other oil-bearing crops did not enter China until after the Southern and Northern Dynasties.

Sugar, China’s most important sweetener, first appeared during the Tang Dynasty (617 -907). During the Warring States Period (475 – 221 B.C.), people in the State of Chu had learned to extract the sweet flavoring from sugar cane juice. Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty sent an envoy to the Western Region to learn how to make sugar. After the envoy returned home, he used sugar cane from Yangzhou to make sugar. Its color and flavor were superior to that produced in the Western Region, so granulated sugar came to play a key role in Chinese cooking.

Because sugar is water-soluble, it became an important flavoring used to make food sweet and delicious. It is used in soup and in cooking all kinds of dishes. Malt sugar and honey, which were used as sweeteners and flavorings before the Han Dynasty, now are used mostly to make thick soup.

Hot peppers are eaten widely in China. People in Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan are addicted to eating them and call them “meat for the poor” or salt, meaning they go well with rice like meat or salt. Hot peppers stimulate the appetite and dispel internal cold. They originated in South America, and were brought into China from Southeast Asia about the 15th century during the final years of the Ming Dynasty or the early years of the Qing Dynasty.

One of the first vegetables brought into China was spinach. At first it was called the Persian vegetable because it came to China from Persia (present – day Iran) when Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty was in power. Because it has red roots, it was also called the red – root vegetable. As spinach is tender, it cannot be cooked very long. It grows in all seasons in areas south of the Yangtze River, so it is considered an ordinary vegetable.

A popular, nutritious vegetable grown in North China that originated elsewhere is the carrot, which came from Europe. It is used in cooking or eaten raw. People along the northern bank of the Yangtze River in Jiangsu Province developed the habit of eating it raw at noontime.

Eggplant originated in India and was brought into China along with Buddhism during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. It grows as tall as two meters (almost 80 inches), in southern China, but in northern China it is considered an annual herb.

Some other vegetables are native to China, but they were not well known in ancient times. They became recognized only after the Han Dynasty. Among these is song, known today as Chinese cabbage, which became known as an autumn vegetable in the Southern and Northern Dynasties. Song was an important winter vegetable for all of northern China.

Water shield became important after Zhang Han, a high-ranking official of the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316), became homesick for the vegetables and other native delicacies. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms, wax gourds (winter melons), and vegetable beans also became common after the Song Dynasty. These vegetables, plus chives, radishes, onions, cucumbers, three-colored amaranths, and turnips were the principal vegetables during this period. Cabbage, tomato, and cauliflower were only introduced into China several decades ago.

People in the Qing Dynasty treasured shark’s fin and edible bird’s nest, which are indispensable ingredients at modern, opulent banquets. These two foods were brought into China from Southeast Asia in the early years of the Ming Dynasty when the eunuch, Zheng He, returned from there. During the middle period of the Qing Dynasty, edible bird’s nest and shark’s fin headed the menus at extravagant banquets. Sea cucumbers and prawns are native to China, but only became imperial dishes much later.

As cities and towns began to develop and thrive, cooking became a commercial activity and many restaurants were opened. Some cooks freed themselves from their slave status of serving the royal family and nobility by becoming independent laborers who sold their cooking skills. Many famous cooks and chefs emerged, among them Song Wusao in the Southern Song Dynasty and Wang Eryu in the Qing Dynasty.

Scholars also became interested and involved in cooking during this period by recording the cooks’ knowledge, creativity, processes, and recipes for later generations. Using their education and aesthetic ability, they urged the cooks to make dishes more appealing to the senses of sight, smell, taste and touch. They were gourmets who knew diets and cooking very well, and they helped the cooks create a dietetic culture. They were connoisseurs and critics, propellers of progress, and recorders of the cooking experience.

Because of cultural exchanges between China and other countries, foods not native to China, such as corn sweet potatoes, peanuts, and hot peppers, gradually entered the daily lives of the Chinese people. Many regions developed cuisines with unique flavors as a result of these exchanges.

To some extent peoples’ food and drink are influenced by regional divisions, but the primary influences are peoples’ income, education, culture, and religious beliefs. For these reasons, China developed several dietetic cultures. These include the imperial, aristocratic, literati, market, and temple cuisines. Especially during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, imperial food and drink were closely tied to preserving health, which led to the development of unique imperial food.

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