If we understand a “cuisine” to be a self-conscious––i.e., named––body of culinary practices, then China is home to not one, but to many cuisines. How many? This is hard to say, because Chinese cuisines can be grouped in different ways.
First, there is the division between cuisines of North China (běifāng cài 北方菜) and cuisines of South China (nánfāng cài 南方菜), which roughly corresponds with wheat-eating areas in the north, and rice-eating areas to the south, but this is only a crude contrast that does little to explain actual food practices.
The variety of cuisines in China is slightly better understood by looking at well-celebrated culinary traditions, such as the Four Great Cuisines (sì dà cài xì 四大菜系). This list includes Lu Cuisine, representing northeastern China, Huaiyang (Yangzhou) Cuisine, representing the lower reaches of the Yangzi River, Chuan (Sichuan) Cuisine, representing the middle and upper regions of the Yangzi River, and Yue Cuisine, representing the area around the Pearl River Delta.
This four-part division still lacks much of the nuance needed to understand Chinese cuisines, leading others to propose lists of Eight Great Cuisines, or Ten Great Cuisines, adding other regional cuisines to the original four. These other lists are not consistently represented, however. There is considerable disagreement over where to draw boundaries and on what does or does not count as a “Chinese cuisine.”
To name a cuisine in Chinese, one generally combines a regional toponym with the suffix –cài 菜, meaning the prepared food of such-and-such region. China’s complex geography lends itself to the recognition of many such cuisines, and cuisines based on something other than a place name are also possible. A list of cuisines longer than four is certainly best, but cross-regional similarities of ingredients and methods suggest some limits to what should be considered an independent cuisine. Carolyn Phillips, in her cookbook All Under Heaven, identifies thirty-five cuisines, which she clusters into five culinary regions. Listen to her discuss her reasoning here, in a podcast on this site.
Enumerating 30-50 cuisines, give or take some, is probably about right for capturing the main divisions of food found in and around China, but how to identify the larger groupings remains a problem. You can read about one statistical attempt using online recipe collections here. Other suggestions include that of Zhao Rongguang, a famous scholar of China’s food history, who proposed adopting the notion of a cultural sphere to divide the culinary landscape. His system for China has twelve culinary spheres that overlap in places, better accounting for the fuzzy boundaries between traditions that one encounters in travel. Such a scholarly approach has advantages, and we have referred to Professor Zhao’s system when clustering our own list, below. Nonetheless, because his approach does not reflect popular use we have not adopted it outright. The complexity of Chinese cuisines will continue to stimulate debate, surely, for years to come.