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Its Way of Life
The most important ingredient in Chinese society is the family, an institution whose strength has
been sorely tested by events in recent decades when, under Mao, children were encouraged to report
the "misdemeanors" of their parents and close relatives. But it was not long ago that most marriages
were arranged by parents or by a professional matchmaker, and in remoter areas these practices have
continued unchecked; even in major cities the matchmaker has recently made an unexpected comeback.
Weddings are big affairs, and huge sums, out of all proportion to income, are spent on the celebrations.
Once married, the bride customarily moves in with her in-laws, at least until the new couple can
secure their own place.
The idea of bachelorhood is practically unknown among the Chinese because children are considered
essential to continuing the family line and for providing a means of support in old age. In this
respect, the Cultural Revolution's emphasis on the enforced denunciation of relatives has only led to
a subsequent resurgence of family loyalty, as well as to the pain of collective guilt.
The government's policy of one child per family (designed to alleviate the population problem) has
led to the rise of a generation of "little emperors," to whom the absence of siblings has meant
unbridled adulation. It has also brought a certain lack of confidence because a large family meant
security and influence. In the past you could count on guanxi, thatis, obtaining favors, jobs,
contracts, or gifts from your relatives -- an essential feature of Chinese life that Westerners might
Romantic love is not a Chinese notion. Pragmatism is the order of the day, though the younger,
more independent-minded Chinese are demanding the right to make their own decisions. As a result,
divorce, traditionally unutterably shameful, is becoming more widespread.
Indeed, the idea of shame, usually expressed as "losing face" (diulian), is integral to the Chinese
attitude to life. Losing face is more than just shame, however, for shame implies a subjective feeling
of guilt whereas loss of face is something more -- it is a slight, a missed opportunity, family shame,
regional shame, a failure to perform a duty according to the expectation and judgment of one's peers,
particularly in front of foreigners. It can be one of these things, or a little of all of them.
The variety of styles and ingredients involved in Chinese cooking is a marvel. The three principal
regional cuisines -- hot and spicy dishes made with chili from Sichuan; northern-style cuisine using
steamed bread and pancakes instead of rice, and preserved vegetables, such as salted and pickled
cabbage, because of the freezing winters when nothing grows; and southern-style, involving light
stir-fried dishes made from a vast array of ingredients, such as seafood, chicken, and pork.
It is essential for all styles that when fresh food is used, it is as fresh as possible -- and it
is a testimony to Chinese genius that they have developed a style of cooking that makes
refrigeration unnecessary, despite the rigors of the climate. Blessed with an abundance of good
ingredients in the most fertile areas of the country, the Chinese have become expert at extracting
the essence of flavor.
A gourmet appreciation of food can be traced back to several centuries BC, as poetry of the
period, listing dishes to tempt the departing soul back to the body, testifies. By the Han dynasty a
scientific approach had been formulated for cooking, and a basic rule was
that the "five flavors" (sweetness, sourness, hotness, bitterness, and saltiness) should be combined
in a meal to achieve balance and harmony. Mincing and the thin slicing of meat and fish were also
considered essential for releasing the full flavor. Later, as China expanded its frontiers southwards
and westwards, discovering new ingredients in the process, true Chinese cooking developed, although
the basic tenets still held. The five-flavors cooking vocabulary is still used, even if it is quite
inadequate to describe the full kaleidoscope of Chinese cuisine -- as anyone who has experienced the
true "sweet and sour" pork will readily acknowledge.
Cooking methods are vital to the craft of the Chinese master chef. The best results depend on the
precise control of heat, and this skill is considered crucial.
Although all methods of cooking are used, from braising and baking to boiling, steaming and
roasting over a spit, there is one that is native to China: chao, or stir-frying, involves cutting the
ingredients finely and rapidly cooking them in a small amount of oil in a preheated wok so they are
quickly and evenly cooked. Such dishes must be eaten immediately to benefit from their huoqi (vital
As the 14th-century imperial dietitian Hu Sihui put it -- "after a full meal do not wash your hair,
avoid sex like an arrow, avoid wine like an enemy." If the letter of this dictum is no longer heeded,
the spirit certainly is.
How to Use This Book
Its Way of Life
Its Rural Character
Qin and Han
Tang and Song
Ming and Qing
Dominated by Mao
A to Z:
A to Z
Food and Drink
Entertainment and Practical Matters
From Tiananmen Square
The Forbidden City
The Summer Palace
The Yellow River
The Terracotta Warriors
The Long March
The Heart of Qingdao
Tianjin's Foreign Concessions
Puyi, The Last Emperor
Inner Mongolia and the Silk Road
The Silk Road
Sichuan and the Tibetan Plateau
The Yangtze Region
The Yangtze Cruise
The Shanghai Bund andIts Neighborhood
Suzhou's Gardens and Temples
Two Systems, One China
Xiamen: Gulangyu Island
From Guilin to Zhu Shouqian's Tomb
Li River Cruise
Arriving and Departing
Accommodations and Restaurants