I was a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding this summer. The night before the big day, I ransacked my kitchen to concoct a welcome drink for the groom and his groomsmen. As I stirred oyster sauce, vinegar, ketchup, lemon juice, honey, ginger, matcha powder, and Sichuan pepper together in a big bowl, I forced myself to taste the unpleasant-looking mixture and realized that one flavor was lacking: bitterness.
This welcome drink was part of a Chinese wedding custom we call “door games” or “gatecrashing,” where bridesmaids give the groom and his groomsmen a series of challenges before the groom can meet his beloved face to face. The tradition arises from the belief that the bride is a precious daughter whose family will not let her be taken easily. (To be clear, this custom is performed with good-humored intent.)
In the game suan tian ku la (酸 甜 苦 辣), the bridesmaids serve the groom and groomsmen food or drinks in four specific flavors—sour, sweet, bitter, spicy—to signify the various difficulties and challenges that the new couple will face in the future. (Typically, these flavors are consumed separately rather than mixed together, but we were short on time.) If the groom and groomsmen are able to imbibe everything, no matter how horrid-tasting, it’s a sign that the new couple will be able to stomach anything that comes their way.
But bitterness isn’t just one component in a Chinese wedding tradition. It’s a flavor that’s permeated our cultural consciousness and way of life through the words chi ku (吃苦), which translates to “eat bitterness.” This term has a deeper symbolic meaning than consuming bitter gourd or herbs like mugwort, though; it primarily refers to persevering through hardship and suffering without complaint.
In May, Chinese president Xi Jinping referenced chi ku five times when giving advice to young graduates struggling to find employment in China, with statements like “the countless instances of success in life demonstrate that in one’s youth, choosing to eat bitterness is also choosing to reap rewards.”
From a Christian perspective, eating bitterness can be a helpful term that points us to the work of Christ on the cross. But it can also reflect a rather stoic approach to life, regarding complaining about one’s circumstances as weakness.
Suffering and perseverance, which are intimately intertwined in eating bitterness, are also linked in the Bible. However, a key difference lies in their end goal: for Christians, it is godly hope rather than self-mastery. Scripture also encourages us to boast in our weaknesses, which chi ku does not permit, because doing so is akin to failure.
An embodied affliction
Chinese people tend to experience emotions in their bodies rather than their minds. For instance, a study comparing Malaysian Chinese and Euro-Australian experiences of depression found that people of Chinese descent shared their physical problems, while those of Euro-Australian descent talked about troubling states of mind or mood.
Granted, talking about emotions rarely happens in Chinese culture, which is why the physical ailments that a person of Chinese descent goes through—ranging from occasional sicknesses to chronic health conditions and severe illnesses—may bear witness to his or her immediate struggles and challenges.
In this worldview, eating bitterness reinforces the notion that pain and struggle are to be internalized and digested, rather than avoided or spat out.
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering also give us an intimate glimpse of chi ku, where Christ himself, I would argue, ate bitterness. To read how lash after cruel lash ripped his back is to be made painfully aware that he experienced this as the incarnate Son of God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14, Mark 15:5). To recall that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground as he prayed (Luke 22:44) is to know that Christ is familiar with our suffering. To receive and partake of the bread and cup at Communion is to remember his body and blood, broken and shed for us (1 Cor. 11:23–25).
Our own embodied experience of eating bitterness may also serve as a means through which we enter into Jesus’ suffering and recognize that of others around us.
“Pain breaks us open, allowing us to become kinder and more generous toward others who suffer and preparing us to recognize God’s suffering in the person of Christ,” wrote Jenell Williams Paris in a review of Rob Moll’s What Your Body Knows About God.
Some Chinese Christians are familiar with eating bitterness for Christ’s sake. In northern China, authorities threw Yang Xiaohui and Chen Shang into jail for gathering with other Christians. Despite facing ridicule and ill-treatment, the women began witnessing to guards and cell mates by singing worship songs in Mandarin. “Even when I was locked up in a jail cell, my soul was still free,” Yang said.
What complicates this favorable understanding of eating bitterness is that it is often imbued with an innate stoicism that focuses primarily on enduring present pain in hopes of a better future, rejecting any expressions of emotion in the process.
Some think that eating bitterness is a way of building mental, emotional, and physical fortitude. The Chinese phrase chi ku shi fu (吃苦是福), which translates to “eating suffering is good fortune,” highlights how there is “opportunity for wisdom and growth” in suffering, one Stanford University researcher opined.
Others might feel resigned to the suffering they undergo, argues Filipino theologian Dick O. Eugenio in Asian Christian Ethics. “This fatalistic tendency is not perceived as a destructive response,” he wrote, “but an appropriate passivity informed by a recognition of greater workings that make society just.”
Reasons for this passivity may include a “fear of contradicting the divine imperative” or “accumulating more bad karma,” he added.
In my view, what seems most problematic about the stoic nature of eating bitterness is that it does not permit complaint. To speak our grievances is akin to admitting weakness or to an inability to ride things out. More devastatingly, it can be considered a failure to withstand and overcome trials and tribulations, or to adopt a positive attitude or posture toward suffering.
Eating bitterness inadvertently becomes a limitation placed on our humanness and our ways of being and moving in the world.
The Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All At Once puts this concept in sharp focus (note: spoilers ahead). Evelyn’s laundromat is an emblem of chi ku, exemplifying how she has forged a means of survival in a foreign land, no matter how difficult customers get or how formidable—and murderous—her tax auditor becomes. In encountering an abundance of different Evelyns across the multiverse, however, she comes to perceive her present existence as a laundromat owner as restrictive and meaningless.
Going against the cultural grain
Evelyn’s experience of eating bitterness might resonate with those of us who are going through difficult circumstances with no conceivable end in sight. Yet, as Christians, we know that there is a more redemptive arc within our experience of suffering.
Like the concept of eating bitterness implies, suffering and perseverance go hand-in-hand in the Bible. We are called to “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope,” Romans 5:3–4 says. We are to consider it pure joy when we face trials, knowing that one who perseveres is “blessed” (James 1:2, 12).
Where voicing our faults is regarded as failure in the Chinese worldview, in the biblical worldview, boasting about our weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:9) is paradoxically seen as a strength.
Talking about failure is often shunned in Chinese culture, perhaps because it seems shameful or might dishonor our communities at large. In church, we often prefer highlighting victories instead of being vulnerable about our ongoing struggles. But this predisposition toward triumphant storytelling might mean that we miss God’s larger, all-encompassing story for us: It is in the thick of suffering, rather than at its conclusion, where we most fully encounter his love, tenderness, and solidarity.
“Christ comes right in the midst of our pain and powerlessness so we can know his presence. When we belong to Jesus, the paradoxical path to flourishing is finding our weakness where God’s power is perfected (2 Cor. 12:9),” wrote therapist K. J. Ramsey for CT.
From a biblical perspective, then, eating bitterness is an inclination toward hope in Christ rather than self-mastery over suffering. Hope does not put us to shame, as Paul declares (Rom. 5:5). To hope does not mean manifesting an ideal outcome, but recognizing that hope is itself “a living activity, a struggle, a commitment, a discipline,” as writer Danté Stewart argues.
Jacob’s wrestling with God (Gen. 32:22–32) also comes to mind here. His limp might serve as an indication of eating bitterness, but it is also a reminder of his relationship with a God who loves him, who did not let him go before blessing him amid the struggle.
Taste and see
My ongoing encounters with eating bitterness, like rebuilding my life as an immigrant in Canada, and experiencing a miscarriage—with the lingering grief and sorrow that surrounds it—may pale in comparison to what others are facing.
But I believe that God does not discount or demean my particular experiences of suffering.
Rather, it is in the midst of these unresolved tensions and unmet hopes that I recognize I am not in control of the trajectory of my life. He holds it all in his hands, bidding me to acknowledge and proclaim how he is working in my life with my fellow believers, even if it pains me to verbalize the ups and downs in the already-and-not-yet that characterizes the Christian life.
Like David asserts during a time of distress when Saul pursues him to take his life: “I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. … Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (Ps. 34:2, 8). May we, like David, partake in God’s enduring promises even as we eat bitterness.