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9 Confucius Quotes on Eating Well

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The wisdom of Confucius helped establish traditional Chinese culture. Back in 500 B.C., when Confucius traversed China writing and teaching, there was almost no established guidance for living well. The principles that he laid down became the foundation for proper conduct throughout Asia. Few people have impacted the world as deeply as Confucius. 

Confucius felt that food was a pillar of the state alongside the army and the people’s trust. A hungry population is rebellious and good food makes a healthy productive populace. He understood that acquiring, preparing, and eating food dominated the lives of most people. In fact his guidance for food culture extends far beyond taste and health. He wrote extensively both on topics as focused as dinner table etiquette and as wide as the role of cuisine in nation-building.

Confucius quotes
Confucius ©Weiming Xie/Shutterstock.com

Some of his precepts are very specific, like always chopping up food so that only chopsticks are needed at the table and no one but the chef needs a knife. Other points are broad, like the importance of eating with friends. At the heart of it all, though, is a focus on what today we call mindfulness in this essential and joyous human need. Below are nine of our favourite bits of Confucian quotes about food. 

Confucius Quotes 1: Food can never be too clean, and meat can never be sliced too thin. (食不厭精,膾不厭細)

Confucius reminds us that cleanliness is the key to good health, and there is no such thing as being too clean. Before modern gadgets, when it came to slicing meat, a chef had to practice and become skilled with a knife. Thin meat shows the talent of the chef, and it also ensures the meat is well cooked, easy to eat, and fresh at the time of preparation.

Steamed pork leg_Confucius quotes
©Tiana WANG/Magnifissance

Confucius Quotes 2: Don’t speak while eating (食不言,寢不語)

Most people seem to follow this one these days, but mainly just to be polite.Parents frequently remind their children not to talk with their mouths full. Confucius, however, wrote that the practice of talking at the table is actually bad for digestion. Whatever the motivation, it’s important to slow down, chew well, and swallow before speaking.

Confucius Quotes 3: Pursue harmony between food elements(不得其醬,不食)

Great taste doesn’t come from the individual elements in a meal, rather it comes from the blending of ingredients. Different foods in meals must be compatible. The blending of food results in harmony, a core part of Confucian philosophy. Spices, sweets, and savoury ingredients need to balance each other and be joined properly.

Rattan Peppercorn and Red Chili Chicken_Confucius quotes
©Tiana WANG/Magnifissance

Confucius Quotes 4: Be considerate of guests (especially those who are suffering) (子食於有喪者之側,未嘗飽也。)

Eat less than your share when sharing a table with one who has recently lost a family member. A person in mourning will not eat their share either, so eating less in their company is mindful of the loss. It’s a display of compassion and a form of sharing the grief. Eating together happens in times of joy and in times of sorrow, and appetites can be moderated to suit the circumstances and the feelings of those sharing a meal.

Confucius Quotes 5: Eat fresh and local (不時,不食)

Confucius advises against eating food out of season. This sounds like contemporary knowledge, but here it is from the mind of someone living 2,500 years ago. Confucius felt that profit motives and large-scale operations would result in depreciation of food quality, and it turns out that he was remarkably prescient. Eating fresh, local, and in-season food remains the best way to ensure quality.

Eat fresh and local
©Francesco Gallarotti/Unsplash

Confucius Quotes 6: Allow older diners to leave the table first (鄉人飲酒,扙者出,斯出矣。)

This one is very specific, a little impractical, and not widely practiced anymore. However, it has the same roots as rules about asking to be excused in Western culture and other aspects of deferring to elders in Confucian philosophy.  Being mindful toward and appreciative of someone who has lived a long life is good for everyone. It is an acknowledgement of the dedicated efforts of older generations and a reminder of our common destiny.

Confucius Quotes 7: Know the origin of your food 食饐而餲,鱼馁而肉败,不食 .

Eating is such an intimate, crucial act that we need to know where our food comes from. Confucius really believed in local trade and organic farming.  Today’s food can be altered to look clean and inviting in the package, while actually being produced from lands with harsh chemicals and machines. Knowing the source increases human connection to the food, and helps to ensure its quality.

Know the origin of your food
©Jonathan Kemper/Unsplash

Confucius Quotes 8: Meat should be eaten in moderation(君子食無求飽,居無求安)

Even though Buddhism was rising in popularity during Confucius’s time, and many people were becoming vegetarian, he knew that telling everyone to abstain from meat was futile and also not necessarily what was best.. So he preached moderation instead. He said the same for alcohol but, apparently, Confucius liked to drink. He thought you really couldn’t drink too often, just too much at once, and he encouraged people not to lose control.

Confucius Quotes 9: Stop eating when seven tenths full(食無求飽,節食安胃

Controlling portions promotes longevity, and making a practice of not getting stuffed has psychological benefits that extend beyond the diet. It is an important exercise in self-control as well as having digestive benefits.

Magnifissance recipe
©Tiana WANG/Magnifissance

The teachings of Confucius may sound to us like common sense, but it is important to remember that he wrote all of this 2,500 years ago, and he was trying to establish a new culture at a time of primitive development. He cared for the people he was trying to influence, and he tried to lead by example. 

These rules aren’t just about eating better food. The beauty of Confucianism lies in how he guides people to live better holistically through small choices in daily life. His principles build character and community while also promoting physical health.

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