Published on 2024.01.11


Eating in the Classic of Mountains and Seas


The Classic of Mountains and Seas, a book from the pre-Qin period, has been described in various ways. Some consider it a geography book, others see it as a book of witchcraft, and still, others view it as a collection of strange tales. Interestingly, the character "食" (eating) frequently appears throughout the book, with over 160 instances. This significant frequency cannot be overlooked. Could we then consider the Classic of Mountains and Seas as an alternative "food scripture"? This begs the question: what are the objects of consumption within the book?

Based on incomplete calculations, there are 19 instances of consuming peculiar grass and wood, 3 instances of eating without subsequent hunger, 4 instances of preventing tiredness, alleviating fatigue, and guarding against fatigue-induced illnesses, and 1 instance of eating to gain strength. These 8 instances are related to the arduous lives of ancient people. Additionally, there are 5 instances of eating to cure ailments such as leprosy, scabies, tumors, malaria, and parasites. These instances provide evidence of ancient people suffering from skin diseases, tumors, bacteria, and parasites. Furthermore, there are 6 instances of consuming food to prevent drowning, alleviate heartache, avoid confusion, prevent sand from entering the eyes, mitigate deafness, and ward off wind-cold and wind-heat.

Moreover, there are 19 instances of consuming peculiar fish, 3 instances of treating warts, white spots, abscesses, hemorrhoids, inflammation, and swelling, and 1 instance of disease prevention. There are also instances of consuming food to alleviate worries, madness, arrogance, eye irritation caused by sand, and to prevent foolishness and flatulence. Ancient people faced challenges such as ulcers, inflammation, and epidemics.

Furthermore, there are 21 instances of consuming peculiar birds and beasts, which prevent madness, eye irritation caused by sand, envy, swelling, anal fistulas, leprosy, tumors, throat pain, heatstroke, abdominal pain, dizziness, wind-cold, wind-heat, and more. Apart from these categories, there is one instance each of consuming plants to prevent infertility and promote fertility. Additionally, there are two instances of death resulting from the consumption of fish.

From the aforementioned calculations, it becomes apparent that ancient people, engaged in strenuous physical labor, faced food shortages and lived in unsanitary conditions with limited access to medical care. They suffered from epidemics, bacteria, parasites, tumors, and skin diseases. The food-related remedies found in the book reflect the living conditions of ancient people.

It is worth mentioning that the book contains numerous accounts of strange beasts consuming humans, with a total of 12 instances, including one instance of a bird devouring a human. What is chilling is that 7 of these beasts capable of consuming humans can mimic the sound of a crying baby. These creatures likely exploited the compassion of humans as a means to capture their prey. The author serves as a reminder to pedestrians to be cautious.

Thoughtful readers will notice that not being confused, avoiding eye irritation, preventing drowning, alleviating worries, overcoming arrogance, and avoiding foolishness are not physiological ailments. Arrogance pertains to one's character, confusion and foolishness are mental issues, and eye irritation and drowning are objective situational problems. This imaginative aspect is undoubtedly mystical and endearing. For instance, if one is arrogant, they should consume more Ci (鮆) fish; if one feels depressed and anxious, instead of resorting to antidepressants, they should consume more Tiao儵 fish; if one lacks intelligence and frequently makes mistakes, they should consume plants like sunflowers, red flowers, and yellow fruits, as well as Ren Yu人魚; if one seeks to resist sandstorms and floods, they should consume grass, Zhi Chu (植楮), beasts, Chi Long(蠪蚳), or trees, Sha Tang(沙棠). Unfortunately, these rare, precious, and protected species are not available in supermarkets or wet markets. They exist solely within the world of the Classic of Mountains and Seas.

The authors of the book remain unknown, but their imagination rivals that found in works such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit. The Classic of Mountains and Seas provides readers with a glimpse into the customs of a mysterious kingdom beyond the human realm. While the landscapes may differ, the spirit of "wide knowledge" (博物) is present within the words and lines of the Classic of Mountains and Seas. This work laid the foundation for the narrative tradition of collecting strange and miscellaneous tales, which continued in later works such as The Tales of Ten Continents (《海內十洲記》), The Canon of Gods and Mysteries神異經, Collecting the Missing Tales (《拾遺記》), and the Book of Wide Knowledge (《博物誌》).

More importantly, the humanistic care within the Classic of Mountains and Seas prompts us to question which unnamed sages have tasted those plants, birds, beasts, and strange fishes, and how many people have fallen victim to the sharp teeth and poisonous fish that mimic the sound of a crying baby? It is a world of reflection, and the connection to reality lies in the living conditions of ancient people. "Tasting" is a means to understand the essence of all earthly things and seek the well-being of humanity. This mindset carries the spirit of Shen Nong, who tasted hundreds of herbs, and it laid the groundwork for Li Shizhen's thirty-year journey to study and complete the Compendium of Materia Medica. Regardless of the classification of the Classic of Mountains and Seas, its underlying motivation of "eating" encompasses the characteristics of a spirit of wide knowledge and humanistic care.

Legend has it that one day, Zigong asked Confucius whether the act of giving generously to benefit all could be considered an expression of benevolence. Confucius replied, "It is not merely an act of benevolence. It can be regarded as an act of sanctity." (The Analects of Confucius, Yong Ye) What astonishes us is that the authors of the Mountains and Seas projected the hardships of human life onto an imagined universe, based on their empathy towards the act of "eating" within the human world. Their benevolent light of "giving generously to benefit all" permeates the mosaic-like collection of strange tales, radiating hope for happiness and beauty in the face of the struggles of human existence. Art pursues beauty, and morality explores goodness. In the Classic of Mountains and Seas, the act of "eating" undoubtedly adds a vibrant stroke of goodness to the long cultural history of ancient people.

Dr. Wong Kwan Leung

Dr. Wong Kwan Leung is the associate professor at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. Dr. Wong’s main research interests are the Pre-Qin Scholastic Thoughts, Unearthed Warring State and Qin Dynasty Literature and Confucianism. He has published over 30 research papers and 2 academic monographs.

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Chi Seng Pun

12-01-2024 14:32:09



Chi Seng Pun

12-01-2024 14:32:06