Education About Asia

Using Food to Teach about Chinese Culture

Download PDF

In my undergraduate teaching of Chinese and East Asian history to business majors, I find that food is a very useful idiom for learning about traditional and modern Chinese culture. Since everyone eats, it makes a foreign culture more approachable. Attitudes toward food help students understand change and continuity in China’s long history and provide insights into social and political values in various historical periods. In this article, I share some of my experiences, approaches, and materials to assist others in incorporating food in their college, high school, and middle school courses on China or world history.

Here, as in my courses, I proceed chronologically and by topic. I occasionally teach “Food in Chinese Culture,” but most of my courses are surveys of Chinese history or comparisons of East Asian cultures. Depending on the content and timeframe of a course, I would incorporate some of the assignments presented here. Especially fruitful areas that explore the connection between food and culture in Chinese history include geography; philosophy and religion; exploration of Chinatown; evidence from films, food, and globalization; and learning from students and alumni.

Further Sources

Anderson, E.N. The Food of China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Chang, K.C., ed. Food in Chinese Culture, Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Ha, Jin. “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town.” The Bridegroom. New York: Vintage International, 2000, 184–225.

Jing, Jun, ed. Feeding China’s Little Emperors: Food, Children and Social Change. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Watson, James L. Golden Arches East, McDonald’s in East Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.