Jan 13

Learning about the Chinese Mind through Chinese Food

Written by berlinf on Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 at 10:48 pm
Filed under:-mini-posts, culture, education |
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This may not be a profound truth that I just discovered, but have you noticed that Chinese food and Chinese thinking have a lot to do with each other? Obvious as it may seem, one can become more reflective after encounters with another type of food and thinking behind it. In my case, the comparison is between China and America.

1. In cooking we don’t have “1 cup”, “1/4 cup”, “1 teaspoon” measurement, we say “a little salt”. Exactly how little is little, it’s all a matter of exposure (to other cooks), exchange (of experience) and experience (of your own practice). We don’t have “preheat oven to 425 degrees” either, we say “small fire”, “medium fire”, “”big fire”. Scratch your head and think what these mean. The Chinese mind is similarly conditioned to process such chaotic vagueness with ease and patience.

2. When Americans eat meat, it’s a huge chunk of steak or meat loaf. When they eat vegetables, it’s salad that is made of things strictly from the green kingdom. Not us, we are omnivorous beings! We mix beef, beans, green onions (and in my case liberally applied hot pepper), all together, stir fry them. It’s supposed to be more balanced and healthy. That’s why my weight has been staying the same for 18 years. When we think, we tend to see things as coming together instead of being separate entities. This has bad and good impact on the way we think. Sometimes it causes us to be more holistic thinkers, going fluidly from one thing to another with ease, but there might be risk for sloppy thinking, which I certainly do not encourage. I think a person can be both holistic and rigorous, or remain rigid and sloppy. In science for instance, some Chinese scientists, if not trained in other methods, tend to see different things at the same time without clearly separating variables. I see this a lot when I review a Chinese journal. These authors add one thing after another into a paper the way we eat from a hot pot. Such ways of thinking can be detrimental (for instance in some quantitative studies) or beneficial (for instance in some qualitative studies), depending on the context. It is similar in medicine. Traditionally (before western medicine took the upper hand) traditional Chinese doctors would frown upon their colleagues who treat a pain in the head by examining just the head (for instance, an MRI of the head). We see the human body as an interconnected whole that is bigger than the sum of all the parts. A Chinese doctor may think, maybe that has something to do with a kidney problem. Would you please stick out your tongue so that we can make sure it is a kidney problem?

3. A typical Chinese kitchen has bowls, plates, chopsticks, knives, chopping boards, some spoons, not many more beyond that. We use chopsticks for all sorts of things, even to drink soup, if you know how (you pick up your bowl and drink from there and use chopsticks to pick up the solid stuff). But of course, now few people do that for fear of impressing people as being not “civilized” (to me it is more a difference in the perception of table manners. In China, you are considered rude if you take the “upper seat” in a table that is reserved for seniors.) American kitchens have all kinds of tools, each dedicated to its special purpose. Most of these purposes are mysterious to me. For instance, there is a long tube-like sucker which I later learned is a tool to suck away extra gravy when cooking turkey. After 7 years in America, I still don’t distinguish between a regular spoon and a soup spoon. I can recognize only half of the tools in the kitchen. Once an American friend gave us a box full of kitchen stuff when they moved away. We didn’t know what most were and we gave some to our Chinese friends and they didn’t know what they were either and they passed them on to somebody else. Since the Chinese community in the small town is not large, soon these fancy and unfamiliar tools made their rounds back to me. Chinese folks depend less on specialized tools when we think. We now do, by learning from the west. Hence things like the Balanced Scorecard, SWOT analysis, Fishbone analysis, Gagne’s 9 instructional events and what not.

4. Chinese do not learn cooking by reading recipes. We mainly watch someone (mom, grandma, wife) do it and that’s how we learn. Even now, living in the US, we learn in similar ways, sharing mainly in experience-based oral tradition. For instance we have a potluck together and we exchange ideas on how to cook, say, Dongpo Pork. We do have recipes, but most of them are useless anyway, as they seem not to have the kind of precision that can help an American to learn, which is good, because otherwise most Chinese restaurants will shut down. Americans cook by reading recipes. If the recipe is lost, the cook goes nuts. To generalize from here, I think this also summarizes the difference in the passing of expertise in China and in America. In China, people learn more by following experts and try to internalize the expertise through observation, practice, error and mistakes. Americans do that too, but my observation is that people are more used to reading instructions, all the way from putting together a toy to the installation of softwares. This generalization may be equally related to individual learning styles rather than national differences. However, as someone in education, I often find myself going back to my Chinese roots when I hear Americans talk about “cognitive apprenticeship” (learning from your grandma, not a recipe), “peer learning” (learning from discussions in a Chinese potluck party, whereas an American housewife would just ask “could you please give me the recipe?”), etc. While these theories seem leading edge in the US education circles, we have been doing these for thousand of years, without, of course, verbalizing them into theories.

5. When Chinese food is being cooked, salt, sugar, vinegar, and other ingredients and spices and sauces are already added in the food, so good luck getting the food to your taste. If you like cliches, they are all collectivist, communist types of food! Americans tend to make their food more bland to start with, and you add salt, pepper, and sugar yourself later on to make it more personalized. When Chinese think, we tend to be more collective in the choice of subjects, perspectives, and topics. You start from the forest and zoom in to the trees if needed. You start basically from a common “whole”. Americans seem to be more individualized in the way they approach things. Education is a typical example. I see there is much more flexibility in the US system. In China, even at the college level, there is much focus on a common knowledge base. Again, it is hard to say which is better.

6. Oh, dessert. Chinese don’t have a tradition of eating dessert. Because desserts are too sweet, often people balance it with something bitter, such as coffee. To have coffee, some have sugar, some have cream, some have vanilla, etc. Life just gets so exponentially complex from there! We just drink tea! Green leaves and hot water. That’s it. You can drink that thing for hours and sit there, talk about food, stock market, a book, or simply gossip about something or someone. Imagine drinking 10 cups of coffee in a row! You can easily drink 10 cups of tea without upsetting your stomach. Chinese view with caution the extreme sweetness and bitterness as shown in dessert and coffee. We value a more moderate approach to sweetness. Good things are good because there is something not so good in them to show how good the good things are (quite a mouthful). Happiness comes after we have gone through and overcome difficulties. You don’t just take sweetness in its entirety and purity such as a chocolate cake! In terms of thinking, as a general rule, we traditionally value what we call “zhong yong zhi dao” (the way of the golden balance). These are all changing now with people adopting extreme left or right positions. I like American dessert more and more, yet I am not giving up my green tea! No sir!

I’ll add more in the future. I am done with today’s share of gross generalizations.

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22 Responses to “Learning about the Chinese Mind through Chinese Food”

  1. my mother Says:

    Hey berlinf,

    I wonder if you can likewise learn about the mind of an ABC through the type of Chinese food you find in the states? 😉

  2. TonyP4 Says:

    * When you do not gain any weight in 18 years, most likely it is due to the good genes of Chinese women.

    * Western food preparation is a science while Chinese’s is an art.

    * The cooking utensil is the basic wok. Chop sticks and bowl are good combination tools to move the rice. Unless you’re a kung fu master, you cannot kill other with chop sticks, but easily with knives. For that, Chinese is less barbarian. 🙂

    * Chinese are not that rich compared to the west. I joked with my friend the 16 oz steak he was eating (our company paid for it) could feed the entire village in China.

    * I prefer small pieces of meat and vegetable so I do not have to do any work.

    * Most deserts make you fat. Unless the end of the world is coming (like 2012), I try to skip deserts.

  3. S.K. Cheung Says:

    Nice post. Makes me want to go eat something.

    I would add that such fundamental differences extend to how the food is consumed. In a western tradition, everyone orders their own meal, and gets served individually. In Chinese tradition, you order for the whole table, and everyone shares everything. More of that self vs group dynamic, if one chooses to view it that way.

    On the jack-of-all-trades vs ultra specialized front, this also applies to the dinner table. As fancy as you want to get in a Chinese restaurant, you get chopsticks and maybe a ceramic spoon, a plate and a bowl. In a western restaurant, you’ve got your bread plate and its own butter knife, fork and knife for the appy/salad, separate fork and knife for the main, then a fork and spoon at the top of the place setting for dessert. I guess tradition is what it is.

    But you know what, I need my chocolate cake. And I’d be happy to eat it with chopsticks if I had to.

  4. berlinf Says:

    Most ABC kids eat school lunches which are American, so I am afraid we are losing them to the American way. Many parents here complain that they went to a Chinese party with so many wonderful dishes, yet the kids ask them to stop at MacDonald to get a hamburger.

  5. Antonio Napoli Says:

    You wrote :

    “I noticed that the Chinese food and Chinese thinking has a lot to do with each other”

    this is pretty obvious…
    It is true for any country has a long history and tradition

  6. Jocelyn Says:

    berlinf, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Chinese food is such an important part of the culture, and it’s easy to see how the mindset is reflected in it.

    I’m not sure if I can add anything more to your ideas, but I will say that my Chinese husband’s emotional mindset is largely reflected by how good (or not) the food has been in our home. As I have learned to cook some of his “comfort foods,” I’ve watched him become an even happier guy.

  7. Bridge Says:

    Hey, why has no one mentioned anything about the naming of the Chinese food? Some of them are really artistic… while some are just crazy…. I came across one dish in a restaurant and its name on the menu is ‘The first night of a virgin’. Can anyone take a guess on what the actual dish is?

  8. kui Says:

    No idea. Just tell us, would you?

  9. Rhan Says:

    I did put in 2 minutes to think but my answer may ruin this beautifully written article. Btw, does the saying of northerner take noodle and southerner take rice still valid today?

  10. Berlin Says:

    @Tony Art vs. Science, good one! I agree that is generally the difference in food preparations.

    @Antonio I didn’t promise you profound truths to start with 🙂

    @Jocelyn Glad you like it. Maybe you can tell us your perspective and your experience with Chinese food as a wife of a Chinese. I’m really curious to read that.

    @Bridge The naming of Chinese food deserve a post all in itself. And table manners, which I only slightly mentioned in this post. I have no idea what “first night of virgin” is. Many food names in China are indeed crazy. I once was attracted by the name of “Golden Years” (花样年华)by a restaurant and I ordered it and it turned out to be a cold dish made of some noodles, sliced carrots, green pepper etc. It is rather colorful to look at but it tasted so awful that I can still remember it today. I remember one movie in which Chairman Mao and Jiang Kai-shek was having dinner together in the Chongqing negotiations. One of the dishes served was hot soup over crispy rice (when it makes a sizzling sound when the soup is poured over the crispy rice). Chairman Mao said: Let’s call it thunder on a plain! Jiang Kai-shek said: How about the Bombing of Hiroshima?

  11. K Says:

    As to point 2, I would be extremely cautious about extrapolating Westerners’ preference for large pieces of meat, vegetables et cetera versus Chinese peoples’ appreciation for smaller, bite-size chunks of food into a theory about either side’s holistic thinking (or lack thereof). Surely, this is due to Westerners traditionally using forks and knives while Chinese people use chopsticks, as the ability to cut food directly on your plate means that food doesn’t have to be cut by the chef into small pieces. (One of the things I really miss when in China is rare meat: cutting meat to be eaten by chopsticks means that meat is either raw or cooked, with no gray (pink?) area.)

    Additionally, I think there’s definitely an element of personal preference on both sides of this metaphor. When eating [Western] food, I like to cut off a piece of beef, pile on some mashed potatoes and add some broccoli, mixing everything together in my mouth, whereas a friend of mine will separate everything—even it has been cooked together, as in Shepherd’s Pie–and eat the components of a meal one by one. Does this mean that I am a “big picture” person whereas my friend concentrates on the details? Couldn’t say. Still, I think while the rest of the post is pretty insightful, the similarities between these two trends in thinking and cooking are coincidental. Also, I can’t think of any American I know (other than my friend) who doesn’t like stir-fry!

    And finally, as to point 5 about condiments: in my experience, Chinese restaurants put at least as many flavorings on the table as American restaurants do. In the West, most restaurants will have salt and pepper. In China, it’s unusual to see either of these things on a table, but there will almost always be 紅油 (chili infused oil) and vinegar, and often there will be soy are other sauces as well. The difference in 調料 is not one of quantity, but rather one of content. (I will concede, however, that average American food is less flavorful than average Chinese food–to our detriment.)

    Interesting viewpoint. While there are obviously large gulfs between the traditional Chinese and traditional American ways of thinking, I’d never thought to compare the two. Very intriguing!

  12. berlinf Says:

    k, I have to acknowledge that there is a certain limit to the use of analogy, and more so to generalizations. But I am rather convinced that the Chinese mind is more holistic as that is shaped by our language as I discussed in an earlier post in which I discussed how we use the a central concept to unite similar objects, rather than using distinct words that bares no relation with each other. For instance, for “cars”, “trains”, “bicycles”, “vans”, “pickup trucks”, we all have a central word called “che” (vehicle) to identify it. That’s why I say that when we think we start from the forest and move on to the trees only later.

  13. TonyP4 Says:

    Nice, interesting post. Hope have this kind of topic more often for a change.

    In US, we have about the same kind of food in most regions – thanks to the food chains that we do not have too much surprises. Chinese food is quite different and varied from region to region. Both have its merits.

  14. wuming Says:

    For instance, for “cars”, “trains”, “bicycles”, “vans”, “pickup trucks”, we all have a central word called “che” (vehicle) to identify it. That’s why I say that when we think we start from the forest and move on to the trees only later.

    I can actually draw the opposite conclusion from your example. The linguistic unit of “zi” is actually smaller than an English “word”. As student, we learn what a “che” means by the examples of “zi xing che”, “qi che” and “huo che”, where “self-propelled”, “gas-propelled” and “stream-propelled” are concepts that are independent from the concept of vehicle. Therefore Chinese in this case is more analytical language, right?

  15. Raj Says:


    I was interested by your first point about the chaotic nature of Chinese “recipes” not being a problem for Chinese people because they can deal with that instinctively. I say that because I’m always told by Chinese nationalists/anti-democratic types that Chinese people relish order and certainty, so democracy wouldn’t work/be desirable.

    If they have been able to ad-lib food for centuries/millenia maybe they can cope with uncertainty in politics too, despite what the naysayers might assert.


    In US, we have about the same kind of food in most regions – thanks to the food chains that we do not have too much surprises. Chinese food is quite different and varied from region to region. Both have its merits.

    Do you mean that generally the food is the same or that the same sort of food is available everywhere? With the spread of chain restaurants I’d say the latter is increasingly the case in China, whereas the former doesn’t seem correct to me with the variation of American cooking.

  16. Berlin Says:

    @wuming, I see “che” (a “zi”, not a “ci”) as a unifying element that helps you to identify all similar objects going into the categories. That’s what I mean by a holistic focus, or probably I should change my wording to a more “collectivist” focus.

    This is of course a general rule, and exceptions abound. For instance, Chinese language can be highly complex in our distinctions of a certain concepts. For instance, the word cousin can be translated into 8 words in Chinese (depending on whether the cousin is older or younger than the speaker, male or female, on the mother or father’s side.) In this case, English is very vague. As I said, my conclusions above are meant to be seen as generalizations, except that sometimes generalizations can be helpful.

  17. Berlin Says:

    @Raj “I was interested by your first point about the chaotic nature of Chinese “recipes” not being a problem for Chinese people because they can deal with that instinctively. I say that because I’m always told by Chinese nationalists/anti-democratic types that Chinese people relish order and certainty, so democracy wouldn’t work/be desirable.”

    I do not claim responsibility for what “Chinese nationalists/anti-democracy types” may or may not say. But I certainly do not think of democracy as being equivalent to chaos and uncertainty.

    In theory, a “harmonious society” as China is trying to become, should in theory be one that encompasses various elements, as traditionally we learn from Confucius that “The gentlemen disagree in friendship. The little people agree in hostility.” (君子和而不同,小人同而不和)which probably translates into the western thinking about the disagree without being disagreeable. I guess that in spite of ideological differences, people are not all that different in the way we think how things should be done. Yet we all fall short of such ideals. “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” ( Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut)

  18. Jocelyn Says:


    Sorry for getting back to you so late…

    You asked about my experience w/ Chinese food as the wife of a Chinese? One thing I’ve learned — and hope this isn’t too much of a digression — is that food is a way to communicate your feelings and show you care in China. Those lavish dinners at my inlaws’ house are one of their ways of saying they love us. And, from this realization, I learned that food was important to building up my relationship with my husband — the more I cooked those tasty, “comfort” foods from my husband’s childhood, the happier he was (making him that much easier to live with). I keep our kitchen stocked with many of his favorite things — even things I would never eat — because I know it means a “harmonious household”. 😉

  19. TonyP4 Says:

    When your in-laws or some friends spend a lot of time in preparing food (whether the results are good or bad), they express their love via the food. It reminds me of the movie Drink, Food, Man and Woman by Ang Lee. I never complaint on food I eat in my friends’ or relatives’ houses and sometimes lie praising how great the food is.

  20. Berlin Says:

    Jocelyn, I am amazed that you could learn to cook “comfort foods” for your husband. That definitely makes a harmonious family.

  21. Seamless web Says:

    Thank For post.Really Good…

  22. Magnus Says:

    What a great post. I printed it out and I finally sat down and read it. What a great explanation of the differences in cultures.
    About number 1, I think that for a Chinese person making a “western style” Chinese cookbook would be a maddening process that you might not read in the introduction. I have a few of those recipe books and I’ll have to look to see how maddening the process is.
    About number 3: fascinating story. really points to the clutter in American kitchens. We make fun of gadgets but still continue to buy them off “SEEN ON TV” ads.
    Number 6: love the idea of a dessert and coffee… we just drink tea. So simple.

    I’d love to read more of what’s going on in the Chinese mind!

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