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Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China (review)
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Roel Sterckx has successively tackled an important yet long ignored issue in the study of ancient Chinese culture: the metaphorical use of culinary art and vocabularies. Ancient Chinese authors tended to present philosophical positions by way of metaphors and allegories instead of abstract argumentation. Zhuangzi was a master in this regard. Each of his stories gestures to an underlying philosophical point. The famous story of Cook Ding is a good example. The story relates Cook Ding’s superlative skill at dissecting cattle, which stemmed from his thorough understanding of the animal’s body. By recognizing how the cow’s muscles, sinews, and joints intertwined and by perceiving the cavities between them, he was able to pass his cleaver through the cavities and dismantle the entire structure without hitting the bones. After nineteen years, his cleaver was still as sharp as one fresh from the grindstone. We all know that Zhuangzi is not really talking about culinary art, but about the importance of searching and following the Way. The story is only a metaphor. Similarly, Laozi’s terse one-liner “governing a large state is like cooking a small fish” is not about cooking, but about mastering the way of governing.

What Sterckx does in this book is to draw our attention to the obvious fact—perhaps so obvious that few bothered to explore it—that ancient Chinese authors were attracted to the idea of using food-related metaphors to convey all sorts of philosophical and religious ideas. Many of the important discourses on personal cultivation, wise governance, and human-divine interactions were cast in culinary terms. With copious documentation, Sterckx illustrates the precise development of these themes by ancient Chinese authors. His ultimate goal is to demonstrate that ancient Chinese society “was a world in which food culture was inscribed with intricate moral and social codes, a universe in which eating and feeding supplied metaphors for social and political thought and helped shape expectations of what it meant to conduct oneself as an exemplary person” (p. 204).

Sterckx begins by investigating imagery and metaphors associated with food and cooking. In particular, he discusses the concept of five flavors (wuwei 五味) and its relationship with the Five Phases (wuxing 五行), food taboos, and the significance of wine and stew as symbols of civilization. Sterckx devotes considerable attention to the subject of meat consumption, in light of the important role that it played in the diet of the upper class and in ritual sacrifice to the spirits. Questions about whether, how, and when to consume meat absorbed the attention of ancient Chinese thinkers, who saw meat as a symbol of wealth and status, and thus as an important marker of social class and moral conduct. This has much resonance in the life and teaching of Confucius, which Sterckx aptly discusses in detail and succinctly summarizes: “Attitudes toward food are said to reflect an accomplished gentleman’s sense for hierarchy, ritual propriety, altruism, and above all, his moral integrity” (p. 47).

In Chapter 2, Sterckx proceeds to discuss the ways in which Warring States and Han authors utilized culinary imagery and vocabulary to formulate their philosophies. The story of Cook Ding receives sustained attention here. Beyond the usual interpretation of the story as an anecdote about living in accordance with the Dao, Sterckx emphasizes the role of cooks and butchers as sage-advisors, the image of cooking and butchering as a metaphor for government, and the idea of cooking as an act of self-cultivation. Sterckx makes his points with caution based on thorough readings of the available texts. There are stories about cooks and butchers (such as Yi Yin and Yi Ya) who obtained high positions at court because they were perceived as paragons of self-cultivation. Yet, Sterckx reminds us that in the real world, butchery and cooking were not necessarily respectable professions.

In Chapter 3, Sterckx turns to the issue of sacrifice and human sensory functions, such as smelling and tasting. He observes a similarity between the principle of feeding the spirits and that of self-cultivation. The principle in question was that of transcendental harmony, in the sense that the flavors appealing to the spirits were not necessarily those normally appreciated...

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