Tag Archives: China

Searching for Something Special in Northeastern China’s Cuisine

By Loretta E. Kim

Mixed noodles with broth and sauce. Credit: Loretta Kim.

The “eight major cuisines” (ba da caixi) of China, a culinary taxonomy sometimes reduced to four types and at most expanded to sixteen, reflects Chinese pride in the diversity of ingredients and flavor palettes that are associated with historical variations in material culture developed from differences in topography, climate, and biota. However, the Chinese word caixi, which translates to the English term “cuisine”, generally refers to foods that are attributed to the Han people who constitute the ethnic majority group in the past and present. Foods of non-Han peoples are also consumed by Han people, but are often considered part of “food and beverage culture” (yinshi wenhua) or “folk customs” (minjian xisu). The exclusion of non-Han foods from the cuisine classification and attribution of them instead to geographical regions and culture serves to reinforce the conception of non-Han peoples as marginal members of Chinese society.

Natives of Northeastern China, customarily defined as Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang provinces, are proud of their food, but people in other parts of the country often remark that Northeastern food (Dongbei cai) is not an authentic type of “cuisine” because it is “simple” (lacking complex flavors), “tasteless” (or “too salty”), and “monotonous” (most dishes are made of the same ingredients). Most of these uncomplimentary stereotypes of Northeastern China’s food are based on the staples and homemade favorites of Han households in the region, such as “three fresh flavors of the earth” (di san xian), a dish made by sautéing potatoes, eggplants, and green peppers with garlic, green onions, and peanut oil, and dishes cooked by stewing an assortment of ingredients (dun cai).

Although they are generally not explicitly cited in criticisms of Northeastern food, several attributes of the region influence how Chinese in other areas develop these prejudices. Northeastern China is a borderland and socio-cultural frontier between China and neighboring countries, so it is not considered as a distinct culinary region like other borderlands such as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.

Another characteristic of Northeastern China is that its ethnic minority (non-Han) populations are not well-known to people in other areas of China, either by group name or distinguishing characteristics. Chinese in central and eastern China may know of Manchus and Mongols, two of China’s largest ethnic minority groups, but struggle to name or describe any others. So unlike Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Guizhou, which are known as the homes of ethnic minorities that produce food which is very different from Han food and therefore quite appealing to Chinese consumers who seek epicurean novelty, the culinary reputation of Northeastern China does not benefit from its ethnic diversity.

Most ethnic minority people in contemporary Northeastern China are fluent and literate in Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) but do not actively translate or otherwise bridge knowledge from their heritage languages into China’s Sinophone mainstream society. Moreover, most ethnic minority recipes in Northeastern China are not documented and standardized, and few people can read or write texts produced in these languages so there is no substantial audience for such records.

Despite these disadvantages to changing popular attitudes towards Northeastern China’s cuisines, pre-twentieth century sources reveal that non-Northeastern people formerly associated certain foodways with places and peoples of the Northeast. One such source is the section about food in the Classified Anecdotes of the Qing Dynasty (Qingbai leichao). The author, Xu Ke (1869-1928), was a native of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province and a member of the literati class who earned an official examination degree.

Unlike many of his fellow southern-born cultural doyens, Xu included references to the north, including the northeast, in his writings. About the people of Ningguta, a place now known as Ning’an, in Heilongjiang province, he observed “The da gao [a cake usually made of glutinous rice (nuomi 糯米), honey and/or white sugar] is made of glutinous millet (huangmi 黃米) in Ningguta (emphasis mine).”[1] Xu Ke  also observed that Ningguta people like “yellow pickled vegetables” (huangji). “Yellow pickled vegetables” are ubiquitous throughout China to the southernmost region of Guangdong, where huangji is pronounced  wong zai) and the vegetable in question is a cucumber that is served minced. How the Ningguta pickle was eaten, and in fact what is, goes unexplained, but Xu’s reference to it piques the imagination about what made it unique.

Xu also discusses the foods of non-Han peoples in Northeastern China in his miscellany, such as the two ways in which Mongols eat meat: “(Mongols) boil beef and lamb slightly in plain water, or roast (these meats) directly over bovine manure. When the pieces (of meat) are roasted, the left hand is used to hold the meat, while the right hand holds a small knife to cut (the meat), a little salt is added and the meat is eaten without being chewed.”[2] Roast meat is not a sophisticated dish, if sophistication is appraised by the number of ingredients or required steps to cook it. But the mental image of a Mongol diner holding and cutting his meat inspires us to think about how culinary sophistication and tradition as only defined by Han people or by ethnic minorities who are commonly known for being “exotic” inhibits a more inclusive and potentially more interesting interpretation of “cuisine” in China.

[1] Xu, Qingbai leichao, 6248.
[2] Xu Ke, Qingbai leichao (Classified anecdotes of the Qing dynasty)(Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1917, reprint, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2010), 6247.

How Best to Treat the Heat in 1793 Beijing

By Marta Hanson

Translating traditional Chinese medical terms into modern English forces one to consider dramatic changes in medicine over the past two centuries. Take, for example, the modern Chinese phrase fa re for “fever,” which literally means “to produce (fa) heat (re).” Although today it refers to elevated body temperature, traditionally it referred to the preternatural heat that patients experienced dispersed throughout their bodies and only sometimes referred to elevated skin temperature.[1] In fact, before the late 19th-century, the English term “fever” also contained multivalent meanings and multifarious patterns of excessive heat.[2] Fever in the sense of having a temperature above the 97.3 to 99.5 °F human range was not even defined in western medicine, nor a convenient clinical thermometer invented to measure it, until the late 1860s.[3] Although many of the febrile-related symptoms that fall under the Chinese disease concept “Hot diseases” (rebing) could fit under the biomedical umbrella of acute-infectious diseases, in classical Chinese medicine they were originally conceptualized as caused by climatic configurations of qi (i.e., vital energy/matter).[4]

The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon: Basic Questions (ca. 1st c. BCE) originally distinguished two types of Hot diseases related to different types of climatic qi. The first included an acute-onset febrile disorders caused by external pathogenic qi related to changing seasons or local weather. The second was a type of “Cold Damage” (shanghan) acquired in the winter but which went dormant until the heat of the spring or summer manifested it as excessive heat and internally impairing dryness. The first Inner-Canon definition that Hot diseases could be due to other types of pathogenic climatic qi also facilitated conceptualizing epidemics as due to pathogenic environmental qi unrelated to the winter cold or local climate.[5] Nonetheless, no matter the original cause when excessive heat was the result, it had to be expelled.

An interesting case of disagreement on how best to “treat the heat” occurred in Beijing during a febrile epidemic (wenyi) in the spring and summer of 1793. The Qing official, Ji Yun (1724–1805) unusually responded to this epidemic by comparing the success rate of three therapeutic drug strategies. The first, associated with Zhang Jiebin (1563-1640), resulted in 80–90% mortality. The second, promoted by Wu Youxing (1582?-1652), was no more effective. But a third formula created by the living doctor, Yu Lin (ca. late 18th cent.), had successfully cured the concubine of the Chief Minister of the Court of State Ceremonies, Feng Yingliu (1741–1801) with a strong gypsum-based formula.[6] Ji noted that those who witnessed this were shocked but those who followed his method ended up saving countless lives.[7]

The three competing cures in Ji’s short anecdote illustrate well how Cold and Heat were the main metaphors used to understand the cause of epidemics and legitimate drug choices for treating them. Zhang’s “warming and tonifying” (wenbu) tonics were based on what the Cold Damage Treatise (Shanghan lun, ca. 220 CE) recommended for treating Hot diseases (believed to have their origin in winter Cold manifested in the summer). These included warming herbs such as Cassia twig (guizhi) and Ephedra (mahuang) to release cold via the exterior and Aconite (fuzi) to warm the exterior and expel cold.  [See rebing entry to far left in Figure 1]

Medication chart from the Gold-Dusted Cold Damage [Treatise] (Shanghan diandian jin, completed 1341, date of this printing unknown). Image credit: Wellcome Collection.
 Wu’s “purgative” (gongxia) formulas contained Rhubarb root and rhizome (dahuang) to purge downward, and even Betel Nut (binglang) to expel pathogenic qi.  Wu termed this anomalous qi (yiqi), deviant qi (liqi), or pestilential qi (liqi) in his Treatise on Febrile Epidemics (Wenyi lun, 1642). [See figure 2] As He Bian has written on this blog, Chinese rhubarb had its heyday in the eighteenth century, yet not all physicians were in accord with its suitability during epidemics.


Rhubarb from Li Shizhen’s Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu) printed in 1596.

The third author named in this story, Yu Lin, later became famous for his recipe titled: “Epidemic-Clearing and Toxin-Dispersing Beverage” (Qing wen bai du yin). [8]  The fourteen-ingredient recipe was based on a combination of the White Tiger Decoction (baihu tang) that cleared out heat on the exterior with two other formulas.[9]  Yu’s recipe, however, featured crude gypsum (i.e., the “White Tiger”) in quantities at least three times the other main ingredients (raw foxglove root, rhinoceros horn, and coptis root). This made it an extremely Cold formula, and potentially life-threatening for those who thought Cold was the underlying cause and so used Zhang’s formulas. For Yu, however, Gypsum’s cold-cooling quality cleared excessive heat accumulated in the stomach system. [Figure 3 depicts this heat-clearing function of gypsum at the center of the man’s chest).

Depiction for White Tiger Decoction in Illustrations and Explanation of the Major Formulas of the Cold Damage Treatise (Shanghan lun dafang tu jie, 1833). Image credit: Wellcome Collection.

Expelling pathogenic Cold qi and warming the interior with aconite and cassia twigs, purging pestilential qi through the bowls with rhubarb, and clearing out the pathogenic Heat from the stomach with gypsum were thus all therapeutic strategies at play during the 1793 epidemic in the capital. The first framed the cause of the epidemic in latent winter cold that had to be dispersed. The second saw it as externally contracted pestilential qi that needed to be purged. Finally, the third considered it excessive heat that had to be cleared. Despite these major differences all three approaches nonetheless treated the febrile symptoms subsumed under fa re or, in the modern term, “fevers” as something that drugs could manage by adjusting the internal balance of Hot and Cold.


Translations for Figures 1 and 3

Figure 1: From right to left are listed three disease concepts – Cold Damage, Wind Damage, and Hot Diseases. Their commonly used formulas are written below. The six formulas listed under rebing are from right going down and then to left going down: With sweat cassia twig decoction (han guizhi tang), Cassia twig and gypsum decoction (guizhi jia shigao), Cassia twig decoction together with gypsum, anemarrhena, cohosh, and ephedra (guizhi jia shigao zhimu sheng[ma] ma[huang], Without sweat ephedra decoction (wuhan mahuang tang), Evening produced (i.e., heat) gardenia, cohosh, and ephedra decoction (wan fa zhizi sheng[ma] ma[huang]), and Cassia twig decoction with ephedra and gypsum (guizhitang jia mahuang shigao).

Figure 3: From the right to left across the top is written. 1) “The assistant [drug] Amemarrhena (zhima) disperses dryness [and] produces jin [fluids].” 2) the space below the chin reads “protects the lungs.” 3) and to the left is written “licorice (gancao) harmonizes the stomach and rice (gengmi) assists the stomach qi.” 4) The 5-character phrases on either side of the oblong circle together state the therapeutic strategy “[When] the pathogenic [qi] has already changed into Fire, then clear, cool, and make it disperse.5)  In the long oval at the center of the body, the phrase instructs: “When it [i.e., the Fire} enters the stomach, use gypsum.”

[1] Nathan Sivin, Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China, Science, Medicine, & Technology in East Asia 2 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1987), xxiv-xxv, 86, 108.

[2] Christopher Hamlin, More Than Hot: A Short History of Fever, Johns Hopkins Biographies of Disease (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2014).

[3] J.M.S. Pearce, “A brief history of the clinical thermometer,” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine 95.4 (1 April 2002): 251-52. Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1836-1925) invented the 6-inch thermometer that was first able to record a temperature in 5 minutes in 1866 and in 1868 Carl Wunderlich, using a foot-long thermometer put in the axilla (i.e., armpit), established the normal range from 36.3 to 37.5 °C or 97.3 to 99.5 °F.

[4] Shigehisa Kuriyama, “Epidemics, Weather, and Contagion in Traditional Chinese Medicine,” in Lawrence I. Conrad and Dominik Wujastyk, eds., Contagion: Perspectives from Pre-Modern Societies, (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2000), 3-22.

[5] Marta Hanson, Speaking of Epidemics in Chinese Medicine: Disease and the geographic imagination in late imperial China (London: Routledge, 2011), 16-17.

[6] Gypsum is monoclinic calcium sulfate. See discussion of this episode in Hanson, Speaking of Epidemics, 2011, 126-27.

[7] Ji Yun 紀昀, Yuewei caotang biji 閱微草堂筆記(Jottings from Yuewei Hall), printed 1800. Repr. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1980. Passage in juan 18, jotting #24, 458-9. Online access https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=gb&file=36038&page=45&remap=gb

[8] Jian Min Wen and Garry Seifert, translators, Warm Disease Theory, Wēn bing xúe (Brookline, Mass.: Paradigm Publications, 2000), 141.

[9] White Tiger Decoction is used to treat an illness pattern with great heat, thirst, and sweating and a surging and large pulse. For analysis of the logic of the formula see Craig Mitchel, Feng Ye, Nigel Wiseman, Shang Han Lun: On Cold Damage: Translations & Commentaries (Brookline, Mass.: Paradigm Publications, 1999), 316-24

HEAT! A Recipes Project Thematic Series

Astronomy- the Earth and the sun during summer in the Northern hemisphere. Wellcome Collection.

As humans, we want to control heat. We want to create heat, temper or even extinguish it, depending on context and purpose. We have a very limited temperature range at which we are comfortable (some microbes and bacteria can survive temperatures as low as -20C and as high as 130C), so we spend an incredible amount of time managing heat, whether it is our body temperature or that of our homes, offices, laboratories, cars, or food.

When we started planning this series of blog posts in early May, we could not have suspected how appropriate the theme would feel by now. While much of northwestern Europe has not seen rain in weeks and is sighing under a heatwave with temperatures rising to 37C/98F, we have fled to airconditioned spaces to edit the posts. Climate-wise, heat is seasonal in these regions, but it has always played an important role in recipes year-round, all around the world, from antiquity to the present day, in fields as diverse as alchemy, chemistry, art, cooking, medicine, and personal grooming.

The common denominators of heat in all these realms are that it is either internal – emanating from the human body – or external, naturally occurring from the sun, thunder, or lava, or man-made through friction or fire. In the posts in this series, we will see a wide variety of attempts to control these different kinds of heat through recipes and instructions.

Managing natural heat: Venice turpentine is a thick paste (aka sticky mess) at room temperature, but becomes fluid around 25C, and nicely mixes into the rest of the varnish ingredients when left out in the sun. Photo: Marieke Hendriksen

Some of our authors recreate such attempts by reconstructing experiments outlined in historical art technical and chemical sources. Indra Kneepkens recounts how she discovered through reconstruction research that sometimes for a recipe to make sense, it should not only be followed to the letter, but also be read between the lines. Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen use their experiments with two reconstructions of small chemical ovens to reflect on the role of experimental heat in the development of theories on the nature of life in the eighteenth century. Working in a similar vein but with culinary recipes, Marissa Nicosia, from Cooking the Archive, examines the problem of heat control in her recipe recreation adventures, outlining the challenges of translating cooking instructions meant for the early modern hearth to the modern gas stove.

The four elements, four qualities, four humours, four seasons, and four ages of man. Airbrush by Lois Hague, 1991. Wellcome Collection.

Other authors in the series took our invitation as an opportunity to investigate heat in medical theories across time and place. Aileen Das kicks off this series by arguing that heat occupied a central place in ancient Greek, Roman and medieval Islamicate theories about the human body and its care. Taking on the smelly problem of perspiration and body odor, Cari Casteel reminds us that this issue is as old as mankind and offers several remedies from Roman authors.  Catherine Rider, on the other hand, examines notions of heat in fertility remedies in medieval England, noting that, whilst popular, heat-based treatments (to either increase or reduce heat in the body) were not the only kind of fertility aid available to English couples. The series concludes with two posts focused on fever and disease. Writing on in Late Imperial China, Marta Hanson introduces us to ideas of fever in Chinese medicine. Finally, Nukhet Varlik turns our attention to the ambiguities inherent in early modern taxonomies of infection diseases, exploring fever as a symptom and as a disease category.

We’ve had a great time editing this series – hope you enjoy reading the posts wherever you are. Happy summer and stay cool!

Marieke Hendriksen and Elaine Leong

P.s. We were so inspired by our contributors’ posts that we’ve decided to dedicate the December issue to (you guessed it) COLD!. If you’re interested in joining the conversation, send a short pitch to recipes@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.

Fetch Me at Pearl Nest Street: Rhubarb Pills as Panacea in Qing China

He Bian

In the late eighteenth century, American ginseng opened up a new niche market in Qing China. At the same time, Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, harvested from the northwest regions of the empire, were transported by Chinese traders all the way to the southeast coast and sold off to foreign customers in Canton (Figure 1). Part of these transactions took place in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Islands), a vassal state of the Qing but also an important node of global trade that crisscrossed the West Pacific. At some point in 1789, the Qing court issued an edict to the Ryukyu king that explicitly forbade him from selling rhubarb to Russians, with whom the Qing was then engaging in an all-out trade war. Rhubarb featured prominently in the Qing strategy because they believed that Europeans imported so much of this drug that they could not live a day without it.[1]

Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk
Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk

Yet is it really true that pharmacological visions in early modern China and Europe were so different that they could not possibly reach a consensus over rhubarb’s properties ? Classical Chinese pharmaceutical literature listed rhubarb as a drug with a “very cold” nature, and generations of physicians were taught not to use the cold drug in curing cold-natured diseases. This suggested that Russians (and other Westerners, as seen in this post on rhubarb in early modern England) had different bodies than the Qing Chinese, as they depended on rhubarb as an all-round cure. Pharmacological theories, in other words, engendered a vision of difference that seemed insurmountable.

During my recent reading of Qing medical recipe books, however, I discovered that rhubarb in fact functioned as nothing short of a panacea for Qing Chinese. This is evident in the text Bianyong liangfang (Excellent Recipes for Expedient Use), which appeared in the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820). Compact (only 2-juan in length) and very nicely printed (with carved woodblocks), it arranges pills, powders, tinctures, and decoctions by symptom. The book has about 120 pages, and most recipes are merely a few lines in length. What surprised me was that one very long recipe at the end of the text takes up the entirety of 13 pages. The remedy in question, mi shou Qingning wan (Secretly transmitted pill of purity and tranquility), calls for “several dozen pounds” of good quality rhubarb roots as the principal ingredient. Rubbed clean and steeped in rice water, the rhubarb was sliced, sun-dried, processed with “ash-less good rice liquor” for three days, and then put through a lengthy, elaborate protocol of fifteen rounds of steaming. Each steam involved a different set of herbs. Finally, makers took the resultant rhubarb paste, mixed it with “yellow ox milk” (using cooked honey as substitute if there was no milk), boy’s urine, ginger juice, and rolled it into tiny pills. The recipe listed hundreds of common illnesses that could be treated with this pill, ranging from headache and hemorrhage to gynecological disorders.

Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v
Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v

I have tried to look up this recipe in earlier Chinese medical texts, and my preliminary findings suggest that it probably came into existence no earlier than the seventeenth century. It became wildly popular in the eighteenth century, and recipe books serve as evidence of its widespread consumption. On the last page of Bianyong liangfang (Figure 2), the compiler, Luo Benli, announced that he had a batch of rhubarb pills prepared during his tenure in Guizhou – a southwestern province of China – and that, in case of emergency, readers could “call upon my house on Pearl Nest Street” and look for the “residence of Mr. Luo of the Ministry of Defense (bingbu Luo zhai).” Pearl Nest Street (zhuchaojie), a neighborhood in Qing Beijing not far from the Forbidden City, featured prime real estate. As a military official who had served in the frontier provinces, Luo was less bound by medical norms of the day and possessed the financial and political capital to manufacture elaborate pills like these. Was there, in other words, a sub-culture of health and medication championed by military elites such as Luo, which stood distinct from classical prescriptions?

One last word about this recipe that hints at a hidden connection between different cultural realms in early modern China: Sun Xingyan (1753-1818), a prominent scholar who combed through medieval sources for fragments of ancient texts, published the same recipe for Pill of Purity and Tranquility in his scholarly series. The inclusion of this Qing text alongside ancient monographs so bewildered modern bibliographers that they mistakenly attributed the recipe’s author to a seventh-century figure. In fact, Sun Xingyan made it clear that it was a contemporary remedy and provided an elaborate scholarly argument to defend rhubarb’s all-around efficacy to cure both hot and cold-natured illnesses. He also suggested that “vulgar physicians” despised the pill because if everyone had access to this remedy then their businesses would be lost. Therefore it does appear that, when it comes to rhubarb, Qing Chinese scholars and military commanders were no less enthusiastic than what they imagined about the Russians.


[1] I recommend this excellent essay by Chang Che-Chia (translated by Penelope Barrett) for more on this curious episode.