Pleasure, Prohibition, and Pain: Food and Medicine in Traditional China

  • Vivienne Lo


What did the eighteenth-century poet and epicure Yuan Mei 袁枚 (1716–1797) mean about the qi of food when he stated:

the eyes and nose are neighbors to the mouth and are the mouth’s matchmaker. When fine savory dishes fill the nose and eyes, the colors and aroma are quite different: some are clear like autumn clouds, others captivating like amber. Once the fragrant qi has already leapt to the nose there is no need to wait for teeth to bite or tongue to taste to appreciate their subtlety. So if you wish to dazzle, glaze with crystal sugar. Do not use spices for a delicate flavor, [with elaborate seasoning] wei 為 “flavor” is destroyed. (Sui yuan shi dan, 11)

What was meant by the qi of a food that conveys these magical qualities of a dish, so that it resembles autumn clouds or amber? In what sense was Yuan Mei concerned about the taste of his savory dishes? In chapter two, Sterckx identified the qi of a food in early Chinese sacrificial literature as transcending flavor: tasteless and insipid food offerings have qi and nourish the most remote ancestors. While these ancient, flavorless offerings, such as boiled meats and grain, may not have had the same culinary finesse as Yuan Mei’s lightly spiced delicacies in the eighteenth century, they share a concern to minimize seasoning in order to enhance nutritional effect. That heavy-handed spicing spoils food is the kind of commonplace culinary wisdom that exists at the boundaries of food and medicine.


Medical Property Camel Milk Medicinal Food Chinese Wolfberry Chinese Empire 
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© Roel Sterckx 2005

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  • Vivienne Lo

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