The term "Chinese food" can be misleading because there are many Chinese styles of cooking.
Scholars believe that Chinese cooking as we know it today dates to the Shang Dynasty, which lasted from 1500 to 1000 B.C. During this period China emerged as a well-organized agricultural society, which used complex writing, the calendar, and made splendid bronze sculptures.
In later dynasties, China expanded and cuisine began to acquire distinctive northern and southern characteristics. Eventually, various styles of Chinese cooking came to be recognized. Beijing, Sichuan or Szechwan, and Cantonese are among the best known in the United States.
Cooking from throughout China has influenced Beijing cuisine, because emperors of the Ming and Ch'ing (Manchu) dynasties held cooking contests, drawing chefs from across the empire. Many Beijing dishes originated in the imperial kitchens and today some fancy restaurants boast their faithfulness to classical imperial recipes.
The meal known as dim sum also has a long tradition in southern China. Usually eaten at breakfast or lunch, and frequently as a family meal on Sunday, dim sum consists of many courses of bite-sized portions. Waiters push trays loaded with noodle, dumpling, vegetable, and meat dishes. Diners indicate what they want. Some restaurants may offer as many as 100 different dishes in one day. Tea is consumed throughout the meal, which is often a noisy, cheerful occasion.