Symbolism Behind Chinese Foods: From Birth to Death.
Symbolism and Chinese Culture.
Chinese culture is rich in symbolism and subtleties.
Chinese like to use words and symbols that sound similar but have different meanings called homonyms. For instance the word for fish is yu meaning abundance. Fish is therefore served at functions such as weddings and new years day to represent good fortune.
Numbers also play an important part in Chinese culture. For instance the number eight is symbolic of material wealth and the number four is considered an omen because the word si sounds like death.
In this post I discuss the foods that are served at important occasions and their associated symbolism.
Birth Red Egg and Ginger Naming Ceremony:
In China, babies were only named at one month due to the high mortality rate in earlier times. The baby's naming ceremony was celebrated by a red egg and ginger naming ceremony.
Red eggs are hard boiled eggs with a pink coloring. Traditionally a red calligraphy paper is wiped over the eggs but today pink or red coloring is mixed in the water.
Eggs represent fertility, joy and renewed life.
Weddings; Symbolism behind Dishes.
A traditional Chinese wedding usually consists of eight main courses not including the dessert because the word eight sound similar to 'good luck' The number eight is also associated with material prosperity in Chinese numerology.
Tea, alcohol, and 7-Up or cola tonic are typically supplied. Tea is a sign of respect.7-Up or jugs of cola tonic are placed on each table. “seven up are homophones for happiness”,
The Starter or Appetizer.
This varies depending on preferences and budget. The traditional lobster means 'dragon shrimp' in Chinese but is often replaced by various cold meats shaped like a dragon-phoenix.
The dragon symbolizes the male role while the phoenix the female role.
The Soup Dish.
The soup dish usually follows the appetizer. Traditional shark fin or bird nest soup are preferred as they are expensive and therefore symbolize wealth.
Peking Duck and Lobster.
Red is the color of happiness. Peking Duck or Lobster are red in color and signify joy and celebration. Serving the dish whole, with the head and legs, symbolizes completeness.
Crispy Fried Chicken.
Crispy fried chicken symbolizes a good life because the homonym for “red chicken” sounds like “good life.” The chicken is served whole to symbolize completeness.
A typical Chinese banquet usually includes chicken and duck.
Vegetables with Sea Cucumber.
“sea cucumber” sounds like “good heart” This dish symbolizes a wish that the couple has a harmonious relationship.
Fish is a symbol of abundance because fish”” sounds like “plentiful” in Chinese.The fish is served whole.
is used to describe the yin/yang concept of how seemingly opposing forces are interconnected and interdependent. Fried Rice is always served at the end of the wedding banquets and symbolizes femininity and masculinity.
Noodles are served at the end to symbolizes longevity because noodles come in long strands.
Yin Yang Desserts
Sweet Chinese Buns wishes the couple a sweet life.
At the end of the banquet, waiters usually pass out take-out boxes of left overs to the guests because this represents abundance.
A big Chinese character behind the head table is the character for "double happiness" which is used during wedding events.
Symbolism of Foods Served At A Wedding Banquet.
Shaped as a dragon and Phoenix to symbolize yin and yang. Male and Female role.
Symbolize wealth because they are expensive.
Peking Duck and Lobster.
Red in color symbolizes joy and cellebration. Must be served whole to symbolize completeness.
Crispy Chicken.served whole.
good Life and completeness.
Sounds like good heart to symbolize a harmonious relationship.
"Yu" means Fish in Chinese and souns like plentiful. Fisg symbolozes abundance.
Yin and Yang qualities to describe how seemingly opposites are complementary.
Served unbroken noodles symbolize long life.Usually seved as the last course.
Sweet Buns and Red bean Soup.
represents Sweetness in Life.
Funerals: Symbolism Behind Chinese Food at Funerals.
At formal funeral services food is placed on a table facing the deceased.
Food and drink set on the table are offerings laid before the casket and unite the family with the deceased through the observance of rituals designed to represent food that is pleasurable to eat, gives strength, and in harmony with the universe.
These offerings include a roast pig, chicken, duck, jai (a vegetarian dish), rice, fruit, tea and wine. Incense sticks stand among the food offerings. Incense burns and its wisps of smoke summon the relative's ancestral spirits to come and help the newly deceased on their next journey.
In examining each of the food items, one can better appreciate their place in Chinese funeral worship. Some important funeral foods are:
The Chinese character for 'family/home' is that of a pig beneath a roof.The color of the pork once cooked is golden yellow or red which are associated with eternity and red is for good luck. Scarlet and gold are also associated with religion.
the cock represents light, warmth and strength. A white cock is used as a means of exorcising the spirits of darkness,
As ducks can swim, it is believed that the spirit must cross three rivers to get to heaven. The duck symbolizes the safe departure and journey of the spirit to the heavenly world.
It is customary for the family of the deceased to abstain from eating meat until the day of the funeral. A vegetarian dish called Jai or jai Choy is prepared with eighteen ingredients and represents the eighteen Buddhas. In this way the body of the deceased is cleansed and purified and signifying to the gods to help the departed reach heaven and eternal life.
Symbolizes the sharing of a meal with the deceased.
the deceased is asked to stay, to eat, and to share a meal.
Fan/tsai : Fan means rice, Cai refers to the vegetable/meat dishes.
On the day of the funeral, the family breaks their fast and eats meat. In this context, meat aids the spirit on its journey. Additionally meat is needed to achieve balance in the family's shared meal. Just as in life,
Tea and Wine
Tea and wine are symbolism of the shared meal. They are offered as gestures of welcome whenever visitors/guests come to one's home.
Five different kinds of fruit to represent the directions in case the departing spirit does know the direction they are headed and offered to the deceased at the wake and used as a means to protect the departing spirit.
Black - North.
Green - East.
Yellow - Center
Red - South.
White - West.
Symbolism Of Foods: Death & Funerals.
Eternity and good luck.
To cleanse and purify spirit.
To Share a meal with deceased.
White cock to exorcise spirit of darkness.Symbolizes warmth and strengh.
safe departure to the other side.
To indicate direction in case departing spirit gets los : tBlack - Noth. Grren - East. Yellow - Centre Red - South. White - West..
New years Day Celebrations:
The Chinese New Year is Celebratied from the eve to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first calendar month. The first day of the New Year falls on some day between 21 January and 20 February.
The New Year's Eve dinner is a time for family reunions. Fish and Dumplings are the most important dish and signify prosperity. There are many other dishes to symbolize good fortune for the coming year which are served dependent on personal preference.
Some rules related to the position of the fish.
- The head should be placed toward distinguished guests or elders, representing respect.
- the person who faces the fish head eats first.
Chinese New Year Food and There meanings.
Yu means fish in Chinese and sound like surplus.
It should be eaten whole with some left over for the next day.
often eaten at midnight
For properity because they look like gold bars.
Tray of Togetherness.
8 Compartments of the tray are filled with things such as preserved kumquats for prosperity, coconut for togetherness, longans to bring many sons, and red melon seeds for happiness8
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