34. Nutrition

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot.

Daoist dietetics are also making an impact beyond mountain resorts, nutrition and food safety becoming an ever more important issue in today’s China.

Westernization and advanced technology, while increasing food production and encouraging a more lavish lifestyle, also brought the tendency to alter and denature foodstuffs. The most blatant examples include the polishing of rice and bleaching of wheat flour, which began in China in the late 19th century. Similarly, modern bio-engineering often reduces the nutritional value of basic staples and encourages the consumption of empty calories, leading to new and increased health problems, such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.

Not immune to these development, the Chinese have altered their eating habits, consuming fewer fruits and vegetables and more items containing fat, flour, and sugar: soft drinks, candy, cookies, hamburgers, and the like. This situation is exacerbated by issues of food safety, compromised not only due to pollution, pesticides, and antibiotics, but often caused intentionally by unscrupulous manipulators. A prime example is the 2008 melamine scandal, when tainted baby food harmed and even killed infants. Overall, people today are highly concerned about where their food is coming from, and more and more consumers insist on organic production.

Traditional Daoist dietetics, with their high respect for nature and profound awareness of the impact different foods have on the energy system of the body, can make an important contribution to healthy living. Not only do Daoists rely dominantly on vegetables—monastics eating vegetarian—but they also emphasize purity in preparation and utensils, avoid overly stimulating and heating foods, such as onions, garlic, and ginger, and match food choice and intake to seasonal change. Rather than according to content such as carbohydrates and protein, they classify foods by their energetic impact. Thus, yang foods are stimulating, warming, and qi-enhancing; they include apricots, barley, cherries, pineapple, plums, celery, and coconut. Yin foods are calming, cooling and qi-settling; examples are bananas, tofu, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, mushrooms, pumpkins, tomatoes, and watermelon. Neutral foods are neither yin nor yang but generally qi-maintaining; here we have apples, cabbage, carrots, papaya, grain, beans, and eggs.

These properties, moreover, are associated with the four seasons, with people’s ages, and with particular mental states. Thus, foods eaten in spring should be stimulating and neutral; in summer, they should have a calming and cooling effect. By the same token, young people tend to be warmer, more energetic, and more yang in quality, needing calming and cooling foods, while older folks have increased yin and tend to like meats, stews, and warming dishes. A lack of confidence, moreover, can be alleviated by consuming more yang food, while tendencies toward aggression will benefit from a mellowing yin-rich diet.

Organic, vegetarian restaurants that take these aspects into consideration are multiplying and becoming widely popular today, often run by Buddhists but increasingly also by Daoists. In addition, some Daoists also run restaurants specializing in medicated dishes (yaoshan 藥膳) that bolster and tonify qi as part of nutritional therapy or personal self-care. These dishes, geared to individual conditions, balance yin and yang, strengthen the constitution, prevent and treat diseases, and lengthen life. Many restaurants cater particularly to middle-aged men, helping them to supplement qi, prevent the depletion of sexual essence, and generally improve the functioning of their organs. Dishes include regular foodstuffs, supplemented by qi-enhancing herbs, such as ginseng, astralagus, schisandra, chrysanthemum, fennel, hawthorn, and Asian cornelian cherry, all part and parcel of the Daoist apothecary.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpWa3Xvalcw


Read: Anderson, Eugene N., and Marja L. Anderson. 1977. “Modern China: South.” In Food in Chinese Culture, edited by K. C. Chang, 317-82. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kohn, Livia. 2010. Daoist Dietetics: Food for Immortality. Dunedin, Fla.: Three Pines Press.


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