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  • Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China by Roel Sterckx
  • Chung Hao Kuo
Roel Sterckx, Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 248 pp. $101.

Each ancient civilization launched and then evolved its unique philosophies and quotidian worldviews that helped determine its historical development in the world, and Chinese civilization is no exception. As illustrated by such common phrases and proverbs as "Have you eaten?" and "Eating is as important as an emperor," both of which serve as greetings among ordinary people in their daily life, Chinese civilization evolved in ways that are deeply associated with the significance of Chinese food, especially early in its history. Roel Sterckx has been a pioneer in exploring the intriguing business of how Chinese food has affected the evolution of Chinese civilization (see, e.g., Sterckx 2005). His body of work is a polished accomplishment stemming from his many years spent studying food in early China.

In the introduction of his book Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China, Sterckx argues that both foodstuffs and dietary practices in early China offer contemporary researchers multiple points of insight into food's significance to ancient Chinese philosophy, sacrifice, and sagehood. To explore these topics, Sterckx examines both "sacrificial food" and "sacrificial religion," whose close correlation encouraged Chinese people to build up their sensory experiences as a means of grasping the spiritual world. In fact, the distinctly personal nature of sensory experiences helped Chinese pursue higher levels of spiritual perceptions in matters ranging from individual self-cultivation and the practice of morality to governance and the righteousness of rulers.

The body of Sterckx's book, in addition to its introduction and conclusion, consists of five chapters, each exploring a specific topic. In chapter 1, "Customs and Cuisine," Sterckx emphasizes how Chinese (specifically rulers and the monarchy) took advantage of "food taxonomy" to build up social customs as well as political authority that would facilitate governance of the land. For ordinary people, vegetable eating symbolized the frugality that was written about in literary works, whereas meat eating, which was uncommon in early China, symbolized a respectable dietary practice for the elderly. Moreover, the perceptions of "five flavors" (sour, sweet, bitter, pungent, and [End Page 217] salty) were spelled out in the theoretical terms and then correlated with the "five elements" (metal, water, wood, fire, and earth) to become a basic dietary principle among Chinese. In addition, food prohibitions emerged in society, enjoining people to eat balanced meals, to abstain from dietary overindulgence, and to pursue longevity through diet. In short, this chapter examines the logics of food taxonomy insofar as they helped establish social orders as well as social values in early China.

In chapter 2, "Cooking the World," the author explores food and cooking languages in association with values and morality. Referring to a butchered ox, Sterckx stresses that the emphasis on balance and symmetry in butchery skills symbolized individual self-cultivation and, perhaps more abstractly, the maintenance of national governing. Another case concerns the well-known cook Yi-Yin, whose culinary skills enabled him to transform raw ingredients into refined and nutritional dishes for human beings. The last case concerns Yi-Ya, a cook well known for his loyalty to the leaders, as he even butchered his son in order to prepare a special meal for a powerful lord. In this chapter, Sterckx stresses not just cooks but also perceptions of food. The understanding of "cosmic dining" in early China, for example, rested on rulers' dietary practices, including dining schedules, dietary moderation, and dining with music in pursuit of mental calmness. In short, this chapter explains to the readers that culinary languages and behaviors in early China to a large extent refer to the search for harmony in well-balanced cosmic orders.

In chapter 3, "Sacrifice and Sense," Sterckx stresses how the significance of "food offering" was key to the understanding that people in early China had of the spiritual world. In general, sacrificial food offerings in ancient civilizations were very common, but their functioning varied among civilizations. In terms of early China, the governing class held ceremonial food offerings to create a collective memory and social congregation. Many...


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