The Chinese Character Part Two: Good Health

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Since before the mighty Qin emperor united China into one nation for the first time, the people have quested to find one thing above all others from the natural world; the secret to immortality.  Qin Shi Huangdi himself is likely to have died from eating mercury tablets given to him as immortality pills.  The stories, legends and myths in Chinese culture that centre around Taoists who attain immortality are almost numberless.  It’s a strong drive that lives on today in the second answer to any question; it’s for good health.  Good health means long life and the longest life is immortality – which you should be striving for in every waking moment that you aren’t striving for good fortune.

This brings me inevitably to the topic of Chinese food – the heartland of the ‘good health’ culture.  In general mainland Chinese food has a few common characteristics.  Firstly it is incredibly oily.  Seriously, every Chinese recipe starts with this instruction,
“Half fill a pot with oil so you have somewhere to cook everything.”
I had Chinese people telling me that a dish wasn’t that oily, or wasn’t oily at all.  This meant that there was one tablespoon of oil to every three tablespoons of actual food, rather than the one to two ratio they prefer.  Don’t even bother trying to explain how incredibly unhealthy that much oil is in your diet.  The chinese people say it’s great for ‘good health’ and you and the food scientists are NOT an authority.

Secondly ingredients are given the minimum preparation possible.  You take fresh stuff, maybe cut some of it up, probably leave most of it whole and throw it in the oil bath.  If you’re making Szechuan food, you chuck in the peppercorns and chilli.  Otherwise it’s a mix of simple sauces and probably cornflour to make it thick and slimy.  Now the fresh ingredients part really is good and it’s taken very seriously.  If vegetables don’t have the right texture associated with freshness, they will stop eating it and never return to the restaurant.  If it isn’t fresh, it isn’t a part of ‘good health’.  The fact it’s covered in enough oil to clog the arteries of a rhinoceros is apparently irrelevant.

While we’re talking about texture, that is a general point about all Chinese food – the texture is as, or more, important than flavour or taste.  There are particular textures the Chinese palate craves; crunchy fresh for vegetables, crispy chew for animal skin and super smooth and soft for everything else.  That’s why the cornflour gets into so many sauces, it makes the sauce smooth and soft, instead of watery.  Chinese desserts are an experience in weird mouth sensations for westerners.  Quite a few felt like I was chewing giant maggots.  They had exactly the softness and smoothness you would expect if you ate a maggot.  Not the best image for food, but don’t ever forget, all of that isn’t a matter of cultural taste, it’s for good health.

Thirdly, all food should be washed down with hot drinks, preferably tea.  This is half the reason that you often can’t find a cold drink in a small restaurant or shop.  Especially beer.  Only crazy westerners ask for cold drinks.  It’s good health to drink warm or hot drinks, you must be crazy to drink cold drinks – you will definitely shorten your life.  Frankly, warm beer already shortens my life.  Now considering the amount of oil in the food, drinking hot tea with it actually makes sense.  The oil floats above the food itself and doesn’t get a chance to form into a single lump that could probably choke your intestines for weeks.  Now if you ask anyone about any part of this, the answer you are most likely to receive is, ‘it’s for good health’.  I hope it’s starting to drive you as crazy as it drove me.

I remember sitting in a restaurant being lectured by a middle-aged Chinese man on good health.  This was one of many times the topic came up, but this time illustrates the culture best.  He thought I should be drinking hot tea instead of cold beer and that I should eat less meat – because meat makes you put on weight.  I should also eat sunflower seeds and nuts all day long before eating as much rice as I wanted.  All of this was delivered whilst he chain smoked his way through half a packet of cigarettes, with smoke drawn through shattered teeth and bleeding gums.  This was occasionally washed away as he emptied another glass of baijiu (Chinese sake) that was poured for him at his table.  Naturally I tried to explain that carbohydrates have twice the calories by weight of protein and protein actually makes you feel full, so you eat less.  Beer has a fraction of the alcohol of white spirits, especially the vile baijiu that routinely was of very low quality – I’m amazed people can see or walk after drinking much of it.  That and he was doing more bad to himself with the cigarettes than anything I was doing put together.  I was basically told to shut up, because I was younger and hence wrong.  If I listened to him, I would enjoy good health into my old age.  I looked into that destroyed mouth one last time and vowed to ignore advice from manky old Chinese men.

I was surprised and a little disappointed to see advertisements on Chinese television for products that have been banned in Australia, England, North America and Europe for twenty years.  This included weight loss or long life tea, slimming magnets and any number of things that were guaranteed to give you good health and long life – but not much more.  Just profits for the company selling it really.  False advertising legislation seems to be absent from Chinese law – or the advertisers have enough guanxi with the government to render it pointless.  It seems Chinese marketers have long understood the people’s weakness for anything labelled with ‘good health’ and aren’t afraid to prey on it.

You’ll see people walking down a pathway in a park clapping their hands above their heads.  You’ll watch them eat foul tasting ingredients with a grimace on their face.  You’ll see them choose one side of the street to walk down or some kind of car to drive.  All in the name of ‘good health’.  I developed theory on this that says if you want to sell something or mess with the Chinese people all you need to do is find someone with a lot of guanxi and get them to spread the word.  You could start a trend, sell a product or just have fun and nobody would question it for a moment.  They’d wear one red sock on their left hand if someone in a position of authority said it would bring good health or good fortune – and did it as an example.

That culture of being forced to listen to and obey people in higher social positions creates this crazy dichotomy of a ‘good health’ culture tainted with incredibly unhealthy habits.  It was with some delight I noted that the current generation of twenty-somethings seems happier to ignore their ancestors and look to science for real answers.  When they’re in front of their elders, they generally conform, the moment they’re away, they make their own choices.  There’s nothing wrong with a culture of good health, just make sure what you’re doing really is healthy.   That way you avoid swallowing immortality pills and dying of mercury poisoning like old Qin Shi Huangdi.

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