A versatile character to suit any palate
“Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re drowsy; don’t tire yourself out (饥来吃饭困来睡，莫把身来累),” goes the life philosophy of Liu Xueji (刘学箕), a poet from the Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1279) who devoted his entire life to travel, and never sought the conventional post of an official.
Today, this carefree doctrine might be echoed by many young Chinese, who, following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions across most of the country, are flocking to enjoy themselves in restaurants, tourist sites, and reopened street food stalls—that is, if they can afford these pleasures, amid the economic pressures that have also resumed with life in China.
The usage of the character 吃 (chī) to indicate eating is a relatively recent concept, though the character first appeared in the Eastern Han dynasty (25 – 220), when the linguist Xu Shen (许慎) defined it as “a person who has difficulty with pronunciation” in his Analytical Dictionary of Chinese Characters (《说文解字》). At that time, 吃 was the verb form of 口吃 (kǒuchī, stammer), formed by using a “mouth” (口 kǒu) radical on the left and a radical meaning “to beg” (乞 qǐ) on the right.
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On the Character: 吃 is a story from our issue, “High Steaks.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.