Food in ancient China – rice and tea

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Chinese food - noodles and chopsticks

Chinese food

When you think of Chinese food you think of rice, and rice was the first grain that people farmed in China. There is archaeological evidence of rice farming along the Yang-tse River by about 6000 BC. People cooked rice by boiling them in water, the way you do today. They ate rice with fish and shellfish, like other people in prehistory. Or they made rice into wine. People have been drinking rice wine in China since prehistory.

But rice doesn’t grow in northern China, which is much drier and colder. People in northern China grew millet instead, starting about 8000 BC, and they gathered wild sorghum. By 5000 BC, many people in northern China ate mainly millet. They ate it boiled into a kind of porridge.

Chinese food - rice noodles

Chinese food – rice noodles

Another food people associate with China is tea. Tea grows wild in China. By about 3000 BC (or it could be much earlier), people in China had begun to drink tea. Soon everybody drank tea.

Wheat was not native to China, so it took much longer to reach China. People in northern China first began to eat wheat about 2500 BC. Central Asian traders brought wheat to China from West Asia (and brought millet the other way). People in China boiled wheat like millet, to make something like Cream of Wheat.

These were the main carbohydrates of China – rice, millet, sorghum, and wheat. In northern China, people mostly ate millet, wheat, and sorghum. Or, if they couldn’t get those things, they lived on chestnuts. In southern China, people mostly ate rice. For fat, they crushed soybeans for soybean oil. Poor people ate almost nothing but these foods – they hardly ever had meat or fruit.

People probably first came to China following the fish north along the Pacific coast, and by about 40,000 BC they invented pottery, probably in order to store fish and make pickled fish or fermented fish sauce. That made their rice taste a lot better! When people could afford it, they also bought or grew vegetables to put on their rice. Cucumbers and bok choy, for instance, are native to China. For fruits, the Chinese had citrons, peaches, and apricots. Ginger and anise are also from China (Americans use anise to make licorice).

On special occasions, people also put little pieces of meat on their rice. By 5500 BC, the Chinese were eating domesticated chicken, which came originally from Thailand. By 4000 or 3000 BC, they were eating pork, sheep, and cattle, which all reached China from Central Asia. But most of the meat may have gone to men: by 500 BC in the Eastern Zhou dynasty, women were eating less meat and millet than men, and more soybeans and barley.

Video of how to eat with chopsticks

Because meat was so expensive, and because Buddhists didn’t eat meat, starting around the Song Dynasty (about 1000 AD) people also put tofu, or bean curd, in their food as a source of protein.

Because China doesn’t have big forests, it was always hard to find fuel to cook with. Chinese people learned to cut up their food very small, so it would cook quickly on a very small fire.

During the Han Dynasty, millet wine became very popular and was even more popular to drink than tea. Also beginning in the Han Dynasty, about 100 AD, Chinese people began to make their wheat and rice into long noodles. People ate noodles instead of bread to save on fuel, again.

The rise of the Silk Road about this time brought many new foods to China. About 500 BC, people in China learned how to keep bees for honey (and for wax). By 300 BC, China was getting its first taste of sweet oranges from Central Asia. About 350 AD, traders brought sugar and maybe a new improved kind of sorghum from India to China. About 900 AD, Central Asian lemons started coming to China too.

Marco Polo, who may have visited China from Venice, wrote that by the time of Kublai Khan, about 1200 AD, Chinese people ate millet boiled in milk to make porridge. Even as late as 1200 AD, Chinese people did not bake bread. But they did also get purple carrots from Central Asia through the work of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. About 1350 AD the artist Ni Zan wrote a cookbook – a Collection of Rules for Drinking and Eating – that included recipes for soy sauce, noodles, crab and fish, mushrooms, tempeh, snails, and jellyfish, among other things.

Learn by Doing – Chinese food project
Chinese food after 1500 AD

Bibliography and further reading about food in ancient China:

Ancient China home

By | 2017-06-06T12:24:21+00:00 June 6th, 2017|China, Food|4 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Food in ancient China – rice and tea. Study Guides, June 6, 2017. Web. March 23, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. tabby March 5, 2018 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    that is nasty

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr March 5, 2018 at 10:46 pm

      It’s nasty that they ate snails and jellyfish? The Romans also ate a lot of snails, and so do people in modern France. They don’t think anything of it. I’ve eaten them myself, though I admit I’ve never tried jellyfish.

  2. Joanne February 4, 2018 at 4:41 pm - Reply

    after reading your article, I learned way more than I expected. I did my homework fastly right after.

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 4, 2018 at 7:21 pm

      I’m delighted to hear it!

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