China is a country with a long history, and food has played an important role in the development of Chinese culture. Every year many traditional festivals and events are celebrated with special foods. Some of these foods have particular meanings, such as good luck, best wishes, unity, and commemoration.
The Origin of Food Symbolism in China
Dating back at least 2,000 years, the symbolism of foods in China comes from superstitions or traditional beliefs in eating to invoke/celebrate blessing. A meaning or "power" is associated with foods through food name pronunciation, food shape, colors, food history/legends, and so on.
Here we introduce several festival and special occasion foods as examples.
Chinese New Year
Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is the most important traditional festival in China, when Chinese people especially emphasize wishes for happiness and blessing. So New Year foods usually symbolize good luck and best wishes.
- 'Year cake' (年糕 niángāo /nyen-gao/) means 'increasing prosperity' because the name sounds the same as 'year high' or 'yearly increase' (年高 nián gāo).
- Dumplings mean 'wealth', due to their traditional gold/silver ingot shape.
- Candy symbolizes wishes for a rich and sweet life, because of the sweet taste.
Learn more details about Chinese New Year food.
Lantern Festival is the first full moon night in the Chinese calendar year, and the full moon as well as the food symbolizes family reunion.
- Sweet round sticky rice balls in soup (汤圆 tāngyuán /taang-ywen/ 'soup round') mean 'togetherness and reunion'.
The name sounds similar to 'tuanyuan' (团圆 tuányuán /twan-ywen/ 'reunion'), and roundness means togetherness and unity in China.
Sister's Meal Festival
Sisters' Meal Festival is celebrated by Miao ethnic people on the 15th day of the third Chinese lunar month in Guizhou Province, south central China. They celebrate by eating five-color rice, which is regarded as a symbol of the Miao people.
- Five-color rice symbolizes a colorful life and a spirit of solidarity.
The sticky rice sticks together, representing solidarity, and it is colored purple, red, yellow, white, and black using different leaves, berries, and flowers.
Learn more about Sisters' Meal Festival.
Dragon Boat Festival
Dragon Boat Festival is an important celebration in China to commemorate Qu Yuan, a famous patriotic poet of China in ancient times.
- Glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves (粽子 Zòngzi /dzongdzuh/) symbolize Qu Yuan commemoration.
Their symbolism is based on a legend: Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo River on hearing his state was defeated. It's said that people threw rice dumplings into the river to feed the fish, so they wouldn't eat Qu Yuan's corpse…
Mid-Autumn Festival is the second most important traditional Chinese festival. It is a time for family members and loved ones to get together to celebrated family reunion. Therefore, people celebrate it by preparing foods with family-reunion symbolic meanings.
- Mooncakes mean 'family unity', as they're round, like the harvest moon. Learn more about mooncakes.
- Pomeloes (柚yòu /yoh/) mean 'family unity' and 'abundance', as they're round too, and the Chinese sounds like the word for 'to have' (有 yǒu).
Special Occasion Foods in China
Besides festival foods, there are other foods with symbolic meanings eaten at special occasions to invoke (or celebrate) a specific blessing…
- Seeds (lotus seeds, watermelon seeds, etc.) mean 'bearing many children'.
The Chinese word for 'seed(s)' (子 zǐ /dzrr/) is the same as the word for 'child(ren)'.
- Lobster and chicken means 'a good marriage'.
One of the characters in the Chinese for lobster (龙虾 lóngxiā) is 'dragon' (龙), and a chicken looks like a phoenix, so lobster and chicken symbolizes 'a dragon and a phoenix', representing auspicious male-female pairing in Chinese culture.
At Birthday Celebrations
- Noodles mean 'longevity'.
This is because noodles have a long shape, representing a long life. An old superstition says that it's bad luck to cut them.
- Peaches also mean 'longevity'.
According to Chinese myth, peaches were a sacred item served on the birthday parties of the immortal Queen Mother of the West.
When Celebrating the Birth of a Baby
- Eggs mean 'fertility'.
The symbolism is obvious here. After a baby is born, parents may give "red-boiled" (chicken's) eggs to their relatives and friends to announce the birth of their baby.
Taste Delicious and Meaningful Chinese Food in China
- 6-Day Guizhou Ethnic Minorities Festival Tour — Experience Miao culture and appreciate their beautiful minority costumes.
- 12-Day Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, Guilin, and Hong Kong Cuisine tour — Explore the most popular cities and savor local Chinese food in each.
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