The Chinese often ask friends: “Did you eat? 你 吃 了 吗?” It’s an old traditional greeting its prevalence has decreased along with economic growth. Recently, however, Shanghai residents jokingly remembered him. An expression with a century of history has once again become popular with the inhabitants of a city of 25 million, which has been in lockdown for more than a month. The EKD tells about the versions of the origin of the greeting and how it is used by the modern Chinese.
Snow is the head of everything
China is an ancient rural civilization. During the millennia of development, a cult of food naturally developed here. The cult of food penetrated philosophical teachings. Thus, the need for food and carnal pleasures (食色性也) was called natural even in the Confucian treatise Mengzi (孟子). The idolization of food was later transformed into the phrase: “People consider food a paradise” (民以食为天). So in terms of language, the Chinese have been emphasizing for centuries that food is inseparable from their lives.
Over time, China has developed a unique gastronomic culture. Eight wonderful cuisines appeared in the country, the chefs expanded the arsenal of cooking techniques, a fact that also affected the enthusiasm of the inhabitants of the country for the consumption of various dishes. Food in China has haunted people everywhere since antiquity: countless taverns are open on the streets and in almost every location, visitors can be amazed by the traditional local delicacy.
In such an environment, it is impossible to avoid the issue of food even in a meeting. Asking the interlocutor if he has eaten, the Chinese not only ask about the state of his affairs, but also raise the main issue for discussion.
Not from a good life
According to another version, the etymology of the traditional greeting dates back to the time of extreme poverty of the Chinese people. Culturally, China’s history has been uninterrupted for thousands of years, but has been repeatedly disrupted by large-scale disasters. The change of dynasties, the immersion in unrest and hostilities have deprived many Chinese of shelter and livelihood.
In an environment of instability, not all the people of the country were able to secure material prosperity. The precarious position of income has increased the stratification in society. The famous Chinese chenyu says:
Wine and meat spoil in the cellars of rich houses and beggars die of cold and hunger in the streets.
酒肉 酒肉 臭 ， 路 有 冻死 骨
It is easy to see that the issue of living has long been of paramount importance to the Chinese. His decision meant that a person does not live in poverty and can exist normally. Thus, an expression was formed in the language that helps to learn the real well-being of the interlocutor. Asking the question “Did you eat?”, The elders were worried about the full stomach of the younger ones and continued to pass the tradition on to their descendants.
Life is about food
In a question close to every Chinese, the axioms of traditional medicine are also reflected. The importance of food was emphasized in the Emperor’s regular Yellow Treatise (黄帝内经), an encyclopedia of Chinese medicine. The legendary Yellow Emperor, in symbolic conversations with the ancient Chinese, noted:
Food and water are the root of human life. If a person stops taking water and food, then he dies.
平 人 之 常 气 禀 于 胃 ， 胃 者 ， 平 之 常 气 气 也。 无 无 曰 逆 逆 ， 逆者 逆者
The common truth was clear to every inhabitant of the ancient Celestial Empire: a man who has no appetite is sentenced to death. The desire to satisfy hunger in traditional Chinese medicine was equated with the desire for life in general. So the question of food became almost rhetorical. The Chinese who use it seemed to emphasize: “Are you still alive?”.
Evidence of a bad past and a form of care
The question “Have you eaten?” – a unique cultural object – has survived to this day. But now it is used less often because the prosperity of the Chinese has increased. The increased level of education of the inhabitants of the Heavenly Empire also influenced the disappearance of the issue of food from living speech.
The ECD conducted a survey of Chinese people from different regions and age groups about their experiences with the old salute. It is noteworthy that the frequency of its use varies from region to region. However, use is not limited to any age or professional group.
“We often say that in southern Fujian. “They can greet this way before or after dinner,” said Ruan Gao, a 27-year-old Quanzhou resident.
“Usually I do not ask this question to other young or good friends, unless I want to invite a friend for dinner. But the generation of parents during lunch and dinner greets acquaintances in a meeting with the phrase “Did you eat?”. Although this is more of a ritual courtesy, not a signal that you are going to someone’s house for a meal. “After dinner at 7-8 pm, we can also ask the interlocutor if he will go for a walk or to the store,” says Bai, a 26-year-old developer from Guangdong Province, who shares his language experience.
“You do not hear that in Beijing. This is due to the large number of strangers in the city. When you meet “Did you eat?” usually spoken by older or poorly educated people. “‘Hello’ 你好 or ‘Hai’. Is more common in my circle,” said Yi Ying, a 41-year-old Chinese teacher from Beijing.
“In Anhui Province, both seniors and young people are so hospitable to acquaintances. But a little more the phrase “Did you eat?” middle-aged people speak as a greeting. They pay more attention to etiquette and human relationships. The question “Did you eat” is more like an exchange of pleasures. And young people, when it comes to such a question, rather clarify whether the interlocutor wants to eat together. “But in general, they ask for it less often,” recalls 23-year-old photographer Zhang Yijie.
“Cantonese do not greet each other like that. When we talk quietly, at the end we can add “We should have tea next time in our free time”, 闲 饮茶 “, a retiree named Hou shares her experience with elderly residents of Guangdong Province.
In Heilongjiang, “Did you eat?” – is not the most popular expression for greeting. The generation of grandparents used it more often and now expresses care with it. At a meeting, friends ask, “Did you eat?” to start a dialogue, “said a resident of Heilongjiang Province named Shaw.
In the Yangtze Delta, where I was born and raised, “Did you eat?” and “What did you eat?” 吃 的 什么 are common ways to say hello to others. This question is especially often asked at noon. In the morning or after dinner, when we meet acquaintances, we usually ask: “Where are you going?” 呢 干吗 呢. Although the main function of this expression now is to show the importance of relationships with a person and to show care. “This is due to the extremely important role of food in the life of modern China,” said Simon Wu, 27, who works in Shanghai.
“I was born in Tianjin and spent my childhood and youth between Beijing, Tianjin and Chengdu. In the north, people often ask “Did you eat?”, But in Chengdu, such a greeting is rarely heard. In my experience, this phrase is still for seniors with a traditional mindset who have close relationships, for example, with compatriots. My friends, parents and friends do not use this greeting often. I think it depends on the lifestyle.
Let’s say old Wang and old Li have been living in neighboring houses for several decades. If they met during an evening walk, but such a dialogue is very likely:
Did you eat?
– I ate, I ate.
– Very well.
After these words, they will continue, each in his own way. “It’s not food, it’s just etiquette,” said 28-year-old producer Lei Zhenchuan.
Subscribe to EKD on Telegram.