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Betel-nut Culture in Hainan Province

Betel nuts, one of the four famous Chinese medicines, are mainly produced in South China's Hainan province , where the tradition of planting betel nuts has existed for over 1,500 years. The betel nuts became well known as early as in the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, when the provincial officials used betel nuts as tributes to the royal court. Over the years, a unique "betel-nut culture" has been fostered.

 According to locals and historical records, the custom of entertaining guests with betel nuts has long existed in Hainan Province. As is recorded in "Southern plants- betel nut", an encyclopedia compiled by Dao Gu of the Jin Dynasty (265-420) , "Hainan people, upon the arrival of distinguished guests, will invariably present the nuts". Another book also records, "Not tea but betel nuts are served when guests arrive". These and other records show that Hainan people have long regarded betel nuts as superior gifts, believing that "Nothing but betel nuts can be given as gifts to relatives and friends". 

More than 800 years ago, Su Dongpo, a famous poet of the Song Dynasty, depicted the scene of a Li girl wearing jasmine flowers on her head and chewing betel nuts; this shows that loving, growing, and chewing betel nuts have long been the tradition for Hainan people.

Today, in Wangning, Lingshui, and Wuzhishan, where betel nuts are abundant, people still view the nuts as a symbol of blessings and friendship. When guests arrive, the host will first offer them with betel nuts, and even those incapable of chewing betel nuts will accept as a show of respect. On festivals, such as the Spring Festival , betel nuts are a must-item for every household. 

For the young people, betel nuts are tokens of love. When a lad takes a fancy to a girl, he has to first present betel nuts to the girl's family, commonly known as "Fang Binlang (giving betel nuts)", and the family's acceptance of the betel nuts means their approval of the proposal. At the wedding ceremony, betel nuts are even more important, as the newlyweds will distribute them to attending guests.

The way Hainan people eat betel nuts is quite complex. First, betel nuts are sliced, and then a condiment, which is made from oyster shell flour and betel pepper, is smeared over the inside and outside surface of the sliced nuts. 

Chewing the betel nuts, while bitter at first, gives a pleasant and tipsy feeling in the end, just as what Su Dongpo said in one of his poems that one could get drunk by chewing betel nuts. 

So next time, when you are in Hainan, do not forget to have a taste of the betel-nut culture while enjoying the natural scenery of the treasure island.

Table Manners

Talking about eating habit, unlike the West, where everyone has their own plate of food, in China the dishes are placed on the table and everybody shares. If you are being treated by a Chinese host, be prepared for a ton of food. Chinese are very proud of their culture of cuisine and will do their best to show their hospitality. 

And sometimes the host will serve some dishes with his or her own chopsticks to guests to show his or her hospitality. This is a sign of politeness. The appropriate thing to do would be to eat the whatever-it-is and say how yummy it is. If you feel uncomfortable with this, you can just say a polite "thank you" and leave the food there. There are some other rules that are suggested you follow to make your stay in China happier, though you will be forgiven if you have no idea of what they are. 

1. Never stick your chopsticks upright in the rice bowl, lay them on your dish instead. Otherwise, it is deemed extremely impolite to the host and seniors present. The reason for this is that when somebody dies, the shrine to them contains a bowl of sand or rice with two sticks of incense stuck upright in it. So if you stick your chopsticks in the rice bowl, it looks like the shrine and is equivalent to wishing death upon a person at the table. 

2. Make sure the spout of the teapot is not facing anyone. It is impolite to set the teapot down where the spout is facing towards somebody. The spout should always be directed to where nobody is sitting, usually just outward from the table. 

3. Don't tap on your bowl with your chopsticks, since that will be deemed insult to the host or the chef. Beggars tap on their bowls, and also, when the food is coming too slow in a restaurant, people will tap their bowls. If you are in someone's home, it is like insulting the host or the cook. 

4. Never try to turn a fish over and debone it yourself, since the separation of the fish skeleton from the lower half of the flesh will usually be performed by the host or a waiter. Superstitious people deem bad luck will ensue and a fishing boat will capsize if you do so. This is especially true to southerners in China (to be specific, such as Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian provinces, etc.), since, traditionally, southerners are the fishing population.


It's commonly known that the Chinese invented chopsticks (or kuaizi in Chinese) as a set of instruments to be used when eating but the reason behind that is not commonly known. Actually, the Chinese were taught to use chopsticks long before spoons and forks were invented in Europe (the knife is older, not as an instrument for dining but as weapon). Chopsticks were strongly advocated by the great Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479BC). Chinese people, under the cultivation of Confucianism, consider the knife and fork bearing sort of violence, like cold weapons. However, chopsticks reflect gentleness and benevolence, the main moral teaching of Confucianism. Therefore, instruments used for killing must be banned from the dining table, and that is why Chinese food is always chopped into bite size before it reaches the table. 

Eating Chinese food would not be as enjoyable if the wrong utensils were used. Using two slim and slippery sticks to pick up grains of rice and little pieces of meat and vegetables is actually not a difficult task to accomplish. In fact, there are foreigners who are as competent in using the chopsticks as the Chinese. 

The truth of using chopsticks is holding one chopstick in place while pivoting the other one to pick up a morsel. How to position the chopsticks is the course you have to learn. First, place the first chopstick so that thicker part rests at the base of your thumb and the thinner part rests on the lower side of your middle fingertip. Then, bring your thumb forward so that the stick will be firmly trapped in place. At least two or three inches of chopstick of the thinner end should extend beyond your fingertip. Next, position the other chopstick so that it is held against the side of your index finger and by the end of your thumb. Check whether the ends of the chopsticks are even. If not, then tap the thinner parts on the plate to make them even. 

When dining with Chinese friends or business partners, it is always better for foreigners to try learning how to maneuver the chopsticks. You should only ask for a fork and spoon if all else fails. Using chopsticks to eat rice is a problem to most foreigners. Generally the tip to eat rice is to bring one's rice bowl close to one's mouth and quickly scoop the rice into it with one's chopsticks. Since this is difficult for foreigners, and so simply lifting portions of rice to the mouth from the bowl held in the other hand is perfectly acceptable. 

There are superstitions associated with chopsticks too. If you find an uneven pair at your table setting, it means you are going to miss a boat, plane or train. Dropping chopsticks will inevitably bring bad luck. Crossed chopsticks are, however, permissible in a dim sum restaurant. The waiter will cross them to show that your bill has been settled, or you can do the same to show the waiter that you have finished and are ready to pay the bill. 

Food Symbolism

In China, foods are given particular meanings, so that a type of food can only be eaten by some specific individuals in certain occasion, or must be eaten in specific occasion. 

Usually, an honored guest will be served a snapper's head or shell to hail him and show warm welcome in some districts. 

Noodles are the symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. They are as much a part of Chinese birthday celebration as a birthday cake with lit candles is in many countries, so that youngsters or seniors all will have a bowl of Long Life Noodle in the expectation of a healthy life. Since noodles do symbolize long life, it is considered very unlucky to cut up a strand. 

Eggs hold a special symbolic significance in many cultures, and China is no exception. The Chinese believe eggs symbolize fertility. After a baby is born, parents may hold a "red egg and ginger party", where they serve round hard-boiled eggs to announce the birth. (In Central China, the number of eggs presented depends on the sex of the child: An even number, usually six or eight Red Boiled Eggs with a black point dotted on one end will be delivered for a boy and an odd number, usually five or seven without black point for a girl). Egg rolls or spring rolls resemble the shape of a gold bar, and thus are often served on the New Year as a symbol of wealth and prosperity in the coming year. 

Fish also play a large role in festive celebrations. The Chinese word for fish "Yu" sounds like the homophonic words both for wish and abundance. As a result, on New Year's Eve it is customary to serve a fish for dinner, symbolizing the wish for accumulations of prosperity and wealth in the coming year. In addition, the fish is served whole, with head and tail attached, symbolizing a good beginning and ending for the coming year. 

Ducks represent fidelity in Chinese culture. If you are ever invited to a Chinese wedding banquet, don't be surprised to spot a mouthwatering platter of Peking duck on the banquet table. Also, red dishes are featured at weddings as red is the color of happiness. (You may find them served at New Year's banquets for the same reason.) 

Chicken forms part of the symbolism of the dragon and phoenix in Chinese culture. At a Chinese wedding, chicken's feet, referred to as phoenix feet, are often served with dragon foods such as lobster. Chicken is also popular at Chinese New Year, symbolizing a good marriage and the coming together of families, and serving the bird whole emphasizes family unity. 

Seeds -- lotus seeds, watermelon seeds, etc -- represent bearing many children in Chinese culture. Visit an Asian bakery during the Chinese New Year, and you're likely to find a wide assortment of snacks with different types of seeds in them. 

There are other foods, snacks and fruits which symbolize good wishes under special circumstances, including dried bean curd, black moss seaweed, peanuts, pomelos and oranges.


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