Can Orientalism Explain Stereotypes About Chinese Food?

There are some ideas that, despite their nakedly obvious racism, persist in the popular consciousness and subtly inform how we see different people. One of these ideas is that East Asians, particularly the Chinese, eat everything, including animals that Westerners think are taboo to eat. This idea has obvious connections to the theory of Orientalism in that it oversimplifies Eastern culture to make it appear opposite to similar concepts in the Western world: Chinese cuisine becomes savage and antiquated, which in turn makes the Western palate seem more civilized and sophisticated. Indeed, the unsubtle recent resurgence of this idea carried the message that Chinese food was “dirty,” with people in the early stages of the pandemic fearing they would contract COVID-19 if they ate at a Chinese restaurant.

While historically the concept of Chinese food has been met with fear and derision by Europeans and Americans, there is still an element of fascination that is also present in Orientalism; the East can supposedly offer “wonderful flavors wholly unknown to any American,” despite the fact that the menus of most Chinese restaurants in the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries consisted of mostly Americanized hybrid dishes (this was done on purpose in order to destigmatize Chinese food and attract American customers). Even though Americans now have access to authentically prepared Chinese food, most restaurants that cook this way are extremely expensive and cater to a high-class demographic, so “real” Chinese food is still largely inaccessible to the American public, thus obscuring the real culture behind the food.

While the blatant fear surrounding Chinese food has significantly died down due to its rise in popularity across America, the sinophobia displayed at the start of the pandemic shows that we as a population have not detached ourselves from the racist systems of thought that form this attitude. In order to improve our views of foreign cultures and cuisine, we have to dismantle the West’s image of the East and get to know the reality of those places. To start, we could clear up the confusion surrounding the “exotic animals” that supposedly make up the Chinese diet. While markets that sell exotic or endangered animals like bats and pangolins do exist in China, they are fairly rare and very expensive to shop at, so your average Chinese person mostly eats dishes made with chicken, pork, beef, or seafood. And just like in the States, eating habits can vary based on the region of the country. By drawing back the biases and stereotypes, we can begin to recognize our similarities to and celebrate our differences from other cultures.

One thought on “Can Orientalism Explain Stereotypes About Chinese Food?

  1. VAN T.

    I thought the premise of your post was enticing, I liked how you not only touched on the issue but how we as individuals can slowly rectify the issue at hand. Your specific examples helped added to your argument and pulled me in as a reader. Great job with this.


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