To the people, food is heaven (民以食為天)


This saying, 民以食為天 mín yǐ shí wéi tiān, is a good indication that the Chinese are pretty serious about food and eating. I have written previously on this blog about food terminology in the Chinese language. Suffice it to say, the Chinese love to eat, and when they are not eating,  they are talking about eating, or planning what to eat next. China is truly one of the great cuisines of the world, and one of the ancient cuisines that has been around for a very long time. In fact, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) one could find more than 200 dishes served at a banquet, including 41 dishes of fish, shrimp, snails, pork, goose, duck mutton, pideon, etc., 42 dishes of fruits and sweetmeats, 20 dishes of vegetables, 9 of boiled rice, 29 dishes of dried fish, 17 different drinks, 19 kinds of pies, and 57 desserts. In the capitol city of of Hangzhou you could find 18 different kinds of beans and soya beans, 9 kinds of rice, 11 kinds of apricots, 8 of pears, and so on.  (See Gernet, Jacques. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276). Think about what was going on in Europe during this time.

In China’s ancient book of poetry, The Book of Songs (shī jīng 詩經), published around the 5th century B.C., there are 130 references to plants, 200 to animals, 19 fishes, 38 types of poultry, the seasonings mentioned include salt, honey, malt sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and pepper. By contrast, the Bible only mentions 29 food items.

There are at least three reasons we can contribute to China’s long obsession with food. One, there has been a very long, sustained civilization. In other words, there has been a long time to develop the many food sources. Two, geographical diversity. China is a land of many geographical features, from desert to jungle to fertile river plains. And three, for much of China’s history the people have been threatened with famine. This has resulted in the Chinese being very creative with all food sources.

三大菜系 sān dà cài xì: Three General Food Categories


The first and biggest category is Han/Man 汉/满 which refers to the Han or Chinese majority and Manchurian (the rulers of the last imperial dynasty. This accounts for the vast majority of all Chinese food in China.


The second category is Muslim or kosher cuisine, referred to in Chinese as 清真, and the third category is vegetarianism 素 which is often associated with Buddhism.


八大菜系 bā dà cài xì: The Eight Culinary Tradtions

Chinese food, represented under the broad Han/Man category is often broken down into eight distinct culinary categories, which are generally divided by geographical region.

1. Chuān     川  Sichuan

2. Huì          徽  Anhui

3. Lǔ           鲁  Shandong

4. Mín         闽  Fujian

5. Sū           苏  Jiangsu

6. Yuè         粤  Guangdong,   Hong Kong

7.Xiāng       湘  Hunan

8. Zhè          浙  Zhejiang

四大菜系 sì dà cài xì: The Four Major Culinary Traditions

This list can be further simplified into four main geographical areas that incorporate the eight ares listed above. They are:

Lǔ                    鲁  Northern China

Huáiyáng         淮扬  Eastern China

                        (Lower Yangtze River Basin, incl. Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui)

Chuān              川  Western China (Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan)

Yuè                  粤  Guangdong, Hong Kong

Northern Cuisine 鲁菜 lǔ cài (Shandong Cuisine)


• Wheat-based foods: noodles, steamed buns, fried flat breads

• Seasonings: garlic, chives, leeks, star anise, sweet plum sauces

• Poultry , especially duck, lamb, beef, pork








Eastern Cuisine 淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài (Jiangsu Cuisine)


• Land of fish and rice

• Light flavors that emphasize the natural flavor of the food; not too salty or sweet

• Famous for soy sauces, vinegars, and rice wines

• Stir-frying and steaming most common






Western Cuisine 川菜 chuān cài (Sichuan Cuisine)


• Land of abundance

• Liberal use of spice (chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns)

• Lots of garlic, ginger, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, pork, chicken






Southern Cuisine 粤菜 yuè cài (Guangdong/Cantonese Cuisine)


• China’s haute cuisine

• Tastes and techniques a blend of China and the West

• Light flavors; delicate, fresh, tender, crisp

• Known for roasted meats: suckling pig, duck, chicken, BBQ pork






16 thoughts on “To the people, food is heaven (民以食為天)

  1. Chinese people love and have an obsession with food. During Song Dynasty, there could be more than 200 dishes at a banquet.

  2. I feel like I could spend my whole life learning about (not to mention eating…) Chinese cuisine and still know very little relatively speaking. There’s just so much!

  3. I’ve grown up eating Chinese cuisines but I never knew that the different demographics impacted on the flavors and ingredients used in Chinese dishes. I think that Sichuan cuisine is my favorite because I love the explosive and bold flavors they use in their dishes. I’m from San Francisco and I am so grateful to have Chinatown just down the street, their culture and food is so exquisite and I’m happy I can experience it.

  4. I never knew that the Chinese had so many different dishes. What surprised me the most was how many dishes and desserts you could find at a banquet. Very interesting! This makes me want to go to China even more because I relate to the saying “To the people, food is heaven (民以食為天)”

  5. After I read this article I realize the food is really important to Chinese people. It has a very close relationship with real life with the people live in China. I learn from the article why the foods became meaningful to them. One of the reasons is that China has a good geographic condition to get developed in many varieties of food because the country possesses a large range of land condition from desert to fertile river plains.

  6. I love how the Chinese people make their food. I only ever grown up with just Panda Express around, which I know that was just fake Chinese food. Once my Chinese teacher invited me to her house, I was finally able to eat real Chinese food. It was so good that I wanted to eat more. The one food she made was Dumpling. It was so good. I would really like to try more Chinese food when I get to chance.

  7. This article was very interesting and in depth with regards to Chinese food. A few things I found to be particularly interesting included how the food is divided by region and religion, as well as how colorful and well put together many of the dishes appear to be. While the food being different in each area of the country makes sense given the availability of goods in the area, the break up of food styles by religion is something I did not take in to account (i.e. Muslim and Buddhist style dishes). In addition, I found the presentation and vibrancy of all the dishes shown to be exceptional. Given the spices and styles of cooking, most of the color is natural and dazzling, much different from what is seen in the United States today with very monotone fast food taking over the food industry. Finally, the artistry and time taken to design dishes such as the fish dish presented as a fish as wowing and mesmerizing to look at.

  8. Great article! It makes me want to travel back to China and experience more of the food culture. The relationship between food and people is very interesting and I like the three reasons you give for China’s long obsession with food. After traveling to Zhangjiajie (张家界市) I’ve experienced the strong relationship between food and people and also the frequent use of round dining tables which I feel is an important part of the Chinese dining culture.

  9. Ive eaten a lot of authentic chinese food, my dad being a chef in all. However looking at how many different dishes there actually are, it astounds me. My mouth is water just by looking at the pictures.

  10. I grew up eating some authentic Chinese food, but I never paid much attention to the different kinds of food they have in the 8 different regions.I have not had authentic Chinese food in a while, but based off of what you have shared, I would love to try Western Cuisine dishes from Sichuan and Southern Cuisine from Guangdong. I love the fact that there are so many different types of dishes from all over. Food is a really great way of expressing culture and all of the pictures make the food look so amazing! Thanks for sharing!

  11. The saying “Min Yi shi wei tian is a good indication that chinese citizens are super serious about food. It’s a love that chinese people love to do, no just chinese people but everybody and sometimes it’s even used as a greeting sometime. There is a lot of talk about food in china. In fact during the song dynasty you can find more than 200 types of dishes served at banquets. There are 3 different types of food categories in china, which is the manchurian type of food, than you have kosher and or muslim food, and than vegetarianism which is associated mostly to buddhism.

  12. I totally agree! Food is life. This post was making me hungry especially after seeing all the pictures with all the delicious foods. It was interesting to read about all the different cuisines in different regions in China. I am currently majoring in Chinese Language (Mandarin) and we recently had a lesson on cuisine and it’s interesting to dive deeper in the different flavors, specialties, and dishes in the different regions. China has so much history and it’s amazing to see that not only does the historical artifact and language hold so much history, but also the food and the recipes.

  13. 太好了! All of this food looks really good!!! I have had my fair share of some of these dishes at dim sum in my hometown in Arizona, but I would love to travel to China to experience the real thing! I had no idea that food was so important in Chinese culture. I learned about The Book of Songs from a Chinese Civilization class I took, we did not learn much about the content of the book. All of the food mentioned in The Book of Songs really shows how food in Chinese culture has stayed important throughout history!

  14. Before reading this article I was unaware that the Chinese were this serious about food and eating. This passion extends to Chinese literature where food is constantly featured in various forms. I thought it was especially interesting that the reasons behind the Chinese obsession with food has a lot to do with China’s geographical features. The fertile plains and longstanding civilization has enabled the Chinese to create many different types of plants.

  15. I have had some experince making Han style and Northern style chinese food thanks to a past chinese tutor. The time and effort that are put into these dishes can be strenuous, but the community you build is so worth it!

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