Review: Bitter and Sweet

Bitter and Sweet: Food, Meaning and Modernity in Rural China. Ellen Oxfeld. University of California Press, 2017.

David E. Sutton
Southern Illinois University

The residents of Moonshadow Pond, a village in the Guandong province of southeastern China, care deeply about their food. Food procurement, preparation, sharing and eating is a constant topic of everyday conversation, both for its pleasures and its stresses and strains. Indeed, bitter and sweet are not just important flavors balanced in the local cuisine, they represent embodied metaphors of proper and improper ways of engaging with food. In this book, Ellen Oxfeld, who has conducted research in the predominantly Hakka village of Moonshadow Pond since the early 1990s, sets out to describe the food based worldview of this community in order to understand the interlocking ways that rural villagers enact social relations, experience migration, generational change and the changing aspects of life in contemporary China. Bitter and Sweet consists of an introduction, five substantive chapters and a brief conclusion. In each chapter, Oxfeld lays out a key theme in understanding the foodways of Moonshadow Pond: Labor, Memory, Exchange, Morality and Conviviality. Food, here, as in other recent works such as Jon Holtzman’s Uncertain Tastes or Anita von Poser’s Foodways and Empathy, provides a way in to exploring contemporary social life in a small community. Indeed, it is not just because it is so highly valued in Moonshadow Pond, but also because food seems to demand an understanding of questions of labor and economics, gifts and exchange, consumption and morality, history and memory, that it makes an ideal vehicle for giving new life to classic anthropological concerns with continuity and change at the local level.

“Labor” describes villagers’ changing relationship to the production of food and how that production is conceptualized as younger generations potentially leave agricultural labor behind or migrate to cities for jobs. Traditionally labor is thought of as gengtian, or “tilling the soil.” Moonshadow Pond has seen changes over time from periods of polycropping and animal husbandry to periods (especially in the collective era) of almost exclusive focus on rice (prepared plain or as congee, a porridge dish). The collective era (from the Revolution till around 1980) was also unusual in that agricultural labor was shared between men and women. Typically, women are primarily responsible for agriculture, while men’s labor is more oriented toward wages or other market activity. Since the reform era, the younger generation has increasingly moved away from agriculture, as “peasant” identity can be a stigma. While a primarily female older generation does much of the agricultural labor now, older women often make demands for aid during harvest or at other times on the younger generation, and such agricultural work and family provisioning is seen as providing security against the uncertainties of work in cities. While the distribution of agricultural labor in families can be a source of tension, gengtian is also a powerful symbol of “work for the family.” As Oxfeld notes, “’Eating one’s own rice’ is still highly valued, even if the reality of the younger generation’s work lives is making this goal more and more difficult” (53).

Oxfeld’s discussion of food labor does not end, as it so often does, with tilling the soil. The labor of food production equally demands shaohuo, or “tending the kitchen fires.” The labor of cooking in Moonshadow Pond is less divided by gender and generation. Although older women take the primary role, men and the younger generation are also comfortable in the kitchen, both in terms of everyday cooking and the extra labor involved in preparing celebratory banquets or special holiday treats (nianban). This is strikingly illustrated in Oxfeld’s description of being the only adult on a trip to a local mountaintop with a group of 20 6th graders:

After arriving [at the mountaintop], the students unpacked their knapsacks. They had pots and pans, cooking oil, cooking implements, and basic ingredients—cut up pieces of meat and vegetables, a bit of soy sauce, and fish sauce. At the top of the mountain these sixth graders, boys and girls tougher, started a fire and with a rice pot and wok proceeded to work together to cook lunch for the entire group. Imagining a similar situation in the United States, I was quite certain that the children would have taken sandwiches and bags of potato chips out of their backpacks instead (61).

This last comparison is telling because it underlines Oxfeld’s larger argument in this book that despite some inroads, food has not been commodified and subject to the forgetting of its sources that we see elsewhere, or even in more urban environments in China. As she sums up: “…the labor of food production within the village is still mainly incorporated into ongoing relationships based on social obligations, memories, and notions of moral debt” (71). It is to these topics that the subsequent chapters are addressed.

In her chapter on memory, Oxfeld explores the way food is made to stand for different periods of time. For example, in the “recall bitterness meal” during the Cultural Revolution, people were enjoined by the government to eat a paste made of bitter vegetables and rice chaff to remember their suffering during the pre-liberation era, and the sweetness of their current lives. Such memory practices could turn anti-hegemonic, as older villagers told Oxfeld that the meal brought to mind the recent experience of the Great Leap Forward rather than pre-revolutionary times (79-80). One of the intriguing things about Oxfeld’s approach to food memory is that she organizes it around different key foods and what they stand for. Thus, congee vs. rice can stand for the difference between times of poverty and relative plenty (when you didn’t need to stretch out rice by adding water), but also can be associated with the food of your childhood. Whereas eggs, which lend themselves to distribution within families, evoke memories of family diplomacy and conflict, as well as being associated for some with bribery in simpler times—times in which a party cadre might pay off his mistress with a simple egg! (89). Food memories also lend themselves to comparisons between tradition and modern times in terms of sociability—even periods of dearth and famine might be recalled nostalgically for their sense of solidarity, as opposed to the more plentiful, but atomized experiences of the present day.

The theme of sociability is explored in subsequent chapters as well. In analyzing food as “exchange,” Oxfeld explores both market and gift exchange. Within market exchange local markets remain preferable to larger, anonymous markets, precisely because they retain a certain transparency about the origins of their products that is lost in more advanced commodification. Local foods taste better and are healthier, as residents of Moonshadow Pond seem to resist the allure of the foreign and the “modern.” “’ You just shop in the market if you have no alternative,’” one woman underlines (102). While food is the subject of much informal, everyday exchange, Oxfeld pays more attention to the formal exchange that happens at banquets, describing in detail some of the key types of banquets held in the village, as well as typical recipients of banquet hospitality, which include not only family and neighbors, but other village presences, including gods, ghosts, ancestors and beggars. Indeed, an extended description shows how the role of beggars in contemporary feasts parallels that of ghosts in some traditional religious feasts: as a force that must be placated or dispatched in some way to insure ongoing health and harmony. Overall, Oxfeld takes a “circulatory perspective” (126) on exchange, echoing the classic insights as to the changing biographies of things as they pass through different social roles and undergo various value transformations.

Oxfeld’s chapter on “morality” gives considerable attention to proper “moral” exchange relationships within families, and how they have been impacted both by changing politics and economics. If sharing food and caring for children and elders defines family morality, these values have been tested during different time periods both by the dearth of famine and by the greater self-sufficiency of the contemporary period. During the Great Leap Forward, for example, attempts to collectivize cooking led to the destruction of family kitchens—key symbols of family unity, while at the same time the state attempted to encourage collectivization by using metaphors of “large families” to which people should transfer loyalties. In the reform era care for elders is still an ideal, but not unquestioned, as younger people juggle multiple considerations in their relationships with parents and parents-in-law. Oxfeld traces the nuanced moral discourses people use to negotiate particular circumstances in which exchange is used to create as much as to reinforce moral expectations, and  “elderly women are trying to engender a new sense of obligation that was not assumed in the past” by cooking for married daughters.a Oxfeld also looks at the ways that food discourses are used as moral discourses, in which “eating” is always a morally-charged expression with the potential to suggest taking more than one’s share or “gobbl[ing] up” public resources (146). I found this similar overlaying of social practices of food sharing and metaphorical uses of eating in Greek people’s conceptualization of their current economic crisis in which the ubiquitous concept of solidarity is often instantiated in food sharing, and in which the question of who “ate” during the good times and who did not make tangible and visceral discussions of blame and responsibility for current predicaments (Sutton 2016).

The final chapter, on “conviviality,” brings these themes together again through examining the pleasures of eating together and the sense of sociability that so often accompanies shared food. Here Oxfeld introduces two key concepts: rarity (nande) and “red hot sociality” (renao). Rarity is the appreciation and celebration of circumstance that allows for the bringing together of people for a far-flung family reunion, or even simply everyday opportunity for socializing that is extended through food (“You came just in time for my eggplant fritters!” (162)). Renao is a concept that combines emotions, social relations and sensory stimulation, a kind of Chinese version of collective effervescence, which allows for a celebration of social connection. Renao can be extended through food, but also through substances such as alcohol and tea—when deployed and managed properly. Banquets and family celebrations are typical settings for the production of renao, which can encompass both hierarchical banquets and more intimate and egalitarian gatherings. Similarly, gatherings need not be sumptuous nor expensive to achieve renao, simply socially convivial, which “’is constitutive of living in a socially meaningful way’” (161). Oxfeld’s stress on memorable meals as at the heart of proper conviviality and sociality put me in mind of my own research in Greece. During the past six years of the Greek economic crisis, the question of living with “dignity” has centered around issues of reproducing a life where meaningful social relations involving food sociability are under threat. Spending time in a coffee shop with friends, or finding alternate ways of enjoying scaled-back food celebrations which still can produce the Greek version of “red hot sociality,” have been ongoing themes in contemporary life under crisis conditions.

Bitter and Sweet is a rich and detailed ethnography that makes a convincing case for following food through its transformations as it is created, exchanged and consumed to reveal myriad themes of contemporary social life, what I would call a “gustemological” approach to culture. Though Oxfeld doesn’t discuss this explicitly, I think that her book is an excellent reminder of the ongoing importance of a holistic approach based in deep knowledge of a particular place that incorporates both historical and ethnographic perspectives. This book would make for an excellent choice in courses on food and culture, as well as for any scholars interested in a window onto contemporary China and its recent historical transformations as seen through the lens of food discourses and practices.

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Filed under anthropology, China, foodways

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