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Confucius Says... Food!

Written by: Gracia, Samuel and Venn (L02)

  Confucius Sculpture, Nanjing at Confucian Temple Area (Fuzi Miao), 3 May 2013. By Kevinsmithnyc [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via  Wikimedia Commons

Confucius Sculpture, Nanjing at Confucian Temple Area (Fuzi Miao), 3 May 2013. By Kevinsmithnyc [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Confucius? Confused?

Kong Qiu, better known as Confucius, was a teacher, politician and philosopher born in 551 BCE in the Lu state of China. Because he married at the early of 19, Confucius worked many jobs including a labourer, a shepherd, clerk, and a book-keeper (talk about jack of all trades!). Confucianism, which was founded by his followers, is one of the largest and oldest religions in China and in the world. His teachings, which are preserved in the Analects, are centered around developing ethical principles for the family and community, as well as setting ideal educational guidelines. He is well remembered for his Golden Rule: "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others". 

So Why Is He So Significant?

Confucius lived in a time when traditional Chinese ethics began to slowly worsen and this lead to moral decline. It was at this time that Confucius believed that it was his duty and a good chance to reinforce morals of compassion. All thanks to him, Confucianism became the official imperial philosophy of China.

Say What?

When people hear the name “Confucius”, most will only recognise him for his influence as a Chinese philosopher, a great thinker and educator. However there is an interesting fact about this man that not many know about - his immense love for food! Yup you read it right, FOOD!!! However, not only did he enjoy and indulge in food like some of us foodies do, but he also provided some teachings about eating and dining etiquettes that align with his teachings on other aspects of life. In fact, his teaching on food played a highly significant role in the development of Chinese food culture. His teaching was so significant and impactful that some practices are still evident up till today. The ideas of Confucianism are firmly rooted in the belief that food and friends are an inseparable part of life. According to Confucius, a life “without food and friend is considered as an incomplete and improper life”. 

Confucian Food 101

Although he may be regarded by most people in today’s world as a deep thinker and philosopher about life, Confucius actually played a huge role in bringing perfect taste to Chinese food through his proposal of proper cooking techniques. His principal idea behind preparing and cooking was that the taste of any dish hugely depends on proper mixing of all of its ingredients, flavourings and condiments. The taste of individual elements do not hold a great importance in food, but instead it is the fine blending of all those elements that result in great taste of food. Blending of food also reflects harmony, which is the reason for its great value. Confucius believed the taste of food fully depends on the success of harmony.

On top of harmony, the health benefits of each element is placed with great value too. For instance, ginger has acquired a favourite place in Confucius food culture as it helps to reduce the internal heat and fever of the body and it helps in digestion. Confucian Food also presented that the colour and texture of food was of utmost importance. If the food is not properly cooked and does not get the proper colour, then it should not be consumed. He also emphasised on the maintenance of hygiene in foods with his personally defined criteria on how to taste hygienic quality foods. 

He seemed very restrictive towards food until there is a list of dos and don'ts that can be derived from his philosophy of eating:  


  1. Eat only at meal times 

  2. Eat fresh and local

  3. Eat ginger but in moderation 

  4. Know the origin or source of your food

  5. Cut your food properly because it reflects the way you live

  6. Eat more vegetables, but meat in moderation

  7. Eat only until 70% full, because portion control promotes longevity

  8. Take note of hygiene during food preparation


  1. Don’t eat if sauces and seasonings are not correctly prepared

  2. Don’t eat food that smells bad

  3. Don’t consume food that is not well cooked

  4. Don’t limit drinking, but don't drink to the point of confusion

  5. Don’t eat dried meat

  6. Don't drink wine bought from the market 

  Star Anise Series. By THOR [ CC BY 2.0 ], via  Wikimedia Commons

Star Anise Series. By THOR [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dining Etiquettes

For Confucius, eating does not only serve as physical purposes, but also the mental as well. As previously mentioned, he strongly believed that eating is a means for socializing. Without proper etiquette and meaning to address this social purposes, eating loses its “soul”. Therefore, dining without etiquette can be considered as a ritual without “soul”; it would be just a meaningless repetition. 

Confucius lived in the period of feudal society, where social hierarchy was held to the most importance. Therefore, this is reflected in his teaching which places value on the giving and eating of food to demonstrate hierarchical structure. For instance, during family, friends or social dining situations, the order of seating and eating was a direct visual demonstration of each individual's status within the group. Confucius teaching on dining etiquette was the precursor of the issuance of decree by Emperor Zhenzong of the Jingde Reign of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to formalise the imperial banquet etiquette, concerning the type, time of appropriate language, dress, behaviour, and order of seating. The background idea of Confucian eating rule and order was the belief that structure would help to rule the country and educate people

This value on status demonstration is taken into the form of seat positions. For instance, Confucius believed that the eastward seat of the table is regarded as the most honourable, and that the seat facing the door holds the most venerable status of all. Next, the second most prestigious individual would be seated opposite the first, the third sits adjacent to the first seat, and the fourth next to the second. 

Another form of this hierarchical dining etiquette was the order of eating. As much as the seating position demonstrates the status an individual holds, the order in which you are placed to eat indicates your social status within that group. This explains why younger members were expected to start eating only after their superiors started and to stop eating only when the superiors did. 

However, these were not just it. There are still many more rules, especially those concerning serving and eating of food, that guests and hosts are expected to comply. Serving etiquette, for example, takes into account the exact location and angle a dish should point. Types of the dish or food have their particular position on the table that is required to be followed. For example, rice is to be placed on the left hand side of a guest, soup to the right, meat farther away, and drinks, sauce and dressing within easy reach. Furthermore, the serving etiquette also requires servers to serve the most delicate part of the dish towards the individual holding the most significant role, since the direction was a further indication of one's status

Because Confucius highly respected food and eating as a means to promote health and cultivate social relationships, he prescribed etiquette for assisting diner to balance the self while demonstrating respect for the food being consumed. This is why, for Confucius, gulping, pouring slurping and picking teeth during meal were simply prohibited. Feeling exhausted already with the strict rules Confucius has? There is even more! Even to the smallest detail like the use of chopstick, Confucius has something to say.  

It is believed that chopsticks should not be used upside down, nor placed vertically into a dish. Even pushing a dish with chopsticks and using them as forks by poking the dish are taboo. It is expected of the diners as well to only place their chopsticks during a meal, lengthways and on their right hand side. 

Seat positions, placement of the dishes, use of utensils, and other social etiquettes enliven the ritual of having meals with family and friends.

  Everyone eating merrily. By Edmund Yeo [ CC BY-NC-SA-2.0 ], via  Flickr

Everyone eating merrily. By Edmund Yeo [CC BY-NC-SA-2.0], via Flickr

Naming of Dishes

There are the names of certain dishes in Chinese cuisine today which are also exclusive and closely linked to Confucius's ideologies and way of life. An example of this would be a dish called “Gingko Poetry Rites”. All thanks to a descendant of Confucius (the 53rd generation to be precise) called Yan Sheng, a dish originally called “Honey Gingko” was renamed. The reason for this was because Yan Sheng had come to discover that the gingko nuts used to make this exquisite dish were picked from trees grown in front of the poetry hall in the Confucius Temple. Hence Yan Sheng decided to adopt this peculiar name in memory of his great ancestor and to honour the practices Confucius adopted in teaching his son, Kong Li, about poetry and virtue. Therefore, the naming of a dish was highly valued by Confucius as this is evident from his idea of incorporating the anecdotes and historical background behind the dish to its name. This way, a meal becomes not just a meal, but a significant cultural experience for the diner.


The way in which Confucius’s family cuisine and styles could have possibly developed were a result of frequent visits by very important people during his time. This included emperors, high-ranking officials and other distinguished guests to his home. Confucius was therefore given the chance to create their very own approach to formal cuisine because many banquets, ceremonies and royal commemorations were held there. As a result, cooking, eating, dining and banqueting were a commonly utilised craft equivalent to good and ethical government in traditional China.

Confucius strongly believed in the creative art of cooking and the pleasures from food in life, and his teaching can still be seen in the way Chinese cuisine is prepared today. He largely recognised cooking as a form of artistry and his teachings concerning cooking techniques and table etiquettes are still thought of as an integral part of Chinese food culture. It is undeniable that Confucius' teachings were observed very carefully, but one must also acknowledge that it was his immense love and huge respect of good food which has played an essential role in influencing the Chinese way of life.

So to this day - all thanks to the man - no matter what background one comes from, the love of good food typically becomes a meaningful element of Chinese living.