• Categories

  • Old Posts

  • Pages

  • Recent Comments

    Olympic war games… on A question of security?
    Olympic war games… on Bring ’em on
    Bring ‘em on… on A question of security?
    Yingying Xue on Why The Chinese Don’t Co…
    Why the Chinese don… on China, health and us.
  • Britain-e

  • Today’s visitors

  • Visitors since 2009.4.1

    wordpress stat
  • Pageloads since time immoral

    • 19,443 visitations

Why The Chinese Don’t Count Calories

A summary/report on a lecture given by the author Lorraine Clissold on her new book Why The Chinese Don’t Count Calories, posted by Fiona Lee on the CN Reviews blogsite.  Being all about food, this is very close to my heart. The essence of the book is that all traditional styles of eating are better than ‘dieting fads’; however as the author is better aquainted with Chinese cooking than other forms this is used to press home her message.

Lee sums up the contents of the lecture [and book?] under five headings –    

1 strong cultural and culinary identities –  Traditional cuisines pass on the collected food wisdom of a culture from generation to generation, and China is no different.  As scientists begin to learn more about nutrition and how nutrients work in tandem with each other, much of what is passed on in Chinese cuisine is backed up by modern nutrition.   The Chinese also talk about food as being determinative of a regional identity–like the strereotype of Sichuan people having fiery tempers because of all the spicy food they eat.  By way of contrast, in The Omnivore’s DilemmaMichael Pollanmakes the point that because Americans do not have a unifying food culture, Americans tend to be particularly vulnerable to savvy food marketers and diet fads (think Atkins, South Beach diet, etc).

Like all other traditional cuisines Chinese cooking is the accumulated mass of lore and common sense gathered over the last few thousand years.  Examination of any country which has a strong culture and adheres to its traditional forms of eating will show that the population is in a much more healthy state than that found in a country where traditional food has been replaced by diets concocted by nutritional ‘experts’.

2 vegetables, vegetables, vegatables – Chinese cuisines tend to make vegetables the star of the show, with meat as a flavouring or compliment. Part of this is because of historical patterns of consumption, until very recently the average Chinese person simply could not afford vast amounts of meat.  Contrast this to an American or British diet which relegates vegetables to limp supporting roles for meat.

The backbone of all the Chinese cuisines is vegetables and meat is used sparingly [this is not what would be found on the menu of Chinese restaurant in the USA or UK]. Originally this will not have been out of choice but simply a matter of economics; most Chinese people could not afford meat. This is also the reason the Chinese people eat everything which is eatable and throw nothing away – offal, wild animals, insects; if birds and other animals could eat these things and thrive then surely it was possible for people to find a way of doing the same.  This, of course is in complete contrast with the modern western diet which is based on large quantities of meat and factory ‘food’.

3 balance is the key – Clissold invokes the Chinese concepts of yin and yang. A properly balanced meal includes both yin foods (cooling foods) like cucumbers and lettuce and yang foods (heating foods) like spicy foods and meats.  If you eat too much of either one, then your body will become unbalanced. The Chinese way of eating family-style with shared plates also allow for greater opportunities to balance yin and yang versus a Western-style one-plate meal.

Every dietary ‘expert’, no matter what they are selling you, says a balanced diet is essential for healthy eating. This sounds grand but then what exactly is meant by ‘a balanced diet’.  Talk to a chef or expert on Chinese food and sooner or later the notion of yin and yang will come into the conversation, as it did with Clissold’s lecture. Talk to a Chinese peasant farmer and he/she will explain it in a different manner, but the end result will be much the same.  There is nothing random about the way foods are mixed together in Chinese cooking and, in my own experience, there is a lot of level-headed common sense and logic behind it. Balance is an essential feature of Chinese cooking, esoteric explanations are not.

4 eat all five flavours – On a related note, the five flavors are bitter, sweet, pungent, salty, and sour.  Each of these flavors addresses a specific part of the body.  For instance, a bitter food like bitter melon feeds the heart, while a sour food will nourish the liver.  Again, balance is important–if you eat too much of one flavor then you are only feeding one part of the body.

The point about the five flavours could have been rolled up under the previous heading as again Clissold emphasizes the need to eat a mixture of foods rather than homing in on a few favourites.

5 eat until you are full and enjoy your meal – This seems like a no-brainer, but Clissold is specifically addressing the different attitudes that Chinese and Americans and the British have regarding food.  While Americans and the British food cultures often incorporate guilt and unhealthy cycles of binging and purging, Chinese people just plain enjoy their food.  They talk about food all the time, and a common Chinese greeting is “Have you eaten yet?”  Make eating a pleasurable activity, instead of one that induces guilt.

On the face of it, this is more a matter of culture than cuisine, but no less important.  If you have faith in what you are eating there is no excuse to not enjoy it and no reason at all for counting calories and measuring everything as you go along.

All of which ties in with what Professor Michael Pollan has written and said about modern western eating.  That in the west we are the victims of a conspiracy, driven largely by the food manufacturers but also by dieticians, journalists and other ‘experts’.  Following any traditional cuisine from anywhere in the world will give you a better chance of good health than eating a western diet of meat and industrialised food, but to achieve that benefit it is essential to accept the whole package and not just a few favourite dishes from here and there.  For those who want to eat healthily but not necessarily follow the Chinese way, simply follow Pollan’s advice given in his book In Defense of Food, “Eat [real] food. Mainly plants. Not too much.”

Other related posts –

 A consuming passion,  

China, health and us, 

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,

Unhappy Meals.

Chongqing idioms

Here’s a superb snippet from a posting entitled ‘Funny Bits from Beijing Olympics’ found on the ‘Inside-Out China‘ blog. I’ve replaced the names to make the story a little more palatable, otherwise everything is as is.

Two Chongqing tourists Wu and Jin arrived at Beijing. On a bus, Wu looked at the map and said, “Lets first kill to Tiananmen, then Chairman Mao’s Memorial, then Zhongnanhai.” Jin answered, “Good, we’ll do what you said, kill all the way along this route.” (Chongqing idiom: “kill the way” 杀过去 means “go there.”) Alarmed Beijing passengers reported their dialogue to the police and the two Chongqing men were arrested as soon as they got off the bus.

After several hours interrogation and detention in the police station, they were released. Walking to the Tiananmen Square, the two men kept silent. They just looked at each other and sighed. At last, Wu said to Jin, “Why don’t you shoot?” Jin replied, “You didn’t shoot, why do I dare to shoot?” (Chongqing idiom: “shoot” 开腔 means “talk.”) Before they knew their arms were twisted by plain-clothe police.

A week later the two Chongqing men came out of the detention house. They looked at each other. Wu said, “This is good. My pockets are all empty. Where should we go to get some bullets?” (Chongqing idiom: “bullet” 子弹 means “money.”) The armed guards at the gate charged up and pinned them down on the ground.

Eventually, the Public Security Bureau issued a nationwide notice: “Chongqing idioms are strictly forbidden during the Beijing Olympics.”

Click here for the full post

. . . . and finally, for a translated joke, posted on the Black and White Cat blog, relating to the responses from different nations to Michael Phelps’ recent success click here.

China, health and us.

I came across two articles [vaguely] related to the 2008 Olympics, China and health. The first is an article from ‘The Guardian‘, ‘A cultural revolution to make London sit up and take notice‘ [2008.8.13], written by Marina Hyde, and the second is an item from the Reuters news agency, written by Belinda Goldsmith, ‘Armchair Olympics fuels obesity fears‘ [2008.8.15]. Although, on the face of it, they seem to be at odds with each other on closer inspection they are both correct.

The substance of the Reuters report is China is facing a [potential] obesity crisis. Work patterns have changed, average family spending power has risen and there is an increasing demand for western style foods so is it any surprise that some of the problems which have bedevilled western societies for some time are now cropping up in Eastern Asia. Over the last two decades fast food chains [MacDonald’s, KFC etc] have found their way into the middle kingdom and have been enjoying considerable success. They are quite expensive compared with normal run of the mill Chinese restaurants and dining there is something of a mark of status; children from middle class families are often taken to fast food eating places for birthdays or other treats, so the habit is established at a very early age. In the early days, shortly after Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the outside world, someone in the Politburo made the mistake of thinking that such chain restaurants represented the very highest in western cuisine and as result they were allowed in to China to trade. One hopes that after the mistake was discovered the culprit was taken away and sent on a suitable programme of re-education or at the very least, shot.

At present approximately 14% of Chinese adults are overweight and about 3% are obese [ref BMJ August2006], compared with 21% of men and 23% of women in the UK, but these figures do not paint the full picture. In China obesity is more likely to be found amongst younger people than the older generation, in the UK the reverse is true, the older the age range examined the more prevalent obesity becomes. This is good news for China as it shows the problem is a recent one, new problems are more easily remedied than those long standing, but not so good for the UK. Perhaps the most worrying thing for China, and for anyone else interested, is just how fast the population changed from one of the slimmest and most sveldte in the world to its present position. Another interesting twist to the picture is that in China obesity is more common amongst the middle classes while in the UK it occurs most frequently amongst unskilled working classes, although it must be stressed that no sector of society is free of the problem. In China most children have enough to eat but an increasing number of families have the spending power to buy more meat and to overfeed and having only one child per family, who is often tended by both parents and grandparents, the child, especially if it is a boy, is spoilt beyond belief. In the old days to be overweight was a status symbol, as it demonstrated your wealth and showed you did not have to work and this is now being re-echoed in modern China. Similar things have been happening in the UK for much longer, although one observation I would make is that with the UK, and other western nations, it is the coming of industrialised foods which has been our final undoing. Make of all that what you will but one thing which cannot be avoided is that we are faced with a health problem which, if unchecked, will become more than just a nuisance in the future.

The gist of The Guardian article is that the Chinese people take responsibility for looking after their own health and many are quite fanatical about staying fit and healthy. The main reason is quite simple; no-one else is going to do it for them.  There is no free health service in China to sort out all your ails.  The phenomenon observed by the writer Marina Hyde in her Guardian article is something which can be found all over China, in cities, towns, villages, taking place in parks, near lakes, in back-streets or on any convenient patch of ground. Reading her article the reader may be excused for thinking that only older people are involved, in fact at schools, colleges and universities morning exercise periods are as fixed a part of the day as the sunrise. Every morning at different places around the campus where I taught people would gather for exercise, sometimes individually but more often in groups. Almost every activity could be seen, taijiquan, sword dancing, fan-dancing, wushu, or just a routine of faithfully repeated exercises. All of which goes a long way towards persuading people that they have a responsibility to look after their health and giving them the means of doing just that. In the evenings, in the Peoples’ Square, similar things took place, although these were usually of a more social nature, line-dancing, ball-room dancing. At weekends, in the park, clusters of people would gather for more of the same thing, more practice on the communal exercise parks, Peking Opera, more ballroom dancing, group singing, traditional music – I was captivated and awed by the range of activities which the people would organise on their own initiative. When it comes to looking after themselves and their peers, and with the minimum of resources, the Chinese people win hands down.

As Ms. Hyde says, “Mao declared that the Chinese should civilise their spirits and be brutal on their bodies. “; he may not have been right about everything but this is one gem of wisdom which seems to ring true, judging by what can be seen in China and the contrast which can be found in “London: that far-off land where the increasingly familiar sight of mobility scooters outside pubs suggests that late-capitalism is either a mixed blessing, or bold initiatives are called-for in the run-up to the [2012] Games“

It is hard to see how a couple of weeks of elite sportsmanship in 2012 could alter the health of the British nation or have any impact on the growing obesity problem. As quickly as the 2012 games come they will go, and so will the euphoria and any nine-minute wonders that the government dreams up. If we are not to end up glued even more firmly to our remote controls and TV sets [see “Success will inspire us … to pick up the remote” in The Guardian, written by Emma John] drastic action is required. As stated in The Guardian, free swimming for the over-60s is a start, but measures need to go a little further and deeper than that. At the very least we could take a leaf from the PRC government and invest in low cost, low grade exercise equipment such as is found in Chinese towns and cities and restore playing fields to all schools; these are relatively superficial things but could be part of an overall scheme. Reaching out to the population with more funding for games and sports probably wouldn’t be a bad thing either, but relies on people being willing to respond. Are those most in need of shaping up most or least likely to respond? This is not just a matter of offering opportunity and providing the hardware and infrastructure but one of culture and attitude, neither of which are easy to influence. Or maybe we must turn to Chairman Mao once again and be more brutal with the population and give people no option other than to take responsibility for their own health or suffer the consequences.

You Know You’ve Been in China Too Long If…

Here, on the Seven Castles blogsite, is a list similar to one posted some time ago on this blog but more comprehensive with 130 criteria to help you sort out whether or not you have been in China for too long. Many of the conditions are old hat but some are quite delicious and raised a smile for me. Here are a few that applied to me before I finally made my escape . . .

4. You would rather wait on the street for an extra ten minutes for a small cab, than pay the extra for a big cab

7. You have absolutely no sense of traffic rules.

10. You no longer need tissues to blow your nose.

13. Other foreigners seem foreign to you.

21. You start cutting off large vehicles on your bicycle.

60. There are more things strapped to your cycle than you ever put in a car.

75. Forks feel funny.

76. The shortest distance between two points involves going through an alley.

119. You get offended when people admire your chopsticks skills.

Read the full list here.

Related posts – ‘You know you have been an expat in China too long when . . .

Getting your head around big numbers

Everything in China happens on a big scale. This should be no surprise when bearing in mind that one fifth of the world’s population live there, but this snippet of information usually slips past without our accepting or realising its implications until we come face to face with it.

Some of the most arresting features of the world are located in China, the Taklamakan Desert, one of the coldest and driest deserts on earth, the Karst Mountains, one of the most stunning scenic spots in existence, the Changjiang, the third longest river in the world [Yangtze to most of the world] but it is when we get down to looking at some of the man-made features that we really start to sit up and take notice. The trend started many centuries ago when the ruling dynasty decided to build a wall to keep out the uncouth louts from the North. It took a while to build the wall and it was redesigned, re-jigged, re-hashed, restored and rebuilt many times before we finally ended up with the Great Wall of China, a fortified structure extending 6,400 kms from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west. Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who brought all the little bits of China under one rule [bashing people around doesn’t quite equate with the word ‘unite’] liked to do things in a big way and planned and built the biggest mausoleum for himself, ever. And the trend has continued ever since. The world’s first long distance canal, the Grand Canal, coupling Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province with Beijing was started in the 5th century BC but was not extended into its modern day form until the 6th century AD. It is 1,770 kilometres long, contains 24 locks and is still in use for carrying commercial traffic. By comparison canals in Britain were not built in a serious way until the 17th century and the difference in scale is striking. For example the Grand Union Canal, connecting London with Birmingham, built in the 18th century, is 220 kilometres in length, contains 166 locks and on average is only 6 yards wide.

In more modern times the structures built in China are even more ambitious. Earlier this year, after less than 5 years construction work, the Hangzhou Bay Bridge 36 kilometres long, connecting the cities of Shanghai and Ningbo was completed and opened. This will be the world’s longest sea bridge and the second longest, overall. The Chinese people love tall buildings and they are to be found in every city, some are quite likeable, some grotesque and others just a little quirky as every architect tries to leave his mark on the world. Probably two of the best known modern buildings in China are both found in the Pudong district of Shanghai, the Oriental Pearl Tower, the third tallest TV tower in the world at 468 metres high, and the Jin Mao Dasha, the fifth tallest building in the world at 420 metres high, but one of the strangest is the new CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, still under construction – it looks as if it will never stay upright. While we are on the topic of tall buildings the very tallest in the world, at the moment, is the Taipei 101 building, built in Taiwan, with 101 floors – and also rated, by some, to be one of the ugliest buildings of the world, click here. When I first visited Shenzhen, a very modern city in the south of China, it had no subway or metro system, but when on returning only two years later a system was in use and was being extended further. Some things take a while to build, such as the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, but other things in China can be done on a scale and at speeds which most of us are just not familiar with.

One of the best known projects to be built is the Three Gorges Dam which was started in 1993 and will not be fully complete until 2011. The dam, which is 2,300 metres long, 101 metres high, 115 metres thick at the base will produce a lake 660 kilometres long, approximately 1.5 kilometres wide and holding 39.3 cubic kilometres of water. To do this more than 4 million people have been relocated so they don’t go under the water; many small towns and innumerable villages plus over 1,000 sites of archaeological or historical interest will be lost. But navigation through the Three Gorges on the Changjiang will be easier and the power station will generate 22,500 megawatts of electricity. Before we leave this item and glibly skip forward to the next wonder of the world, just imagine trying to persuade 4 million people to move house in the UK; that’s more than the population of Glasgow, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Manchester and Sheffield all rolled up together – think about it for a moment.

How many people in China live in big cities? Visiting any city in China you might be excused for thinking that everyone lives there, the streets are so busy with people, and most Chinese cities seem big by comparison with western counterparts but it isn’t quite as might be expected. The Chinese definition of a big city is a population centre of 5,000,000 people or more – and there are more than 10 of these in China! Although there has been a substantial shift in the population the majority still remain in rural areas, towns and small cities. Actual population figures vary according where they are obtained and how they are calculated in the first place, but possibly the largest of the municipalities, of which there are four [Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Tianjin], is Chongqing which is reputed to have a population of approximately 30,000,000 and an inner city population of between 4,500,000 and 12,000,000; this figure varies according to where the boundary between the urban area of Chongqing and the rural area is set and no one seems to agree on where that is.

On the sporting front it seems that if you give any game or activity to the Chinese it will come back twice as big and complicated as it was before, if not more. Take a simple tug-o’-war, stage it in a Chinese city and it isn’t quite so simple any more as we saw earlier this year when an event, involving two teams of 10,000 people each, a rope 1 kilometre in length and weighing 3 tons, was held in Changsha. Or a simple track event. I’m sure everyone knows what a 3-legged race is, a feat of cooperation between pairs of runners performed at a moderately quick pace. Not content with that the Chinese have come up with a 21-legged version of the race, which transforms a relatively sedate activity into something with the potential to break several limbs simultaneously should anything go wrong.

Returning to natural events, the recent disaster in Sichuan has involved some figures which are quite numbing. The number of people dead and missing is bad by any standard but these are small when compared with casualty lists and the numbers who are now homeless – more than 300,000 injured, and more than 5,000,000 people displaced. Five million; that is more than the population of the Republic of Ireland. One of the problems to be dealt with during the aftermath was the danger posed by earthquake-lakes and in one instance approximately 1.9 million people had to be moved to safer ground – that’s the population of Dublin plus a few more, shifted in one move to solve one small part of the problem. Last year the UK was beset by floods unseen before. No one doubts it cost a lot of money and was a real disaster for those directly affected. There was certainly a lot of noise made about it but I’m not sure it ranks the same as a disaster on a Chinese scale; 8 people died and 55,000 homes and other properties were damaged. If things were bad enough for 8 people to die and the population to get hot under the collar about it, how bad must it be for more than 60,000 to die and 5,000,000 to lose their homes? For up to date figures on casualties and how things are progressing, click here.

When China was an enclosed and inward looking nation none of this mattered to the rest of the world but now that it has chosen to interact what goes on in the Far East starts to matter a lot – and in a very personal way too. While China remained self-sufficient it made very little impression on the rest of the world but now there is a demand from within China for imports this has an effect. Remember, this is 20% of the world all under one government. Importing enough rubber boots to keep the population happy would have a big effect on everyone else i.e. no one else would have rubber boots for that year, there simply isn’t enough rubber in the world; but this is hypothesis, how about sticking to reality? In the days before China began importing oil the price of petrol was relatively steady, now that China is buying up supplies the price is rising. There are other factors involved too, but undisputably China is one of the major influences. This year, 2008, will probably be the last year that China is self-sufficient in food, this is due to rising expectations of the Chinese population and an increase in demand for higher living standards. Dietary shifts in China have been quite modest and the average Chinese person eats far less meat than any westerner but when that average change is multiplied by one fifth of the world population an overall world change becomes inevitable. If the squeals were loud when petrol prices started to soar, how loud will the noise be when food becomes expensive.

 

Related articles –

More Wealth, More Meat

From Poverty To Fast Food

Differences

Here is a posting worth reading. On the Frog In A Well blog is an article about some works of art by a Chinese artist, Yang Liu [or Liu Yang, depending on whether you prefer Chinese names westernised or in original order], currently on show in Germany. Each picture is intended to show differences between Chinese and German culture, which is why you see small Deutsch captions; in fact they could be said to illustrate differences between China and many western European countries, probably North America too.

Another website has pictures of the artist and the exhibition itself.

I’m not going to tell you what I think your conclusions should be or even say what my views are, only that I like the one about weather.

How to . .

Here’s a useful posting, on Simpson’s Paradox, all about how to make use of a volume of The Thorn Birds . . . .