Yang Buwei: Author of Cookbook That Was Tipped for 'Nobel Prize'

June 10, 2015
Editor: Ava Tao

Yang Buwei [Nanjing Daily]

The recipe book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (1945) has been a bestseller in the U.S., and remains one of the most influential books on Chinese cooking to ever have been published in the West. The author was Yang Buwei, and the original preface was written by Hu Shi, a well-known scholar in China, along with Pearl S. Buck, a winner of a "Nobel Prize for Literature" in the 1930s. When it was published it was well received, with one early signing event selling around 300 copies.

How to Cook and Eat in Chinese was the first book that systematically introduced Chinese food to Western chefs. It contained 230 recipes and categorized ingredients in detail. In addition, the weights and quantities of the recipes were precisely labeled, in contrast to many Chinese recipes then which were often very ambiguous.

Buck even believed that the value of the book could merit a "Nobel Peace Prize for Literature" in itself. Buck wrote that it contains both the food and love of Yang, which were priceless.

Yang was born into a well-known family. Her grandfather was a famous master in Buddhism and the founder of the Jinling Scripture-engraving Institution. As a child, Yang was well-educated with good traditions and cultures and had the same opportunity to go to school as her older and younger brothers. She went to Japan and became the first female to achieve the degree of Doctor of Medicine and worked as president of a clinic in China.

She was a disobedient child when it came to lessons at school, yet she was still invited to be a school president at the age of 23. During her period of working as a president, Yang did a good job in school management, led the students to learn spinning, embroidery and first aid with vigor and vitality. Furthermore, she effectively prevented a riot of soldiers on one occasion. Yang started a clinic focusing on gynecology and obstetrics with her partner in 1919, being a doctor of the first generation in gynecology and obstetrics in western medicine and the first female president of such an institution.

She married her husband, Zhao Yuanren who was a linguistic professor in 1920. The new couple informed their relatives and friends of the good news only by sending cards rather than holding a complex wedding ceremony; they preferred to invite their old friends to have dinner with them at their place. Yang settled in the U.S. with her family in 1938 when her husband was teaching in Yale and Harvard universities. The wife of Zhao's teacher suggested she should write a book to introduce the Chinese food that Yang was preparing as a housewife at that time. Coincidentally, Buck's husband was in charge of a publishing house, who was willing to help Yang, leading to the bestseller.

In addition to the book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, Yang also published other books including A Woman's Autobiography, The Stories of Zhao's Family and Shifting Histories of Chinese Women from All Dynasties, among which How to Cook and Eat in Chinese has still been a bestseller overseas and edited many times in all these years. It has remained popular due to its special descriptions of Chinese food and eating customs along with the concise, vivid and humorous words written throughout, not just for its cooking and ingredients.

(Source: Nanjing Daily/Translated and edited by Women of China)


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