A brief explanation of 衣食住行

Written by Dr. Gaoheng Zhang

衣食住行 (literally, clothing, food, housing, and mobility)

The idea behind the Chinese formulation minus mobility is of ancient origin, which appears, for example, in the Laozi, where food, clothing, and dwellings are mentioned in parallel with customs in a single sentence in chapter 80. In the Analects, Confucius embeds this idea in many passages albeit not in a concentrated way, often shedding light on the cultural, political, and moral reasons why these things and their extended meanings recurred in people’s thoughts about their life. Ancient Chinese Buddhism also had a well-developed system for regulating the four daily activities within the context of temple life.[1]

The modern (re-)invention and popularization of the expression was attributed to Sun Yat-sen in the early 20th century. In his formulation of 三民主义, or Three Principles of the People, as both a general practical guideline and a political philosophy for creating a Chinese nation-state, one tenet refers to民生, or people’s welfare (or the livelihood of the people), which for him can be broken down to the four areas of living. He was also the person who explicitly added mobility to the expression. The 1936 (and first) edition of 辞海, the standard dictionary and encyclopedia of Mandarin Chinese, has an entry for the expression, providing an etymological explanation: 

衣服飲食居住三者,為人生所必須,故舊時恆三者連舉;自世界進化,交通頻繁,孫中山先生始倡為衣食住行之說;蓋於吾人最關切者,此四事也。

(Clothing, drinking and eating, and habitation are three necessities for human existence. Therefore, since antiquity, the three things have always been mentioned together. As the world evolved, and traffic became more frequent, Mr. Sun Yat-sen first advocated for the expression of 衣食住行, likely because these are the four things that we care most about.)[2]

This website uses the Chinese formulation to organize discussions of case studies set in various North American, Asian, and European cities. Be sure to also navigate other contents in the bar menu, which gives information on conferences, exhibits, and network contacts related to the study of Chinese-Italian cultural connections and mobilities.

Read our multilingual statements: 中文 / Español / Français / Italiano / Português


[1] On Confucius and the expression, see 吴祝平, “《论语》中的衣食住行及其隐喻.” On Buddhism, see 菩提子, “佛教丛林中的衣食住行制度.”

[2] The explanation in traditional Chinese is taken from the online database: Ci Hai Complete Database. The translation is mine.

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