Confucius' Discourses on Eating (Food) -Esmond's Translations

Confucius was not only the founder of the philosophy of Confucianism, but he too was an advocate of a healthy lifestyle. His ‘eight don’ts of eating’, ‘limiting alcohol’, ‘limiting meat’ and ‘limiting ginger’ philosophies are proven to be correct in today’s context even though they were established by him over 2,000 years ago. His principles in eating can be summarized in nine main points below:
  •  Food can never be too clean, meat can never be sliced too thin -- his view on hygiene standards of food

“Food can never be too clean, meat can never be sliced too thin” refers to staple foods can never be kept to the best of standards (implying that there are always better methods of storing grains) and that meat can always go through finer methods of preparation. This principle reflects the emphasis Confucius had for food prepared in a hygienic manner – during the process of growing, harvesting and refining of grains, there will always be a high chance that the grains may be contaminated; hence by prewashing grains, removing any pests on them and cleaning them are necessary procedures in ensuring the high standards of food.


“Meat can never be sliced too thin” has a deeper meaning behind it regarding the overall cooking and preparation of meats and vegetables, dictating stringent methods and skills in their preparation least negative influences on their nutritive value and flavor.


  • Don’t eat food that has its color turned bad, don’t eat fish that is rotten. Don’t eat food that smells bad -- prevents gastro-intestinal problems

By citing food that is rotten is unfit for consumption tends to be different in color and reeking of a bad smell displays Confucius’ handling of food suitable for consumption. In reality, many gastro-intestinal related illnesses occur when food of poor quality and hygiene are consumed.


  • Don’t consume food that is not well cooked. Don’t eat when it is not time. Don’t eat food that is not well sliced. Don’t eat when the sauces and seasonings are not correctly prepared -- his view on how food should be cooked

Not consuming food that is not cooked thoroughly, when the time is not correct and when the seasonings are used poorly are points which place added stress on choices, skill, cooking methods and the use of seasonings during cooking. The Chinese have always found the importance of seasonings an important one, and that different foods have differing styles of cooking, hence the process of not cooking or slicing food properly can cause an overall loss in nutritive value and may even cause certain illnesses.


In addition, Confucius also mentioned that one ‘should not eat when it is not time’, which is also a scientifically based fact, for if one consumes fruits and vegetables that are available in season tend to be fresher and healthier; this is because during the transportation of fruits and vegetables of another growing season, the produce tends to be sprayed with large amounts of pesticides, fungicides to ensure their ‘freshness’, which may cause harm to the human body if it is not handled properly.


Confucius’ high standard for the usage of condiments shows that the ancients too linked the health of consumers to the use of condiments. Soy sauce not only brought about color and flavor to food, it too is the ideal condiment to dainty dishes, in addition to its high nutritive value and ease of digestion. The ancients also had a method of assigning a particular flavoring or condiment to different occasions, and it was rare if such an arrangement was not met.


  • Don’t eat dried meat and drink wine bought from the market -- for the greater good

Not consuming meat and wine bought from the market shows the wisdom Confucius had regarding the knowledge of the food’s origins. Since many traders then are largely motivated by profit to try such a sideline, their expectations of the food’s quality and origin may drop in such cases.


  • While meat may be in abundance, it should not make the bulk of a diet -- the need for accompaniment of food from plant origins

‘While meat may be in abundance, it should not make the bulk of a diet’ not only tackles the problem of the overconsumption of meat, but also the problem of relying on a solely vegetarian diet. The portion of meat in a diet should never override the amount of staple food (back then in ancient China, staple food choices varied), and there should be a reasonable accompaniments of other foods in a diet if one is to ensure a sufficient consumption of nutrients from animal food, benefitting health and promoting longevity alike in the new diet of today’s context. However, complete adherence to vegetarianism is also not encouraged as some food from animal sources is needed; hence the best approach is having a diet with correct portions of food from animal and plant origin.


  • Overindulgence in alcohol can only lead to disasters -- the cause being alcoholic poisoning (health problems)

An ‘overindulgence in alcohol can only lead to disasters’ affirms the importance alcoholic beverages play in the lives of the ancients as well as the fear the ancients have in the excessive consumption of alcohol. Alcohol (or wine, more specifically) is renowned for the good it provides to the human physiology, and minute amounts of wine drunk can bring about euphoric boosts, reduce blood pressure and improve overall blood circulation, improve the rate of breathing, whet one’s appetite and dispel tiredness. Consuming alcohol and potentially leading to disasters reflects the recognition Confucius gives to the overindulgence of alcohol – not only being drunk may lead one to commit immoral acts, but excessive consumption of alcohol may also cause blood poisoning and damaging one’s health in the end.


  • Not rejecting ginger dishes, but not overeating (ginger)-- least an increase in the body’s ‘heatiness’

The ancients advocated the consumption of ginger, hence the saying, ‘not rejecting ginger dishes, not overeating’. The saying displays the importance and effects ginger brought about to the ancients’ lives. Ginger has medicinal effects, has the ability toward off cold, increase one’s appetite, remove meaty odors and boost the body’s strength and effectiveness. However, one should also take note not to over consume ginger as it is a spicy food which may cause an overall increase in the body’s heatiness and bring about unwanted symptoms and illnesses.


  • Not speaking when eating -- least it leads to poor digestion of the meal

‘Not speaking when eating’ is a principle Confucius advocated during meal times. During mealtimes, if one is to laugh and speak when eating, the swallowing process will be hindered. Since digestion begins first begins in the mouth when the mechanical breakdown of food takes place during the chewing process, it is best for food to be chewed properly for ease of absorption.


Hence, by speaking and joking while eating can bring about undue excitement which sends about urgency signals to the entire digestive system, preventing a proper digestion and absorption of the food as a result.


  • Don’t eat for the sake of being bloated -- controlling food intake promotes longevity

The saying goes: “Eat to the point where you are seven tenths full”, doctors of today have already found concrete evidence that constantly being bloated may cause an unnecessary increase to the intestinal tract of the body, resulting in an incomplete and poor digestive process of the meal. Should such a trend continue, it may even cause blood movement near the intestines, and eventually the heart, brain and appendages to slacken, showing symptoms of a lack of blood movement resulting in poor health. Therefore Confucius’ propagation of the theory of not eating for the sake of being bloated shows the benefit of controlling one’s food intake to promote longevity when eating.