Seven daily necessities

Years ago when I was learning conversational Mandarin Chinese at PCC, one of the lessons I remember most clearly was about the seven necessities of daily life for common folk. The lesson began with the aphorism, which I’m translating figuratively, “Seven necessities to start the day: firewood, rice, oil, salt, (soy) sauce, vinegar, and tea” ( Kāimén qījiànshì: chái, mǐ, yóu, yán, jiàng, cù, chá 開門七件事: 柴米油鹽醬醋茶).

As I try to figure out what things to write about next, this saying has been in the back of my mind: start with the basics I use everyday. Yet I also realize that everyone’s basics are a little different.

For that matter, this list itself looks very different in many parts of China today, where steamed buns or baked breads, noodles made from wheat or sweet potato flour, and other starches derived from millet, sorghum, and other grains are likely to replace rice on this list. Rice is not as quintessentially Chinese as we in the West imagine it to be, as I learned first hand two summers ago at a Shanxi monastery in Taiyuan, where multiple types of bread were often served with meals rather than rice. (Laugh with/at me, folks who know Chinese geography, and for anyone who doesn’t… Taiyuan is so incredibly far off from the remote mountain village the posters sold me on, I can’t even… ) Historically the list changes even more: tea drinking didn’t come into vogue until the Tang dynasty (618-907), when such “foreign” customs came into vogue, and overtime blended into a now “normative” (ha) Chinese food culture. Prior to then, a “wine” fermented from grains, or flowers such as chrysanthemum, was the daily drink of choice.

So even in the Chinese case, necessities differ by region, and evolve over time. Is it any surprise that every person, or household’s, own necessities will also differ, likely based on local trends, and evolving over time?

And lastly, if anyone can tell me why/how it was that water is taken for granted and omitted from the aphorism above, I’m all ears.

Coffee in a mug covered with frolicking bears, followed by the quoted caption: Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That's why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life
“Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That’s why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life”
(Coffee. Coffee is my bare necessity. The mug is just a mug, pervs.)