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Food, eating behavior, and culture in Chinese society
Department of Nutrition and Food Hygiene, School of Public Health, Peking University, Beijing, China
Received 13 October 2015
Received in revised form
27 October 2015
Accepted 30 October 2015
Available online 24 November 2015
Humans need to obtain nutrients from foods in order to survive and be healthy. The requirements of
energy and nutrients are different due to differences in race, age, sex, and physical activity level. People
living in different places take nutrients from different kinds of food; therefore, nutrition is a cultural
biological process rather than a simple physiological and biochemical process. Food intake can directly
inﬂuence one's biological function through life, as its results are on a biological level. When people eat,
the process can be inﬂuenced by economic, politics, culture, and many other factors.
Copyright ©2015, Korea Food Research Institute, Published by Elsevier. This is an open access article
under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).
1. The social functions of food
Food is not only the source of nutrition for human, but also plays
various roles in our daily life, beliefs, and socioeconomics.
1.1. Establish and maintain interpersonal relationship
Food has many symbolic meanings; it not only expresses but
also establishes the relationship between people and their envi-
ronment as well as between people and what they believe.
Therefore, food is an important component of a society.
Food consumed by one person alone is not a social food. How-
ever, when it is consumed by a group of people together or eaten in
a religious ceremony, the sociality of food is identiﬁed. In human
society, food is a means for people to establish and express re-
lationships between one another. This relationship can exist among
individuals, community members, religious groups, and ethnic
groups. For instance, in the Spring Festival in China, people eat
dumplings to express the relationship between themselves and
God (Fig. 1).
In Chinese society, people usually treat others with meals in
order to make new friends or enhance established relationships.
Cantonese breakfast is known as morning tea and lots of people talk
about business and exchange information while having morning
1.2. Express the degree of interpersonal relationship
Different foods convey different meanings among the eaters and
indicate the closeness of the relationship. In Chinese culture, ser-
vice of expensive and rare foods usually shows the respect to the
guests. A formal dinner includes 4e6 cold dishes, 8e10 hot dishes,
served with soup and fruits. A usual family dinner serves close
friends. Close friends or colleagues usually go to food stalls for
dining and drinking. Eating a lunch box together is a normal work
relationship, and intimate lovers will have candlelit dinner
1.3. Represent social status
Foods can be used by people to express their social status. Rare
and expensive food is frequently used to represent wealth and high
social economic status. These foods are normally animal food and
rich in protein, and are hard to obtain because of the rareness,
expensiveness, or the need for importation. This custom is mainly
related to the upper class living style, for instance, bird's nest,
shark's ﬁn, bear's paw, and lobster in traditional Chinese society.
*Corresponding author. Department of Nutrition and Food Hygiene, School of
Public Health, Peking University, Beijing 100191, China.
E-mail address: email@example.com.
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Journal of Ethnic Foods
journal homepage: http://journalofethnicfoods.net
2352-6181/Copyright ©2015, Korea Food Research Institute, Published by Elsevier. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.org/
J Ethn Foods 2 (2015) 195e199
1.4. As a group characteristic
Food can not only indicate the social status, but also can be used
as a character of one group, divided by regions, families, races or
religions. Each country has a State Banquet. Some countries such as
China, France, and Italy are famous for their cuisine, delicious food,
and food culture.
Eating behavior, once formed, has continuity. When people
moving to other regional or countries, will continue keeping their
traditional eating habit, taste, and cooking methods, unless in very
special cases, otherwise it is hard to change.
In China, rice is usually the staple food for people living in the
south of China, while food made of wheat ﬂour such as steamed
bread, bread, and buns is the staple for people living in the north
(Fig. 2). Even when travelling or moving to a foreign country, people
tend to eat the food which eating usually as the ﬁrst choice. Many
Chinese people in foreign countries, even after years of migration,
still maintain the habit of eating Chinese food, which is very difﬁ-
cult to change.
1.5. Celebrate important event
Owing to its function to express the central position in the
representation and relationship, a dinner or banquet can be used as
a symbol of the important events in human life, such as wedding,
baptism, and religious belief. The symbolic signiﬁcance of food
eaten in religion is more important than the nutritional value; for
example, the consumption of these foods can determine and
reestablish the relationship between man and God, and between
People eat special food to celebrate important events or festi-
vals, such as Americans eating turkey for Thanksgiving in the USA,
Fig. 1. People eat dumplings to express the relationship between themselves and God
in the Spring Festival in China.
Fig. 2. Rice is usually the staple food for people living in the south of China.
J Ethn Foods 2015; 2: 195e199196
while speciﬁc food will be served for speciﬁc social events in China,
for example, rice dumplings for the Dragon Boat Festival, moon
cakes for the Mid-autumn Festival, and dumplings for the Spring
Festival (Fig. 3).
Food customs will be affected by different society and culture
each other. For example, the traditional food for celebrating one's
birthday in China is noodles and peaches. Inﬂuenced by western
culture, many people eat cake, light candles, and sing birthday
songs at their birthday party. Interestingly, some people combine
the traditional and western ways together, eating noodles and cake
at the same time.
1.6. Symbolic signiﬁcance
In Chinese culture, foods have been used as symbols of meaning
in many occasions, to impart different information. Chinese dates
mean that the couples can have children early; peanuts, also known
as the longevity fruit, mean longevity; oranges and chestnuts mean
good luck; rice cakes, promotion year; seaweed is a homonym of
rich; noodle is long, which means health and longevity; and gluti-
nous rice balls means the family stay together. In Chinese wedding
customs, the man has to send to the woman's home wine (long and
long)orﬁsh (annual and superabundant). However, egg (more and
more strange) or lotus root (a section of arrowroot is separated, but
the clinging ﬁber remains) must not be used as a gift. In some areas,
however, after the birth of a child, eggs dyed red by parents are sent
to relatives and friends, to show auspiciousness. Some foods are a
symbol of bad luck, such as pear, which sounds like away, and
eating it could mean separation.
1.7. Means of reward or punishment
Food is often used as a means of reward or punishment. For
example, when a child has good school performance, parents may
take them to a western fast food restaurant as a reward. While a
child does not have good performance, then their parents do not
give the child the food they want by way of punishment.
A survey conducted among children's mothers or caregivers
found that they often use food as a reward or punishment. The
method of giving food to reward the children's correct behavior,
and using the method of deprive the food to punish the children's
wrong behavior. The survey found that 29% of parents use foods to
comfort the child, 23% of parents use the foods as a reward, and 10%
of parents take the method of depriving food as a punishment.
Sweets and desserts are the most commonly used foods for these
purposes, 62% of mothers often use sweets as reward or comfort,
and withhold sweets as punishment.
2. Purchase, production, and distribution of food
Cultural differences in cultivation, harvest, production, serving,
and consumption of food are signiﬁcant. Written or unwritten rules
exist in every culture, such as who is responsible for cooking and
serving, for whom they do the cooking, what kind of people have a
meal together, where to eat, in what kind of occasions, serving
order, and courtesy of the diet. All the behavior that is related to
food consumption is constrained by culture.
2.1. Food preparation
In many societies, women play an important role in food pro-
duction, selection, purchase, and processing. It is usually women's
responsibility to cook; some women are responsible for milking,
breeding poultry and livestock, and also sowing and harvesting. As
a wife and mother, she is the family food provider. Most of the
woman's life depends on fulﬁlling these traditional obligations.
Women engage in the trade of the market, and in the decision
making of type, quantity, and quality of food purchased. It is re-
ported that in Kenya 85% of women older than 16 years are engaged
in housework, compared with only 54% of men; while 90% of
women are responsible for cooking, and 71.4% of women are
responsible for the purchase of food. Since women play a funda-
mental role in their children's food supply, nutrition education for
women is signiﬁcant for their children's diet and health, with
consideration of the food nutrition, taste, and sanitation while
2.2. The purchase and production of food
A survey conducted in four cities of China indicated that
mothers in 69.8% households are usually responsible for food
purchase, while this percentage was only 26.3% for fathers. Food
freshness, sanitation, nutrition, and preference of children are the
main factors considered for food purchase. Children are also
involved in the choice of food and purchases in families: 20.7% of
young children often ask parents to buy certain foods, while 49.9%
of parents would take children's requests.
Men and women have different social responsibilities in the
traditional Chinese culture. There is a saying of ‘men outside the
home, women inside’to express this. In the family, adult men are
generally responsible for external affairs and work, such as farming
and harvest; while women are responsible for the household work,
such as doing laundry, cooking, and cleaning. In this traditional
culture point of view, women are responsible for cooking, a tradi-
tion which is continued in many families, especially in rural areas.
In urban areas, however, men and women's social division of labor
has changed; in many families, men and women take on house-
work together; in some families, wives take care of food purchases
and cleaning, while husbands cook. In other families wives and
Fig. 3. People eat special foods to celebrate important events or festivals, while speciﬁc
foods will be served for speciﬁc social events in China, for example, moon cakes for the
Mid-autumn Festival and dumplings for the Spring Festival.
G. Ma / Food, eating behavior, and culture 197
husbands either cook or wash dishes; in certain families, men are
responsible for most of the housework, which promotes the word
Compared with other countries, Chinese people spend much
more time on cooking, with an average of 2e3 hours every day.
Along with socioeconomic and income increases, the lifestyles of
people continue to change. Especially in urban areas, people are
unwilling to spend too much time in food preparation and cooking;
therefore, the frequency of outside eating increases. The popularity
of new technologies and new cooking instruments, such as a mi-
crowave oven, electromagnetic cooker furnace, and so on, has
shortened the time spent on cooking, which saves more time for
2.3. Food distribution
Generally, within a family, women are responsible for the dis-
tribution of food. When adequate foods are available, each family
members can get enough food. However, in the situation when
foods are in short supply, different members of the family receive
different amounts of foods. Usually, the needs of elders and men are
met ﬁrst, while women often might not get enough; therefore,
women in the family are susceptible to nutritional problems.
There are two modes in food distribution within a family: de-
mand and contribution. The demand mode refers that the distribu-
tion of food is based on different physical demands of all family
members; and who need more nutrition intake is decided by the
food distributor. For example, the mother, the distributor, is likely
to feed the last amount of milk to a sick infant; while the healthy,
although hungry babies might not get any milk. The contribution
mode indicates that the distribution of food is in accordance with
the family members' contribution to the family. Members who earn
money for the family receive more compared with their counter-
parts who do not earn money, while the former has the priority of
choosing food and also having the largest amount and the best part
of the food, in order to save enough energy to support the family.
This kind of distribution is used more when there is lack of food
supply, because it is a necessary means to maintain family survival.
Sex difference exists when food distributed within the family.
Generally, male members within the family are given more food as
compared with the female members. These differences in food
distribution in a family would affect the health of family members.
Age can also play an important role in food distribution within a
family. Children receive more foods compared with their adult
counterparts. Young children, both boys and girls, have the priority
to receive food and their food quality is always the best. The older
members in a family are very much valued in food distribution.
They get ﬁrst access to food and greater amounts than the other
family members. This food distribution partially reﬂects the tradi-
tional Oriental culture virtue of respecting the senior.
3. Eating behavior
Human nutrition investigates nutrients requirements, their
function, their contents in different foods, and their relationship
with health. As all the nutrients that human needs are obtained
from various foods, the behaviors related to food choice and con-
sumption affects the nutrient intake directly, whereas these be-
haviors are inﬂuenced by social, economic, and cultural factors.
Therefore, the research areas of human nutrition should not be
limited to biological sciences, but should also be extended to eating
behavior and its relevant factors. This area of research is as
important as chemical and biological studies in the effects of pre-
venting disease, and improving health.
3.1. The way of serving foods
Dishes are placed in the middle of the table for people to
share. Members have to wait to eat until the whole family is
seated. There are orders of serving rice, porridge, and soup.
Usually the elders and the young are ﬁrst served, followed by
men, children, and women. Habits vary in different regions. In
some places, the whole family eat together; in others, men and
women eat separately; there are also places where women eat
after men. Women are also responsible for the housework of
cleaning the table and washing dishes.
Separate dining is common in western culture, while in China's
dining culture, whether dining at home or eating out, a grouped
dining system is used in most situations. While sharing the food,
culture and atmosphere are shared. The biggest disadvantage of the
group dining system may be the possibility of causing the spread of
infectious diseases; therefore, one should promote the advantages
of a separate dining system. Nevertheless, due to the conﬂict
against traditional dining culture, eating separately is not likely to
be implemented and promoted in China.
3.2. Number of meals
Most Chinese people (94%) have three meals a day, while 5%
have two meals a day. However, the situation varies from urban to
rural area. One quarter of residents living in the poor rural areas
have two meals a day. In some rural areas in the north residents
usually have three meals a day in the harvest season, and two meals
a day in other seasons.
The China National Nutrition Survey indicated that residents
with different ethnic groups differ in eating behaviors. The pro-
portion of three meals per day was more than 95% in Tibet, Korea,
Manchu, Bai, Kazakh, and Uighur. In the Han, Hui, Zhuang, and
Mongolia the proportion was about 80%, while in Buyi and Yi that
were 61% and 51%, respectively. The proportion of two meals a day
at the Hani and Lahu were 88% and 82%, respectively.
3.3. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner
The time of breakfast for Chinese people is generally between
, and later at weekends. A few people take
breakfast and lunch together as brunch. Some people have their
breakfast at home, while some of them at a restaurant or the
workplace. A few people eat on their way to work.
A survey conducted in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou found
that, the proportion of having breakfast every day were 74.8%,
86.8%, and 90.5%, respectively. Some people usually skip their
breakfast. The proportion of having breakfast every day in people
over 35 years old was higher than their counterparts aged <35
years, while women are more frequently having breakfast than
men. The reasons for skipping breakfast including limited time, lack
of appetite, and the way to lose weight.
The foods eaten for breakfast vary in different regions. The
Cantonese take breakfast as morning tea, including shrimp
dumpling, steamed bun, chicken leg, vegetable, fritter, and soy
milk. In north part of China, people usually eat bread, porridge,
noodles, also including dumpling, fried fritter, etc. Most of them do
not have vegetables and fruits for breakfast.
In order to open up the market to meet the needs of human
consumption, western-style fast food has launched a series of
breakfast products and combinations, including spinach-egg-
chicken burgers, egg custard fort, green onion cakes, and green tea.
People usually have lunch between 11:30
small towns and rural areas of China, people go home for lunch. In
the large and medium cities, due to the far distance and limited
J Ethn Foods 2015; 2: 195e199198
time, some people have their lunch at the canteen, whole some eat
in nearby restaurants or fast-food shops. A few bring a lunch box
from home, which is prepared and packed the day before.
People usually have dinner between 6:30
urban areas, dinner is usually the only chance to sit together and
have a family meal. Therefore, dinner is usuallyabundant, including
two to four dishes, and one soup. It generally takes 1e2 hours to
make a dinner.
Conﬂicts of interest
The author has no conﬂicts of interest.
G. Ma / Food, eating behavior, and culture 199