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The Origin of Food Symbolism in China

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The Origin of Food Symbolism in China
Issue Time:2016-08-11

China is a country with a long history, and food has played an importantrole in the development of Chinese culture. Every year many traditional festivalsand events are celebrated with special foods. Some of these foods haveparticular meanings, such as good luck, best wishes, unity, and commemoration.

Dating back at least 2,000 years, thesymbolism of foods in China comes from superstitions or traditionalbeliefs 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


SpringFestival (Chinese New Year) is the most importanttraditional festival in China, when Chinese people especially emphasize wishesfor happiness and blessing. So New Year foods usually symbolize goodluck 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).

Dumplingsmean 'wealth', due to their traditional gold/silver ingot shape.

Candysymbolizes wishes for a rich and sweet life, because of the sweet taste.


Sweet round stickyrice balls

LanternFestival is the first full moon night in the Chinesecalendar 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'.

Thename sounds similar to 'tuanyuan' (团圆tuányuán /twan-ywen/ 'reunion'), and roundness means togetherness and unity inChina.

Dragon Boat Festival

Zong zi

DragonBoat Festival is an important celebration in China to commemorate Qu Yuan, a famous patriotic poet of China inancient times.

Glutinous ricedumplings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves (粽子 Zòngzi /dzongdzuh/) symbolize Qu Yuancommemoration.

Their symbolism is based on a legend: Qu Yuandrowned himself in the Miluo River on hearing his state was defeated. It's saidthat people threw rice dumplings into the river to feed the fish, so theywouldn't eat Qu Yuan's corpse… Learn more about Zongzi.

Mid-Autumn Festival


Mid-AutumnFestival is the second most important traditionalChinese festival. It is a time for familymembers and loved ones to get togetherto celebrated family reunion. Therefore, people celebrate it bypreparing foodswith family-reunion symbolicmeanings. Mooncakes mean 'family unity', as they're round, like theharvest moon. Learn more about mooncakes.