Liu Xiling (1848?1923), Rustic Cuisine, 19th-century.

A Matter of Taste: Savouring Chinese Art

How does consuming a hamburger compare to nimbly using chopsticks to ingest rice? Well I’d say it’s no different than comparing the cover of a Flaming Lips album to an austere pagoda.

In China as in many cultures, food is an artful and deeply social practice, the preparation, ingredients used, and presentation act like an umbilical cord to the beating heart of Chinese philosophy, ancient tradition, and generations of social relations. Art and cuisine are inherently cultural, why else would Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can be a national icon of the rebellious sixties? Why else would the main searches on TripAdvisor be related to finding delicious, authentic local cuisine when experiencing a new country?

For this reason, the undeniable intersection of art and archaeology, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology is opening its exhibition titled “Tasting China: Images of Food in Chinese Art,” starting on 13 October 2015.

Liu Xiling (1848?1923), Rustic Cuisine, 19th-century.
Liu Xiling (1848?1923), Rustic Cuisine, 19th-century.

In the above image titled Rustic Cuisine, the purity of the simple brush technique suggests the expressive motion of calligraphy in which every movement of the brush is meant to be limited and precise. What is absent from this representation also hints at the philosophical proverb of Confucius in which he famously said: “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen.  And he allows no knives on his table.” No knives here, either.

The Chinese culture neglects the violent stabbing of forks or serrating of knives in favour of chopsticks, an instrument that’s a mere 5,000 years old.  The mastery of chopsticks marks civilization’s departure from the primitive past, from a time when bare hands were the instruments. The fact that chopsticks have maintained their dominance for 5,000 years in such a geographically vast and diverse culture speaks impressively to the immense reverence for tradition.

These chopsticks, pictured below, are made of bamboo, a renowned symbol of virtue and traditional Chinese values. Bamboo has long been viewed as an example of the harmony between nature and human beings, a straight, sturdy plant that is also idealized for its resoluteness and honour.

Chopstick made of bamboo, 1933. The British Museum.
Chopstick made of bamboo, 1933. The British Museum.

Both art and food are uniquely human experiences, to be savoured, individualized, absorbed, and expressed.  If you were to paint your lunch, what would it say about you?

To learn more about Chinese art, be sure to pick up Parkstone’s Chinese Art and Chinese Porcelain.

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