Symbolism in Chinese Food


An interesting report from the BBC today on symbolism and food, not just in China but Scotland as well:

Dishes eaten at Chinese New Year carry great significance, as does the way a Burns Night supper is presented. But these are not the only meals which represent something to diners and the reasons we attach meaning are as myriad as the food itself.
It seems odd that a small parcel of tasty filling encased in a light dough wrapper can represent so much.

But the jiaozi dumpling symbolises prosperity to diners, who traditionally sit down for a family feast on the eve of Chinese New Year. It also means wealth when the dumpling is crescent shaped, like the gold ingot once used in ancient China as money.

Chinese chef Ching-He Huang says the centuries-old “lucky” food traditions come from superstitions about feeding the spiritual world, legends and history.

“For example, the bamboo glutinous rice, zongzi, was eaten to commemorate a famed poet. These rice dumplings were thrown in a river so the fish would feed on the rice instead of his corpse, because he threw himself into the river and he was a well-loved poet and patriot of the people,” she says.

Fuchsia Dunlop, BBC journalist and author of the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, says many of the meanings given to Chinese food are homophones of their names in Mandarin.

“In the Chinese language, so many different characters have the same sound and it is ripe for word play. For instance nian gao – which is a new year’s cake – also means tall or high, so it is eaten to represent doing better or reaching higher every year,” she says.
Steamed fish, which is a staple of many suppers, is served as a dish called nian nian you yu, the word for fish “yu”, being a homophone of “surplus” and “abundance”. It must be whole to symbolise completeness and good fortune.
Noodles represent a long life and autumn moon cakes are eaten to celebrate the roundness of the moon. Oranges are thought to symbolise wealth and tangerines good luck.

Read more over at the BBC site where there’s also a video

More on Chinese New Year

After I wrote yesterday’s post on new year celebrations in China, Danielle Hu, who will be joining us for some of the module (particularly the workshops) sent me these images and some commentary:


Before the New Year comes, the people completely clean the indoors and outdoors of their homes as well as their clothes, bedclothes and all their utensils. This is a good sign sweeping out all the old, bad and dirty things and going to a brand new year.

After cleaning, people begin decorating their clean rooms featuring an atmosphere of rejoicing and festivity. All the door panels will be pasted with Spring Festival couplets, highlighting Chinese calligraphy with black characters on red paper. The content varies from house owners’ wishes for a bright future to good luck for the New Year. Also, pictures of the god of doors and wealth will be posted on front doors to ward off evil spirits and welcome peace and abundance.


People attach great importance to Spring Festival Eve. At that time, all family members eat dinner together. The meal is more luxurious than usual. Dishes such as chicken, fish and bean curd cannot be excluded, for in Chinese, their pronunciations, respectively “ji”, “yu” and “doufu,” mean auspiciousness, abundance and richness. After the dinner, the whole family will sit together, chatting and watching TV. In recent years, the Spring Festival party broadcast on China Central Television Station (CCTV) is essential entertainment for the Chinese both at home and abroad. According to custom, each family will stay up to see the New Year in at midnight.

New year's eve meal

Burning fireworks was once the most typical custom on the Spring Festival. People thought the spluttering sound could help drive away evil spirits. However, such an activity was completely or partially forbidden in big cities once the government took security, noise and pollution factors into consideration. As a replacement, some buy tapes with firecracker sounds to listen to, some break little balloons to get the sound too, while others buy firecracker handicrafts to hang in the living room.(In countryside and rural areas, people sometimes hang a string of dried red chilis at the wall

Fire crackers

Hong Bao

龙年 Year of the Dragon

Dragon Pill Boz

Monday 23 January 2012 is the Chinese New Year, or “Spring Festival” (春节 chūn jié). The traditional Chinese calendar is based on lunar cycles which means that new year’s day moves around, much as Easter does in the western Christian calendar.

Each year “belongs” to a different creature from the Chinese zodiac, and as there are twelve of them, each comes round every dozen years. The year just ending was the year of the rabbit. This year is the year of the dragon.

In Mandarin this is 龙年 (lóng nián – literally Dragon Year), pronounced roughly “long nee-en”.

The Chinese dragon is nothing like the dragons we have in popular legend in the UK. Theirs is snake-like and made up of several creatures: it has antlers like a deer, the scaly torso of a fish, and the feet of a lion. It can fly (but has no wings) and swim underwater, as well as live on land, making it the emperor of all animals. In fact the emperor of China was often referred to as “dragon”. And unlike the dangerous dragons we grew up with in fairy tales, the Chinese dragon is benevolent.

Dragon (lóng) is a popular name for eldest sons, and two well-known Chinese film stars actually have this name: Jackie Chan’s Chinese name is Chan Long (the Chinese put the family name first), while Bruce Lee was called Lee Xiao Long (literally Lee Little Dragon)

Celebrating New Year in China

Last Train Home

The Spring Festival is a busy time in China. Traditionally, families return to the ancestral home for the period and today, because of the huge number of migrant workers, this means lots of extremely crowded trains, planes and roads. Tickets for journeys home go very quickly so planning well in advance is required. Millions of people make the journey from one part of China to another to get home in time. (You will read about this in Factory Girls or in the documentary Last Train Home).

New Year’s Eve is roughly equivalent to our Christmas Eve – it’s a day of preparation and anticipation with a great deal of cooking and, importantly, cleaning. In Chinese tradition, the new year brings with it good luck, and sweeping the floor on the day itself would mean sweeping the luck out as well, so there is no cleaning at all on New Year’s Day.

Door decorations

Doors are decorated with 对联 (duì lián) which are couplets: two short phrases bringing good wishes or good fortune on the home. These hang either side of the door and across the lintel. On the door itself is the character 福 (fú) which means happiness. However, it is hung upside down. Why? Well the Chinese language contains many words which sound similar to one another (homophones – like “where” and “wear” in English), and these words are often believed to have a lucky or unlucky relationship. For example, the number eight in Chinese is “bā” (八) which sounds a bit like the word for wealth (發 fā). So, eight is a lucky number. However, the number four is “sì” (pronounced “suh”) which sounds like the word for “death” (死 sǐ). Consequently, four is seen as an unlucky number.

I’ll do another post on Chinese numbers and luck another time.

Back to the upside down “happiness”. The word for “upside down” is “dào” (到) which is also the word for “arrive” so… an upside down “fú” invties happiness to arrive! There’s another one of these soundalikes later on.

Door Couplets


Red envelopes

Hong Bao


Like Christmas here, New Year is eagerly anticipated by children who receive gifts of clothes (New Year used to be when children would receive their new clothes for the year), toys and money. Money is given out in red envelopes (红包 hóng bāo) and children will visit neighbours, wishing them good fortune, receiving hóng bāo in return.


Food is an important part of the celebrations. Historically, China has suffered many famines and this time of year was a rare moment of excess. It still is for many who live in poor parts of the country but for the wealthier people of China this is less of an exception to everyday experience. Nevertheless, much as we do at Christmas, the Chinese like to overindulge.


Traditional foods eaten at this time include dumplings (jiaǒzi) which are filled with vegetables or minced meat and herbs, then steamed. These are particularly popular in the north, while in the south they traditionally eat sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves (粽子 zòngzi).


It is also important that the new year banquet includes fish, and this is because the word for fish (鱼 yú) sounds like the word for “plenty”.


It is considered bad luck to finish all the food prepared for the new year banquet, even afterwards. So while leftovers are as much part of the Chinese celebration as they are in the west, they do not attempt to eat every last part of the meal.

Fourteen Days Later: Lanterns


While Christmas lasts twelve days, the Chinese Spring Festival lasts fourteen, and culminates in 元宵节 (yuān xiāo jié) or Lanterns Festival. Children go out with paper lanterns and try to solve riddles on them.

The Chinese also eat yuānxiǎo (元宵) which are sweet balls of sticky rice with various fillings, served in a bowl of sugared water.


Wishing people a happy new year

There are several ways of greeting people during the two weeks of Chinese New Year

新年快乐! Xin nian kauile! (roughly: zshin nee-en kwai- la) – Happy New Year!

新年好!Xin nian hao! – Good New Year!

春节好!Chün jié hǎo! – Good Spring Festival!

过年好!Guò nián hǎo! – Have a great year!