The Origin of 吃了吗?

When you start learning Chinese, it’s likely that you’ve been told that吃了吗? (chī le ma, Have you eaten?) is a common Chinese greeting.

You’ve likely been told that the reason Chinese people used “吃了吗?” as a greeting was mainly because food is the most important thing. However, after a bit of research, I found the origins of 吃了吗 to be much more interesting.

In Northern Song Dynasty (960 - 1127 A.D.), a book called Lü Convention 《吕氏乡约written by the Lü brothers in Lantian, Shaanxi was popular among the village people in the nation. As it was a book of etiquette, it introduced common manners and protocols in daily life, including proper greetings. Among them, one rule reads:

凡往见人,入门必问主人食否……度无所妨,乃命展剌。有妨则少俟。”

“Whoever you visit, you should ask them if they have eaten or not……if they are about to eat, don’t enter the house until after they finish the meal. Otherwise, you would be intruding.”
— The Lü Brothers

In other words, one should avoid visiting people’s homes when they are having a meal. To ask “have you eaten?” would be the most considerate thing to do. 

Eventually this phrase caught on and became a daily greeting. By asking “吃了吗?”, you are showing that you care about the other person and it would be easy to start a conversation. However, as you may have noticed, it is not used as often any more. If you are ever asked “吃了吗”, just a simple “吃了 ( chī le,I have)” or “没吃 (méi chī, I have not)” would do.  


An Yi, Emily and Maria's classmate for four years, does social media management in the U.S. for GoEast and writes for their blog. She taught Chinese in American high schools for two years and is now settling down in Texas, looking forward to be a Chinese teacher at local schools again.