Honorable Mention – How Did the Chicken Cross the Pacific? Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Appeal to China’s Culinary Tradition in Creating Its Fast Food Empire

The story of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in China begins on November 12, 1987 at around 9:30 AM in central Beijing. On the side of QianmenxiRoad, nestled on the southwest corner of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, there opened a restaurant that was new to all of China, which flashed a red sign—KFC 肯德基—into the one of the city’s busiest areas.[i] As satisfied patrons left, little bags of fried chicken in hand, they would be just few of the millions of Chinese who would eventually enter the restaurant’s red doors, greet Colonel Sanders’ scruffy smile, and ultimately provide KFC with a fortune as golden as its own crispy chicken wings. Only a decade and a half later, KFC, unstoppable as it was popular, opened its 500th store in China. In 2004, three years later, it opened its 1000th store; in 2012, KFC opened its 4000th store; and by 2013, each of its restaurants in China were accumulating over 1,000,000 USD in annual revenue.[ii] Today, China is the only country in the world where the number of KFC outlets outnumbers those of McDonald’s.

But the story of KFC’s path to success begins several decades before it landed its first Chinese store in 1987. From the 1950s up until KFC’s Chinese debut, revolution, famine and capitalism spread throughout the tumultuous nation, shaping ideas of food and Western civilization. And when the fast food chain’s menu debuted, its popularization was a direct result of these recent ideas as well as its appeal to traditional Chinese cuisine. Whereas many studies attribute KFC’s business model to its success, here, I will specifically argue that KFC’s culinary model can be used to explain the phenomenon of KFC’s extraordinary success in China.

In this paper, I will first outline several social, political, and economic events in the decades preceding KFC’s opening in terms of their shifting of Chinese norms regarding food and Western culture. Next, I will argue that these shifts directly aligned with KFC’s critically unique model, and this alignment resulted in a booming success. Finally, I will demonstrate that nowhere in Chinese culture does a cuisine like that of KFC appear, and that KFC’s novelty, too, contributed to its massive popularization.

Sociopolitical Events and the Shaping of Culinary Norms

Part of the explanation for KFC’s outlandish success in China lies in the nuances of Chinese history from 1959 to 1987—a rocky period when three major events shaped the Chinese approach to food and to the spread of Western culture. Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution resulted in the reduction of food culture, family significance, and foreign ideology. Deng Xiaoping’s Reforms, a relief to Mao’s suppression, then re-shifted Chinese norms their original states, heighted by the powerful momentum of catharsis. In other words, the effects of Deng’s reforms were amplified by prior sociopolitical conditions, creating a set of norms that would actually directly align with the nature of Chinese KFC.

Though China’s Great Leap Forward (大跃进) from 1958 to 1961 is known less for its actual policies than its catastrophic result, the campaign importantly ruined a sense of family-provided food, which affected present and future attitudes toward food. In order to alter the foundation of Chinese society from agrarianism to communism, Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, instituted rapid collectivization and industrialization. Unlike Stalin’s collectivization in the Soviet Union that had resulted in civil war between peasantry and state, Mao’s process of communalizing agriculture pitted Chinese of all social strata against each other,[iii] an especially problematic idea given the view of Chinese farming as a family practice. Historically, all members of the family, young and old alike, were expected to contribute to the labor supply, with the labor often so intensive that the phrase yilimi, yidihan (一粒米一滴汗), or “a drop of sweat for a grain of rice,” came into being. But collectivization distanced the notion of family from farming, effectively un-incentivizing agriculture; combined with an overwhelming focus on industrialization and frequent drought and flooding, both the institution of agriculture and family collapsed. Throughout the subsequent famine, families who had not been allocated housing were frequently split apart in a desperate attempt to find shelter and food. In 1960, for example, a report from the Guangdong government noted that a 65-year-old poor peasant with four sons had to painfully witness his sons move to four different villages to find food and work; he committed suicide just a few months later. In mountainous areas where migration was less of an option, a 1962 report from Sichuan Province indicates that over 50,000 rural families were homeless, sleeping in “chairs underneath the eaves of the houses of other families… some have slept in caves.”[iv] Urban areas were affected as well, with 80 percent of women being forced into low-paid, full-time employment, and children and elderly left uncared for at home. Families that once cooked meals together were forced to eat in collective canteens, and due to overcapacity or restrictions, families frequently could not even eat in the same canteen.[v] The once meaningful Chinese family life was left virtually fractured.

During this Great Famine, Chinese eating routines were drastically flipped into a game of survival and subsistence. Prior to Mao’s collectivization, a typical meal for an agricultural family in Zhejiang province were modest servings of rice, a vegetable dish, and if feeling especially extravagant, pork or chicken, with dishes mostly steamed and garnished with limited spices.[vi] By 1958, at the onset of the famine, meals for Chinese farmers in Shandong, for example, were much more limited, and no longer a product of their own labor. Villagers were allocated 0.25 kg per person of food rations, equivalent to a mere one to two cups of rice—and this was considered emergency relief.[vii] Hunger became starvation, and according to a 1959 Shandong Municipal Investigation Team report, villagers frequently supplemented their diet with grass, tree bark, and weeds. In Shandong’s capital, Jinan, lines of hungry individuals stretched in front of the town bureau, ready to trade their clothes for meals.[viii] In Sichuan, the delusion of hunger was so strong that villagers and town residents turned to the ancient practice of “earth eating,” or the consumption of soil-like substances.[ix] Though once believed to be a step towards immortality, earth eating proved itself to be a dirty reminder of the starving Chinese peoples’ mortality. The devastating hunger is evidenced in the Chinese language itself; several written documents by hungry Chinese citizens during this time suggest a popularization of Chinese phrases that express feeling as a function of the character chi (吃), or “to eat.” For example, in a 1959 letter to the Shandong Provincial Party Committee, a starving woman blames the Chinese Communist Party for her chikui (吃虧), which means to endure hardship or literally “to eat deficit”;[x] in another report, a member of the Sichuan Provincial Investigation Team describes how witnessing cannibalism made him chijing (吃驚), which means to be startled or literally “to eat shock.”[xi] Thus, both the starving Chinese people and the Chinese language suggested that a feeling or idea was required to be figuratively consumed in order to be understood—in other words, during this time, eating (or the lack thereof) was what drove and defined the Chinese lifestyle.

Though Mao fell in prestige as a result of the Great Leap Forward’s failure, his Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) marked not only his re-ascent to power, but also a further suppression of food culture in Chinese society. The Cultural Revolution was founded on Mao’s belief that the bourgeois were slowly claiming the Chinese government in an attempt to spread capitalism. As a result, Mao called for a violent class struggle to eliminate such revisionist ideology. Whereas in the Great Leap Forward Mao’s central concern was to boost agriculture, here, not even the members of Ministry of Agriculture were spared from his harsh pro-communist movement. In 1966, for example, Minister Liao Luyan was discovered to have protested collectivization and communism; his interrogators reported that they “made a direct onslaught against [him]” and that he was “forced into explaining how he betrayed the [Communist] Party.”[xii] With agricultural leaders—the backbone of the country’s food supply—mercilessly charged with anti-communist behavior, restaurant owners, too, were pressured to cater to the common man in order to avoid persecution. In Shanghai, where high-end restaurant chefs were traditionally celebrated as embodiments of Chinese culinary artistry, these chefs were reduced to serving their food for an affordable, everyday fare;[xiii] by 1970, for example, the Yangzhou-style restaurant Meilongzhen that once primarily served wealthy businessmen found itself serving half-price food to a customer base largely comprised of lower-class delivery truck drivers. Several high-end, high-revenue restaurants that refused to lower their costs were shut down, as Mao viewed these eateries as a bureaucratized formation of elites—a strong opponent in his battle against capitalism.[xiv] Of course, Mao also strictly forbade the opening of new restaurants—an unwelcome emblem of the private ownership of production—during the Cultural Revolution. In Beijing, 14 years passed after 1966 before the city-goers witnessed the opening of a new restaurant.

Similarly, urban upper middle-class youth—another demographic associated with the decadent, capitalist food culture—became largely disconnected from their culinary culture. As Mao viewed the youth to be a vital tool for revolution, he forced nearly half a million zhiqing (知青), or the educated youth, to receive “re-education” from poor and lower-middle peasants as a method of de-institutionalizing privilege by birth. A brain-washing of sorts, the shangshan xiaxiang yundong (上山下乡运动), literally “up the mountain, down to the country exercise,” moved zhiqing to rural farms. One high-school graduate from Beijing, Ye Weili, recalls her salient memories of the scarcity of food—especially vegetables, meat, and cooking oil. And when food was available, it often the countryside’s staple food: a modest, simple meal of bajiao (芭蕉), or plantains, cooked with rice.[xv] The zhiqing, many of whom had never touched a stove in their life, were forced to wake up at three o’clock each morning to cook the same breakfast: rice porridge with a vegetable dish.

The Cultural Revolution’s vision of an equalized society even took form in culinary instruction. In a 1973 cookbook titled 《大众菜谱》, or A Cookbook for the Masses, the very first lines, translated from Chinese, read “Chairman Mao has long pointed out to us that we ought to profoundly take notice of the life of the masses, the land and labor issues … we should incorporate all of the issues surrounding the life of the masses into our daily lives.”[xvi] The cookbook’s communist propaganda is a mere page, but it is nonetheless a departure from Chinese cookbooks’ often lengthy xuyan (序言), or preface, in which authors explain generally do not explain their political beliefs but simply recall their defining culinary experiences. The recipes in《大众菜谱》are in accordance with the period’s scarcity of meet, with the cookbook largely comprised of vegetable dish recipes that demonstrate a significant lack of the creativity that was once highly characteristic of Chinese cuisine. For example, a recipe for chaojiucai (炒韭菜), or stir-fried chives, features a mere three ingredients—chives, oil, and salt—whereas a traditional chaojiucai would be cooked with rousi (肉丝), or julienned pork, and glazed in some kind of sauce.[xvii] But in reality, to even eat chaojiucai in most of China is an absurd concept, as it is not a standalone dish outside of Southern China, but an ingredient for the filling of dumplings or steamed buns. This disintegration of Chinese cuisine to its lowest forms mirrors the Cultural Revolution’s effect on pressuring Chinese society towards the lowest social class, the proletariats.

Culinary relief was finally granted in 1978 following Mao’s death when Deng Xiaoping became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party and transformed China into a market economy—food culture found its rebirth, and the Chinese concept of food as a function of family was restored. The unity of eating and family found itself under the national spotlight two years after the Reforms began when the first private restaurant since the Cultural Revolution opened in Beijing in 1980. The owner was Liu Guixian (刘桂仙), a 47 year-old housewife who had previously worked several jobs as a chef’s assistant. Liu walked an hour to visit the Chinese Business Bureau each day for an entire month until she finally received permission to begin selling food. A poor Beijing native, she recruited her husband, four sons and daughter go “beg for a wagon of waste material, old bricks, old pads, woods” to build a modest restaurant with a small kitchen and four tables. Local media picked up Liu’s story, and within weeks, Liu and her restaurant became famous not only for the revival of Beijing’s restaurant scene, but also for reestablishing eating as a family-centered practice.[xviii] The family-run nature of agriculture, too, was reestablished in 1981 when Deng de-collectivized agriculture through the Household-Responsibility System, a practice in which local managers—most often families themselves—were held accountable for profits and losses of their land, reversing collectivization’s premise of the government absorbing any loss after providing communal farms with a production quota.

Though Chinese interest in Western cuisine had always been longstanding, with curiosity in adopting foreign cuisine dating back to the Han dynasty, circa 200AD,[xix] Chinese interest in adopting Western ideology was a newfound phenomenon. Effects of the Reforms were economically visible within one year: GDP consistently rose 9 percent annually for years since 1978, and disposable income rose over 10 percent annually as a result of the allowing of foreign businesses and investment. Nothing is more motivating than wealth, and as Chinese individuals became more profitable in a reward-based system, interest in the West began to grow, critically affecting how KFC would be received and perceived in 1987. Tempted by the promise of success as a product of individual effort, Chinese people on the outskirts of cities flocked into urban areas to participate in the new capitalist labor structure.[xx] Although the increasing acceptance of Western lifestyle could be argued to support the success of any Western fast food chain in China, it is particularly specific for KFC (as it will be argued next). After all, Qianmenxi Street (前门西), the crowded two-way street home to KFC’s first store, literally translates to “front door to the West.”

The KFC Model’s Identifying Qualities in Relation to Chinese Sociopolitical Factors

By 1987, these events had effectively conditioned Chinese citizens to favor a family-oriented, flavorful, and emblematically Western restaurant. Coincidentally (or not), several key identifiers of the Chinese KFC model align with these preferences. Because these defining qualities cannot be said of other Western and domestic fast food chains, the extent to which they account for KFC’s success is fully valid.

While it took only three years the second Western fast food chain enter the lucrative Chinese market—McDonald’s, unsurprisingly—restaurants not including KFC still suffer from a sort of ‘standardization syndrome’ that limits their potential. Take McDonald’s, for example—KFC’s biggest competitor in China—as a contrast to KFC’s culinary model. When the burger-serving juggernaut launched its first store in Shenzhen in 1990, the Chinese menu was exactly the same as the American menu. McDonald’s most popular orders in America—the Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, or McChicken with a side of French fries—can be mapped directly onto their Chinese counterparts. But when comparing the Chinese KFC menu with its American version, the difference is significant: several options available in China were entirely new to KFC’s global franchise, and would be lost in culinary translation if offered in the US. The 1987 pioneering menu, for example, offers doujiang (soy milk), mizhou (congee) mixed with crispy bits of meat as sides to main dishes; the menu also offered variations on American fried chicken favorites, including what is now KFC’s most popular order, the xiangla jibao (spicy chicken burger).[xxi] In the years since its opening, additions to the menu included yumi jikuai (corn-stuffed chicken nuggets) and the zhenzhu naicha (pearl milk tea). Similarly, it is almost impossible to find a difference between Chinese and American menus in other popular chains—Starbucks, for example, offers none of the culinary fusions that define KFC’s Chinese presence. Perhaps the only Western fast food chain to adopt KFC’s Eastern-Western culinary synthesis is Pizza Hut (必胜客), which opened in Beijing in 1990, but this similarity is precisely explained by the fact that Pizza Hut is run under the same parent brand as KFC, Yum! Brands.

Even more, Chinese KFCs are known to provide hyper-localized but also internationalized menus, specifically tailored to different regions of China and catered to growing cosmopolitanism. In China’s southwestern Sichuan Province, a region known for its spicy cuisine, KFC’s menu offers the laobeijing jiroujuan (老北京鸡肉卷套), popularized in English as the “Dragon Twister”, a spicy, crispy chicken wrap with Peking duck sauce meant to mimic the traditional wrapping-method of Peking duck in steamed pancakes, generously stuffed with scallion and cucumber sticks.[xxii] KFCs in Sichuan also offer a twist on the region’s famous mapo doufu (麻婆豆腐), or spicy chili tofu, offering mapo doufu jiroufan (麻婆豆腐鸡肉饭)—the same spicy tofu mixed with crispy chicken, served over rice.[xxiii] As one of many campaigns designed to add a temporary touch of international flavors, KFC, for example, launched a “Taste of Ireland” campaign in China in 2011. The advertising spree marketed limited-time offerings of American-Chinese-Irish selections, including the aierlan tiansuanjiroutui (爱尔兰甜酒烤鸡腿), or Irish sweet-liqueur fried chicken—while labeled as “fried,” the chicken is actually mostly steamed, the traditional method of cooking in China, coated with a thin layer of American-style crisp, and finally drizzled with Bailey’s Irish Cream, an Irish cream-based whiskey.[xxiv]

Though Sam Su, a Yum! Brands executive who partly oversaw KFC’s Chinese opening, admitted the menu selections were “risky,” the team was nonetheless confident in the Chinese peoples’ warm welcome, an assurance that stemmed from KFCs previous launches in other Asian locations: Japan in 1970, Hong Kong in 1973, and Taiwan in 1987. There, menus not only utilized Colonel Sanders’ top-secret fried chicken recipe, but also successfully fused it with local tastes. The seafood-rich country of Japan, for example, boasted a menu with a panko (bread crumb coated) fried salmon sandwich; the KFC franchise has since reached such popularity in Japan that the phrase kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii (“Kentucky for Christmas!”) signifies its widespread prominence Japanese society.[xxv] The Hong Kong stores are a slightly different story: although they officially opened in 1973, the branches were shut down by 1975, and then reopened in 1985 with greater, continuous success. The problem was the menu: while it offered several dishes that currently appear on KFC’s Chinese menu, including congee, the cuisine was designed to be authentically Hong Kong, ultimately being dismissed as a cheap Western imitation.[xxvi] Having grasped this vital lesson, KFC carefully reformulated its Hong Kong and Chinese selections, and when the chain opened in Beijing, Yum! Brands executive Roger Eaton claimed that KFC’s menu had officially passed the “Chinese taste bud test.”[xxvii]

Like other Western fast food chains in China, domestic Chinese restaurant chains also are lacking in this regard—in the ability to tastefully (quite literally) combine different cuisines and dishes. Specifically, the most famous Chinese chains are known for producing exceptional traditional Chinese dishes, and not for innovation and culinary experimentation. Of course, there is little impetus for fixing what is not wrong, but the deep attachment to strictly Chinese dishes nonetheless limits a restaurant’s room for variation in its dishes. For example, Quanjude (全聚德), a popular Chinese chain established in 1864, is known precisely for one dish: its authentic Peking roast duck. Its menu has hardly changed since the early 19th century, and of its main dishes, the closest plate that involves a blend of international flavors is the jiemokaoya (芥末烤鸭), or the mustard roast duck, that uses mustard paste originally popularized in Western Europe.[xxviii] [xxix] Likewise, Goubuli (狗不理), which literally translates to “even dogs don’t ignore,” specializes in traditional baozi (包子), or Chinese stuffed buns. Like Quanjude, Goubuli places its effort not on the incorporation of regional or global tastes, but rather on the mastery of a single, authentic Chinese dish. The chain prides itself in offering baozi exclusively filled with traditional stuffing, such as ground pork, chives, and Chinese cabbage, a classically popular blend.[xxx] [xxxi] As a result, by virtue of Chinese chain restaurants’ dedication to perfecting Chinese cuisine, there were no Chinese food chains that were direct culinary competitors to KFC prior to its entry in China.

Lastly, in its physical setting, KFC emanates a distinct aura of family. Although several fast food chains in China are known for their sit-down, community atmosphere, Chinese KFC has a particularly strong connection to the notion of family. For example, KFC’s pricing specials incentivize a family meal. Even from its first menu in 1987, KFC offered deals that provided discounts for larger order sizes;[xxxii] for example, a single order of containing two xianglajichi (香辣鸡翅), or spicy chicken wings, is RMB7.50, while a larger order containing eight wings is RMB25, a price differential of about RMB4 had the larger order been simply multiplied by four. Similar deals can be found in KFC’s tao (套), or meal sets, which are larger orders crafted for consumption by multiple individuals. Granted, in 1987, meal sets were most likely available in other Chinese restaurants, and definitely available in other Western chains upon their arrivals in China—but in 2002, KFC was the first chain in China (and still the only one) to introduce the quanjiatong (全家桶), or the Family Bucket.[xxxiii] Moreover, while Chinese restaurants traditionally required customers to be seated to be served, KFC’s freely open tables were an utter novelty that welcomed individuals regardless of their intentions to purchase food. The order-at-the-counter model, yet another novelty, conveniently aligned with the Chinese notion of the family as the sole food producer and provider: with a no designated server, the physical provider of food to a family’s table is a member of the family himself. Again, while other Western chains in China follow a similar physical layout, many Chinese customers at other chains prefer the delivery service in lieu of eating in the store—a ubiquitous service in any Chinese McDonald’s, but hardly ever available in a Chinese KFC. Thus, for at least three years prior to the next Western chain’s appearance in China, KFC was able to be the sole Western restaurant associated with a family-oriented quality—a quality that still lasts today.

KFC’s Place in the Chinese Culinary Sphere: a True Novelty

Perhaps the most intuitive explanation for KFC’s unparalleled success in China is the food. The success comes from the nonexistence of the menu’s contents in Chinese cuisine. In other words, KFC’s novelty—with ‘novelty’ defined less as ‘new,’ but more as ‘not old’ or ‘never seen before’—contributed to its massive success in China.

Starting from a broader scale, the concept of fast food hardly existed in China prior to KFC. Perhaps the closest analogue to grab-and-go food is the classic Chinese breakfast food youtiao (油条), or a fried dough stick, that originated roughly 800 years ago during the Song Dynasty and is popularly sold as a snack taken to-go.[xxxiv] Also similar is baozi, or a stuffed bun, and like youtiao, both of the dishes are frequently for sale in small, family-run restaurants. But here the ‘fast’ in ‘fast food’ refers not to the full production cycle of the foods, but only to the speed at which pre-cooked youtiao and baozi can be fried and steamed, or to the convenience of purchasing already-cooked youtiao and baozi. Likewise, the Chinese tanfan (摊贩), or street vendors, employ a similar strategy in which ready-to-go foods, most often some form of a meat skewer (肉串), is sold. But expediency alone does not define fast food, at least as Westerners know it: youtiao, baozi and tanfan are frequently prepared in insanitary conditions, and vendors lack the capital to increase the quality of both the production and ingredients. KFC, however, operates under a systematic preparation of food in cleaner, brighter areas, resulting in fast processing and cooking of food within minutes of an order.[xxxv] As such, KFC was the first restaurant in China to establish this fundamentally new conception of obtaining food quickly and efficiently.

Most notably, KFC’s popularity can be explained by the central food on KFC’s menu—fried chicken—which did not exist in a form familiar to Westerners in China prior to KFC’s entry. Archaeological evidence indicates that chickens were domesticated from the red jungle fowl as early as 5400 BC in Hebei Province, the first evidence of chicken consumption in China.[xxxvi] Frying dates back to as early as 7 BC, when records indicated the consumption of fried meat dumplings. Fried spring rolls containing meat, with a shell similarly crispy but less textured than KFC’s fried chicken, date back early 17th and 18th century.[xxxvii] But actually, by limitations of translation, “fried chicken” technically existed throughout China for at least a half a century. For example, a cookbook《菜谱集锦》 (Caipu Jijin), or “A Recipe Collection”, features a recipe for youjian ziji (油煎子鸡), which translates to “fried chicken.” The publication date—1960, amidst the Great Famine—suggests that the author was most likely an upper middle-class city dweller, and for the common Chinese man, the dish was probably more of a gift than a food. Ingredients include chicken, white soy sauce, chestnut powder, chicken broth, vinegar, and fermented rice wine. The cookbook instructs the reader, translated from Chinese, to “dice the chicken into pieces with the fermented rice wine, soy sauce, ginger … fry them in oil … next, boil the chicken in broth, sugar, vinegar …”[xxxviii] which would result in a type of chicken dish similar to forms of sweet and sour chicken—not any form of fried chicken similar to that of KFC. Although youjian and another character, zha (炸), both translate to “fried,” the nuance is that in traditional Chinese cooking, the former, youjian, refers to a pan-frying, whereas the latter indicates deep-frying in oil, a similar type of frying utilized in KFC’s kitchens. However, both forms of frying preclude a breading process, which, when deep-fried, is responsible for creating KFC fried chicken’s signature crispy, golden skin. Regardless, even the thought of affording enough chicken or oil—two scarce ingredients during this decade—would have been laughable to a common Chinese man.

Even with rising income during Deng’s Reforms, the popularization of a Chinese fried chicken dish seemed unlikely, for both budget constraints and health concerns. The introduction of a 1980 cookbook reads, translated from Chinese, “recipes in this book have been modified for the sake of being understood and used by the common people and food service workers.”[xxxix] Within the cookbook, the closest recipe to fried chicken is xiangzao youji (香糟油鸡), or “marinated chicken.”[xl] Instructions suggest using one chicken, whereas the previous cookbook had suggested using eight chicken legs—more evidence that the cookbook had been targeted for a financially unrepresentative subset of the Chinese population. Additionally, the xiangzao youji dish of this 1980 cookbook is a representative example of a traditional, popular method of cooking chicken: hongshao (红烧), directly translated as “red cooking,” which means soy-sauce marinating.[xli] Aside from red cooking of chicken being less expensive than the frying of chicken, red cooking has been historically viewed to be a slower, healthier way to infuse flavor into chicken than a more immediate method like frying. According to the Chinese humoral theory, the human body is affected by heat and cold; the modern interpretation manifests itself in common classifications of fried food as re (热), or “hot,” whereas a healthier, steamed food would classified as liang (凉), or “cool.”[xlii] Humoral theory provides an alternative explanation to financial infeasibility as to why the Chinese resisted popularizing fried chicken despite, in some instances, possessing the ingredients to do so. As if in anticipation of this notion, KFC markets itself as a “New Fast Food” brand, one that embodies healthy living and balanced nutrition. Other fast food chains are less explicit in addressing Chinese health concerns: McDonald’s, for example, simply restructured marketing platforms to advertise beef products due to concerns of the safety of chicken meat.[xliii]

Lastly, regional division of culinary trends suggests that the development of multi-dimensional flavors of KFC’s menu, much less the East-West fusion elements, would have been highly unlikely. As an ancient Chinese saying goes, nantian beixian dongla xisuan (南甜,北咸,东辣,西酸), or “the South is sweet, North is salty, East is spicy, West is sour.”   This fragmented food culture, especially over the geographic giant of China, implies a slower integration of regional flavors, much less the concept of a national cuisine. For example, the culinary invention of Chinese KFC’s multi-dimensionally flavored xiangla jichi, or spicy chicken wings with a sweet essence, would be highly unlikely. Although both spicy and sweet foods were well received throughout China, the flavor of regional expertise in one flavor often dominated the dish.[xliv] For example, a popular 1984 cookbook《中国八大菜系菜谱选》(Selected Recipes from the Eight Chinese Cuisines), in which the eight cuisines refer to eight of China’s largest provinces, provides an example of the difficulty of reconciling regional taste with other flavors. For instance, a recipe of Sichuan, a region known for spiciness, for lazi jiding (辣子鸡丁), or spicy chicken, uses paohonglajiao (泡红辣椒), one of the hottest chili peppers in China. The directions explicitly call for the chicken to be boiled in these diced pepper over a wanghuo (旺火), or a vigorous flame, thus extracting the full extent of the pepper’s spiciness: the spiciness is calculated to overpower sweeter ingredients such as sesame seeds, or delicate additions such as ginger, which functionally serve no purpose other than ornament.[xlv] As such, the interplay between flavors—especially in blending spicy, sweet and salty tastes—often resulted in a singular dominant flavor. Such culinary tensions made the diverse flavor profile of the entire KFC menu—from salty breakfast, to a spicy dinner, to a sweet dessert—a remarkable originality, offering not only a taste of the full Chinese flavor palate, but also a taste of the West. In China’s case, only an outsider like KFC was able to navigate through its complex culinary sphere and emerge as an unbiased, all-inclusive, masterful presenter of flavor. And in KFC’s case, only a country like China—in which culinary, social and economic norms aligned with their model—was able to provide the site for its biggest success to date.


Ultimately, the investigation into KFC’s massive success in China is a critically interesting study—how did a restaurant achieve unprecedented success in China? The answer, as presented in this paper, is a three-fold idea. First, three major events (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and the Reforms) functioned to condition Chinese individuals to favor a family-oriented, richly flavored, and capitalist restaurant. Second, when KFC entered in China in 1987, it directly appealed to these three qualities, an ability that other Western fast food chains and domestic chains still fail to achieve today. And third, Chinese culinary history is notably missing fried chicken despite the country’s preferences for all of the flavors that KFC offers, and this, too, contributed to KFC’s success. In Beijing, for example, a KFC store can be spotted every few blocks, around a street corner, or behind a metro stop—and this phenomenon, as demonstrated, has very strong reasons behind it. It is not simply because “the Chinese really like fried chicken.” It is about asking why they prefer what they prefer, about examining how a US culinary tradition so successfully entered one of the world’ richest food culture.

Jack Linshi (’14) is a Applied Mathematics major in Jonathan Edwards College.



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Sun, Junshu. 《菜谱》. Jinan: Shandong Science and Technology Publishing, 1980.

Swislocki, Mark. Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009.

Ta, Chung Tsai Pu.《大众菜谱》. N.p.: Jing Gong Ye Publishing Company, 1973.

Ye, Weili, and Xiaodong Ma. Growing Up in the People’s Republic: Conversations between Two Daughters of China’s Revolution. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

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Zhou, Xun. The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012.


[i] Warren K. Liu, KFC in China: Secret Recipe for Success, (Singapore: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), 5.

[ii] Veronica, Romualdez, “The History of KFC in China,” EHow, Demand Media, Sept. 29 2009, accessed Feb. 22 2013.

[iii] Xun Zhou, The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary History. (New Haven: Yale UP, 2012), 17.

[iv] Ibid., 75.

[v] Ibid., 45.

[vi] Daniel Zhang, “Agriculture in Zhejiang During the Great Famine,” Telephone interview with author, Apr. 20 2013.

[vii] Zhou, The Great Famine in China, 80.

[viii] Ibid., 82.

[ix] Ibid., 44.

[x] Ibid., 151.

[xi] Ibid., 152.

[xii] Pamela Lubell, The Chinese Communist Party and the Cultural Revolution: The Case of the Sixty-one Renegades, (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), 143-44.

[xiii] Mark Swislocki, Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai, (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009), 27.

[xiv] Ibid., 217.

[xv] Weili Ye, and Xiaodong Ma, Growing Up in the People’s Republic: Conversations between Two Daughters of China’s Revolution, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[xvi] Ta, Chung Tsai Pu,《大众菜谱》, (Jing Gong Ye Publishing Company, 1973), 1.

[xvii] Ibid., 11.

[xviii] Graham Earnshaw, “Capital Cafe in Peking,” The Daily Telegraph [Beijing], Nov. 6 1980.

[xix] Swislocki, Culinary Nostalgia, 27.

[xx] Liu, KFC in China 9-13.

[xxi] Liu, KFC in China 85.

[xxii] Eugene Newton Anderson, The Food of China, (New Haven: Yale UP, 1988), 42.

[xxiii] William Mellor, “McDonald’s No Match for KFC in China as Colonel Rules Fast Food,” Bloomberg, Jan. 26, 2011.

[xxiv]肯德基网站, Kentucky Fried Chicken, May 4 2013.

[xxv]”How KFC in Japan Is Different from KFC in the US,” Fast Food in Japan, May 4 2013.

[xxvi] Liu, KFC in China, 19.

[xxvii] Ibid., 25.

[xxviii]全聚德网站, QuanJuDe Restaurant, May 4 2013.

[xxix] Janet Hazen, Making Your Own Gourmet Mustards, (Chronicle Books, 1993), 10.

[xxx]狗不理集团股份有限公司,GouBuLi Restaurant, May 4 2013.

[xxxi] Anderson, The Food of China, 126.

[xxxii] Liu, KFC in China 66.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 67.

[xxxiv] Anderson, The Food of China, 127.

[xxxv] Liu, KFC in China, 20.

[xxxvi] Yi-Ping Liu, “Multiple Origins of Chickens: Out of the Asian Jungles,” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Vol 38, Issue 1: 2006, 12-19.

[xxxvii]Kwang-chih Chang, ed., Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 20.

[xxxviii] Yuan Hui,《菜谱集锦》Volume 1, (Shanghai Publishing Company, 1960), 204.

[xxxix] Junshu Sun,《菜谱》, (Shandong Science and Technology Publishing: Jinan, 1980), 1.

[xl] Ibid., 31.

[xli]Frederick Simmons, Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry, (CRC Press, 1991).

[xlii] Anderson, The Food of China, 189.

[xliii]Paul French, and Matthew Crabbe, Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines Are Changing a Nation, (London: Anthem, 2010), 115.

[xliv] Jacques Gernet, Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, trans. H. M. Wright. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), 10.

[xlv] Zhong Liu,《中国八大菜系菜谱选》, (Tianjin Publishing Company, 1984): 127.


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