Living in China today: The Importance of Food

by Andrea Glaab

Chinese Food Culture is big –  in fact, it is possible to say that almost everything in China evolves around some kind of food. It surrounds people everywhere for example with millions of food stalls on the streets or in the form of photos and famous chefs (Link 1) on social networks. The significance of food is linked to the meaning of community, respect and sharing. Meeting for a shared meal is the most common form of meeting with family and friends and meals together are used to make and maintain friendships as well as business relations. To show respect most of the times much more will be ordered than eaten. When asked what they miss the most about their home, Chinese Expats around the world will therefore mostly answer: Chinese food.

China’s culinary diversity is as large as its geographic reach, from North to South and West to East. There are many famous cuisines in China, from Northern Dongbei kitchen originating from Manchu cuisine, to Beijing Roast Duck in the capital, to Southern Cantonese kitchen with Dim Sum, to spicy Sichuan dishes and hotpot. Every province and region has a different taste, different kind of spices and ways of cooking. Especially enlightening and highly recommended to people interested to learn more about regional specialties is the CCTV documentary “A Bite of China” (Link 2) (note: don’t watch it whilst hungry though!).

Depending on the region, the main staple is rice or wheat with wheat being grown and used especially in the North and rice serving as a staple dish in the South. In the countryside, people will consume mostly local food, while in the city, food from all around the world is available. When eating, many Chinese will consider the concept of “Yin and Yang”, which allocates certain foodstuffs special attributes like hot or cold that must be brought into balance (SACU 2001). Some foods are also seen as being more auspicious while some are a symbol of back luck. Special meaning is for example attached to eggs that are dyed red and given to family and friends as a present after the birth of a child for good luck (Ma 2015).

There are many special treats that might seem eccentric for the European palate at first, like pidan 皮蛋 , preserved eggs that have a brownish color; stinky tofu that can be smelled from a mile away, or different kinds of insects as well as modern interpretations of potato chips e.g. with fish soup or chicken and Pepsi taste (Van Hindsbergh 2017, Cost 2013). Every holiday season also has its special treats that are served around that time. On Chinese Spring Festival Jiaozi 饺子, “dumplings” are a must. For the Dragon Boat Festival, people will eat zongzi 粽子, steamed sticky rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. Moon cakes are the special food for the Moon festival in autumn (Ma 2015).


Food culture does also interact with Chinese politics and vice versa. To increase food security, there have been several measures like grain stocks and subsidies while exports of food products were also discouraged (Huang et al. 2015).Nevertheless, China is still suffering from numerous scandals of fake or polluted food each year (Link 3).

With the crackdown on corruption within the Chinese government under Xi Jinping, the food industry was also affected. Delegates from the Chinese parliament were banned from holding luxurious banquets and exchanging high-prized gifts like food and liquor, which are financed by public expenses (AFP 2014). The impact of these regulations can be seen in the case of maotai 茅台 , China’s most famous spirit, which experienced a stark decline in sales (Garrison 2012).

The Chinese cuisine has a lot to offer and can tell a lot about the country’s history and culture. Even though Western restaurants and fast food places are spreading in the country, the love of Chinese for their traditional Chinese food is still strong.


AFP. 2014. China officials banned from holding banquets amid corruption concern. The Telegraph. [retrieved 25th November 2017].

Cost, B. 2013. Top 8 weirdest Chinese chip flavors. The Shanghaiist.  [retrieved 9th November 2017].

Garrison, M. 2012. Moutai shares tumble in China after government restriction. Marketplace. [retrieved 25th November 2017].

Huang, J.; Yang, J. & Rozelle, S. 2015. The political economy of food price policy in China. United Nations University. [retrieved 25th November 2017].

Ma, G. 2015. Food, eating behavior, and culture in Chinese society. Journal of Ethnic Foods.

Marchetto. P. 2016. Unusual Ingredients in Chinese Cooking. China Highlights. [retrieved 9th November 2017].

Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding 2001. [retrieved 9th November 2017].

Van Hindsbergh, G. 2017. 5 Weirdest and Most Unique Chinese Dishes. China Highlights. [retrieved 9th November 2017].

Further Reads:

Food in China. A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. F. J. Simoons. CRC Press, Boca Raton

Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. K. C. Chang, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Living in China today: The Phenomenon of 代购 (dàigòu)

by Andrea Glaab

代购 dàigòu – a word that most people here have never heard of. The activities it is generating here around us go unnoticed as well. In the Chinese sphere, however, this phenomenon is very well known. Some bigger media outlets like the Financial Times picked up stories about it while Western scholars, unlike Chinese academics, have not been attracted yet. According to Wikipedia, dàigòu is a “channel of commerce in which an overseas person purchases commodities (mainly luxury goods but also groceries) for a customer in mainland China” (Wikipedia 2017). The activity does not stop there but also includes areas like Taiwan or Hongkong. Many different people are sellers, from students that want to earn pocket money to full time professional dàigòu. Buyers can be family members and friends, but often sellers also supply their own shops which they set up on Weixin or Taobao. The product range is especially interesting. There is nothing that dàigòu are not selling: from the luxury handbag or watch, to products of daily needs like pans, facial cream, snacks, medicine or even female hygiene products (Shannon 2016). While it is also common for most European readers to ask friends or family to bring some special product back from a holiday trip, or send it from abroad, this phenomenon encompasses an all new scale and reach. For the dàigòu it is a profitable business; they can earn around 5-15% commission, which is especially lucrative for luxury goods (Shannon 2016).


So how can we explain this strange phenomenon, taking into account that you can buy most of the things in China just as well, without all the hassle? The most important motives to buy such a product for a buyer are brand or country of origin. For one, there is a very high tax in China on luxury products of 30-60%, so buying it abroad is still cheaper than in domestic shops (Chitrakorn 2014). Furthermore, for daily products there is a mistrust in Chinese brands and the quality among Chinese people. This is especially easy to highlight with the example of milk powder. After the Chinese milk scandal in 2008, almost no Chinese mother dared to feed her child domestic milk powder. In German drugstores like DM or Rossmann, there is a limit of how many packages of milk powder a person is allowed to buy. According to German drugstores and producers, they seek to “protect the German mother” (Gronwald 2016). The same happened in Hongkong, and there are also calls for more regulation in Australia. In all those places milk powder became a scarce product because of Chinese daigous herding it (Battersby 2016).


Slowly the Chinese government started to pick up the topic, trying to regulate this shadow economy. Motivated by the tax revenues of import tariffs it is losing, it ordered an import tax on postal. The Chinese government also seeks to bolster the sales of domestic industries (Chitrakorn 2014).  Therefore, further action should include strengthening consumer protection through stricter foodstuff inspections as well as control of other goods as hygiene products, that still have the reputation of being harmful, if made in China. This can lead to a growing trust in domestic brands in the long run. Furthermore, the trend of growing nationalism in China is contributing to a slowly increasing demand for domestic brands and products (Shepard 2016). So, while growing spending capacity in Chine leads to higher demand, the work of daigous is also becoming more complex.


Further Reading

Battersby, L. 2016. Government powerless to stop daigou formula herders. The Sidney Morning Herald.  [retrieved 20th September 2017].

Chitrakorn, K. 2014. Can China End the Illicit ‘Daigou’ Trade? Business of Fashion.  [retrieved 20th September 2017].

Gronwald, S. 2016. Wie Chinas Durst nach Babymilch deutsche Supermarkt-Regale leerfegt. Stern.–wie-der-durst-nach-babymilch-gestillt-werden-soll-6648768.html [retrieved 20th September 2017].

Shannon, S. 2016. On the floor with the daigou, China’s overseas shoppers. Financial Times. [retrieved 20th September 2017].

Shepard, W. 2016. Will Growing Nationalism Kill Foreign Brands In China? Forbes [retrieved 20th September 2017].

Wikipedia. 2017. Daigou. Wikipedia. [retrieved 20th September 2017].