Category Archives: China

Review: The Other Milk

The Other Milk

Jia-Chen Fu. The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. University of Washington Press. Seattle, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-295-74403-2. 276 pp.

Juliet Tempest (SOAS, University of London)

Ambivalent Modernities

An historian by training, Jia-Chen Fu retells the story of soy in China—an account otherwise taken for granted. We may have been correct that soybeans enjoy a long presence in the region, but their forms and meanings in Chinese diet(s) have evolved over time. Fortified soybean milk became popular only following the efforts of Republican-era scientists, social workers, and producers, whom Fu calls “nutrition activists.” More than a readily digestible history of soybean milk, or doujiang—itself indigestible prior to the advent of modern processing technology—The Other Milk presents a case study on the drink as a modern, science- and nation-building enterprise for these nutrition activists. In so doing, it seeks, and, I would say, succeeds, to problematize narratives of Western science’s inevitable naturalization in China by revealing the context-specific development of Chinese nutrition science amidst dialogue with research abroad.

Propagation of soybean milk during the 1930s and 1940s as “traditional, modern, and scientific” epitomized this process, according to Fu (2018, 5). Nutrition activists employed scientific discourse to mobilize the materiality of such protein-rich “milk” to strengthen the population, as dairy was perceived to have done for the West. The author concludes that Chinese activists constructed the problem of population health in such a way so as to necessitate soybean milk as the solution, particularly in refugee aid projects. Yet the question of whether this discourse actually reached consumer-citizens on the ground, especially outside a Shanghai milieu, remains open. The Other Milk is thus a well-constructed and written resource on the biopolitics of soy and the epistemology of nutrition science for this period in China, even if it does not capture how the target demographic actually interpreted soybean milk messaging.

Bookended by an introduction and epilogue, each of the seven chapters builds towards Fu’s thesis—of an aspirational Chinese modernity as expressed in a homegrown nutrition science supporting consumption of soybean milk—by addressing an assumption underpinning it. Following the introduction, the book begins with anticipating the question of soy’s modern status through depicting the transformation of the Chinese soybean industry (Chapter 1). Such a development occurred in the wake of Western and Japanese economic growth and military defeats around the turn of the twentieth century, which Fu highlights to establish the latter’s national imperative to modernize, a project that manifested in both the development of domestic nutrition research and its application to “improving” individual bodies, thus the nation (Chapter 2). As for why diet became a site for intervention, Fu addresses this assumption just as nutrition activists did before: through portraying Chinese dietaries as the alleged key to unleashing the nation’s economic potential (Chapter 3). In extant diets, it was the lack of protein, especially animal-based, that compromised Chinese nutrition and bodies, which justified supplementation with “milk” (Chapter 4). Although preferable, cow’s milk was cost-prohibitive if not totally inaccessible for most, inspiring an alternative in fortified soybean milk marketed as a hybrid Western-Eastern product: a scientifically modernized version of traditional soy (Chapter 5).

The arguments of every chapter scaffold onto those preceding, with the exception of the fifth. There, Fu breaks away from discussing how nutrition activists conceived their object to analyze soybean milk advertisements. Fu explains this decision in terms of evaluating how producers theorized “the social” as a site of modernity negotiated for the public (111), but the link to nutrition activists discussed elsewhere remains tenuous. While soybean milk advertisers functioned as discourse-makers in addition to—and occasionally in cooperation with—nutrition researchers and aid workers, they did not operate in the same way or in the same field as these activists: in blending Daoist approaches to health with concerns about protein and hygienic manufacturing, the former treated biomedicine and Chinese medicine as “apparently complementary knowledge systems” (114) for the public; whereas the latter sought an epistemological break that would parallel and precipitate a new era of Chinese prowess that deprecated without vitiating earlier knowledge claims within the scientific community. Granted that such ambivalence characterized Chinese nutrition science in general and soybean milk advertisements in particular, this chapter implicitly shifts the scholarly gaze onto the public, about whose receptions to these communications and the products they advertised we can say little given the methodology.

I have interpreted this attitude among nutrition activists as characterizing their concept of “modernity,” this crux of Fu’s argument that is only ever defined indirectly, in relation to a “traditional,” “Chinese” identity. The equation of “traditional” and “Chinese” is in fact one assumption that Fu does not tackle head on, although the language nutrition activists employed substantiates this position. Similarly, Chinese society’s juxtaposition against the “modern” West remains implicit throughout The Other Milk, through references to “a polyphonic, hybrid modernity” that “combin[ed] elements from China and the West,” for example (110). On the other hand, that nutrition activists did not reject China’s capacity to become modern emerges from their choice of a soy product as the nation’s deliverance. Such complexity in their relationship to a modern, Chinese identity features within the tales of nutrition activists Fu tells. The lack of explicit definition of modernity, then, follows from Fu’s awareness of its situation in a unique context—that it is, indeed, a relative term. At risk of failing in the task that Fu smartly avoided, I take modernity in The Other Milk to mean nutrition activists’ aspiration for a stronger China in the future, modeled on the West’s and Japan’s perceived progress and so involving struggles with if and how to incorporate cultural aspects that have served as a source of national identity.

Compelling narratives about the work of individual nutrition activists culminate in a two-chapter discussion of Fu’s primary case: the efforts of the Refugee Children’s Committee to distribute soybean milk during the Japanese Occupation, and in the process promote a healthier, modern citizenry. Addressing why and how this aid organization focused on distributing soybean milk (Chapter 6) allows Fu to assert that technocrats like Nellie Lee and Hou Xiangchuan “situated nutrition as the crucial site for the dissemination of modern knowledge and values” (174; Chapter 7). Fu’s tone alternates between sympathy for and criticism of their sincere but misguided motivations, given the prevalence of hunger. The modern construction of hunger in Republican China paralleled developments abroad, where it also became quantified, hence solvable, in biomedical terms. The state’s historical obligation to feed the populace in times of famine (yangmin) consequently transformed into a responsibility to nourish, which nutrition activists like the medical researcher Wu Xian understood as seeking the “optimum” rather than the “minimum” (66). Consistent with denigration of Chinese diets for their “inadequacy” and backhanded compliments around their “potential to change” (179), that nutritional interventions were seen to offer the greatest return for economic growth continues as a mainstay in international development today (e.g. IFPRI 2016).

Such observations on cultivating modern subjects through self-governance recall the ever-growing literature on biopolitics in China. To wit, the anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh (2010) has documented the intersection between individual fitness and population governance in state policies. Although Greenhalgh’s research principally concerns socialist and post-socialist China, the construction of inferior diets as a “social problem” (Fu 2018, 60) and the promotion of soybean milk as the scientific and obligatory solution prefigures more recent debates—that also sometimes err disturbingly on eugenicist rhetoric—about raising low “quality,” or “suzhi,” at both the individual and population levels.

Although Fu does not reference Greenhalgh, nor for that matter Foucault, the author makes excellent use of anthropological literature on colonial medicine and diets in China (to which Fu thanks Judith Farquhar for having introduced her). In particular, interrogation of the epistemological privilege granted “biomedical” nutrition science in China “owes much to the work of medical anthropologists Arthur Kleinman and Margaret Lock” (220). Along with the historian Michael Worboys, these scholars demonstrated conflicting views on the comparability of foreign bodies and diets in medical research during the colonial era and since. Chinese nutrition activists seem to have variously and selectively appropriated these ideas for the purpose of recasting food, like soybean milk, as a mechanical input for nutrition. Fu can therefore argue that this ambivalence permitted the ontological flexibility requisite to domestication and exploitation of the science, to build a modern nation of citizens nourished scientifically with Chinese foods. Although undeniably a historical monograph, The Other Milk thus offers an example of how interdisciplinary research can tell a more complete version of the story.

Much still remains untold, however, particularly for this anthropologist-reviewer. For one, it is unclear to what extent Fu’s findings may be generalized outside of urban, coastal China, given how most Republican-era nutrition activists appear to have operated within Shanghai and its environs. To the extent these places served as a locus for building such scientific worlds, the focus of Fu’s study, the distinction may be moot. For another, Fu’s treatment of materiality alongside discourse, while admirable, nevertheless glosses over the sensory qualities of soy—and milk—and their effects on bodies, the site of these modernist aspirations and interventions. The book argues for soybean milk’s promotion as evidence of a uniquely Chinese nutrition science and identity, so then what of Chinese tastes? Fu alludes only once to taste as a criterion “distinct from economic supply and demand” (143), which must have played a role in soybean milk’s dissemination, particularly in comparison with cow’s milk; if it did not, that is something worth noting.

These critiques revolve around a desire for more information about how the public consumed soybean milk and ideas about it. As such, they are perhaps unfair, because addressing them was not Fu’s intention and would have required different kinds of data. Fu acknowledges this shortcoming: “it is not clear that nutrition science in early twentieth-century China achieved this same kind ideological hegemony over the ways in which Chinese people thought about food and eating [sic]” (9). The Other Milk is therefore an excellent resource for research on soy, vegetarianism, and scientist modernity in China, even if its authoritative scope should potentially be confined to urban areas of Republican China and to answering questions other than (albeit relevant to) the meanings consumers assigned to soybean milk. Notwithstanding these significant contributions, the methodological choices directing attention to elites’ discourse-creation in this process of nation-building—Fu’s subject—imply a specific directionality for the construction of modern Chinese identities, namely as top-down and not bottom-up.

The nutrition activists who constitute The Other Milk’s explicit concern are, indeed, often elites. They operate outside formal state organs, whose involvement in rice distribution makes the grain a more appropriate lens through which to study the state, Fu suggests (16; see also Ohnuki-Tierney [1993] on Japan). It is perhaps due to the state’s more tangential role with respect to soy that Fu does not adopt a Foucauldian framework to analyze—what I understand to be—the biopolitics of soybean milk; because Fu does not invoke the concept of biopolitics, it is therefore implicit to the author’s analysis as well as the activities of nutrition activists to which it refers. In this way, Fu’s treatment of soybean milk offers a novel approach to understanding how the discourse and resources of non-governmental organizations nonetheless intersected with state power: nutrition activists deployed scientific research, especially social surveys and controlled experiments, as the arbiter of truth to summon legitimacy for their interventions, which would improve the nation’s (nutritional) status.

It bears noting that these nutrition activists did engage with the state, however, just as Fu’s argument dialogues with the historian Mark Swislocki’s (2011) work on “nutritional governmentality” in late Imperial and Republican China. In fact, Fu situates the book as a response to a question that Swislocki posed elsewhere: “How did nutrition become ‘an authoritative idiom in China for understanding the relationship between food and health?’” (Swislocki 2001, in Fu 2018, 9). In providing “one answer,” Fu sets out to complement Swislocki’s excellent work on the Chinese state’s interest in improving nutrition. Though it begs the question of whether the choice to downplay the state’s role in The Other Milk is justified when Swislocki argues the opposite, albeit not for a specific food like soy. Besides researchers’ personal ambitions—to produce advanced science as much as belong to a modern nation (Fu 2018, 11)—it would seem important to consider the state’s influence on the development of a nutrition science, given the mutual imbrication of the public and private spheres in China that both Fu and Swislocki acknowledge.

Rather than nutrition science per se, The Other Milk is a book about ambivalent modernity. Not only were China’s nutrition activists navigating between two poles of scientific authority in the East and West, their strategies betray resistance to abandoning everything traditional for something modern. Fu suggests that “expediency” motivated the unique blend of considerations in the research, production, marketing, and distribution of soybean milk (181). To the extent we subscribe to Fu’s argument, which I do, it is important to reiterate that activists advocated soybean milk for nutrition not as a humanitarian end, but as a means of building up the nation, to vie with the West and Japan for “wealth and power” (121). Unfortunately, this discourse around China competing with the rest of the world possesses great salience today—at least from where I write in the US.

Lest we fall blindly into this ideological trap, let us end by paying attention to other constructive lessons from The Other Milk. The power of soybean milk—in terms of its nutritional discourse and materiality—testify to a long history of globalized trade in goods and ideas. Many of Republican China’s nutrition activists had trained in the US (Chapter 2). An increasing interest in consuming milk occurred almost simultaneously in the US and China; the Chinese did not always drink soybean milk, nor did Americans regularly consume cow’s milk before the twentieth century (Chapter 4). Just as “milk” had to become a part of modern diets, so too did soy emerge as a global commodity when China started exporting it to fill a 1908-1909 shortage of vegetable oils in Europe and North America (Chapter 1). Now China’s relationship to soy, once a famine food, has changed again, as production has shifted overseas and the population has grown wealthier, consuming more meat, at times imported from the US (Epilogue). We may thus all benefit from reflecting again on how ideas and practices we take for granted are historicized products of local and global trajectories. And given that industrialized foods are now pitted against “traditional” foodways in the opposite direction to what Republican-era Chinese nutrition activists imagined, perhaps we, too, ought to approach modernity with a bit more ambivalence.

Works Cited

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2010. Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2016. Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact: Ending Malnutrition by 2030. Washington: IFPRI.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1993. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Swislocki, Mark. 2011. “Nutritional Governmenality: Food and he Politics of Health in Late Imperial and Republican China.” Radical History Review 110 (Spring 2011): 9-35. DOI: 10.1215/01636545-2010-024

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, China, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, public health

Review: Re-Orienting Cuisine

Re-orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century

Kwang Ok Kim , ed. Re-orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century. Berghahn. New York, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-78920-067-6

Richard Zimmer
Sonoma State University

Kwang Ok   Kim has assembled a wonderful collection of studies about what had happened and what is happening in East Asian food.  These studies fall into three main categories: how national and local cuisines define what is traditional in a particular country’s food consumption; how food practices from elsewhere transcend national and cultural boundaries; and, lastly, how people see their own and the cuisine of others addressing well-being, health, and danger.  Moreover, Kim’s introduction and each of the studies situate their discussions in larger academic and global studies about modernism, authenticity, traditionalism, nostalgia, globalism, and food safety.  The studies are particularly germane to students of food, culture, tourism, and politics.

Section I, about national food changes, contains four essays.  The first, by Opkyo Moon, demonstrates how Koreans have created/re-created a royal cuisine from the period before the Japanese colonial control.  This cuisine, coupled with other period practices, is a way that Koreans have established a significant connection to a more illustrious past.  The second, by Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao and Khay-Thiong Lim, contrasts Malaysian cuisine(s) and Taiwanese cuisine.  They suggest that Malaysia has decided to try to create a national cuisine, bringing together its different ethnic and culinary traditions.  The British, they argue, did not accept any significant foods as part of their occupation.  Taiwan, on the other hand, has “returned” to its pre-Nationalist Chinese occupation past by focusing on dishes from that earlier era.

Jean de Bernanrdi  outlines how tea culture was introduced in Wudang Province in China.  This introduction created a sense of tradition, authenticity, health consciousness, tourism, and international connections to vendors overseas.  Kwang Ok Kim shows how Koreans focused on and “re-invented” rice as central to their identity and their sense of health and well-being.  These practices have extended to Korean restaurants overseas.  In sum, these essays portray cuisine as a something real–something to be consumed and enjoyed, and as symbols of national identity.   Moreover, they also show societies using their cuisines to create and imagine pasts, futures, to portray “authenticity” and to offer food as commodities  to promote  health and tourism .

Section II, about food practices across nations and cultural boundaries, contains six essays.  The first, by Kyung-Hoo Han, traces the recent history of ramen in its many forms, from China to Japan and Korea.  Japanese ramen is much more of a “…fatty and nutritious” dish than earlier domestic soups (p.92) and is served in restaurants.  Korean ramyeon, on the other hand, tends to be an instant quick, fast food version of noodle soup, previously much saltier, and not eaten in restaurants for the most part. David Y. H. Wu follows the path of Japanese cuisine in Taiwan.  Taiwanese see eating Japanese food as a return to the time when the Japanese occupied Taiwan.  Japanese food is considered both comforting, and given Japan’s emergence as a modernizing power, a connection to the larger world of sophistication.,  Moreover, Japanese food has diversified in terms of incorporating Western elements, such as Japanese French pastry, so Taiwanese people can partake of global food trends.

The third essay, by Melissa L. Caldwell, portrays a Russia which has “domesticated” Korean food as part of the larger domestic cuisine. Russia has few Chinese restaurants, values them as particularly special, and also considers the relatively new Japanese food as special.  Moreover, she notes that Chinese restaurants, to compete, have started to offer selected Japanese foods.  The fourth essay, by Yuson Jung, portrays a Bulgaria which, following the collapse of Communism and its associated deprivations, wants to be modern and part of world culture.  To do so, it has integrated Chinese food, often standard dishes with occasional domestic offers such as bread, into its restaurant offerings.  The fifth essay, by Sangmee Bak, offers a picture of a South Korea which wants to eat “globally”.  That means diverse cuisines.  The one featured most is Indian cuisine, which, for the most part appeals to students and take-out clientele.  Following the themes in this volume, Bak notes that their Korean cuisine is being pre-empted by the Japanese, who offer “…Korean food to Westerners…thereby compromising the food’s Korean identity” (p.182.)

One personal note here: in a “reversal,” two of the Japanese restaurants where I live are owned and managed by Koreans. Furthermore, a local Thai restaurant shows the cross-cultural fertilization outside of Asia:  “traditional Thai noodles, curries, and soups are interspersed with surprises such as the Laotian Pork Sausage appetizer and British-inspired curry puffs (spiced potatoes and carrots wrapped in dough that is then fried” Voight (2018: 14 .)  As many of the essays have noted, overseas Asian communities experiment with many kinds of fusion dishes and mixing cuisines.  Often, overseas Asian influences work their way back into national cuisines, as noted above in the ways “Western Japanese” food is an alternative food in Taiwan.

The sixth essay in this section, by Michael Herzfeld, argues that Thai cuisine mirrors themes inside the culture:  It is complex, ambiguous, and often contradictory.  For example, higher and lower class people like very spicy/hot foods, and the ability to eat these foods is seen as a sign of masculinity (p.192 et seq.)

Section III, about well-being and safety, contains four essays.  In the first essay, Young-Kyun Yang portrays a South Korea increasingly concerned with well-being and taking care of one’s body.  Consequently, Chinese food, once favored, is seen as unhealthy because it is considered too greasy and contains too much MSG.  In the second essay, Sidney C.H. Cheung traces the evolution and dispersal of American crayfish in Asia, where each country and cuisine treat it differently, as for example, in China, where some producers make it into “lobster.”  In the third essay, Jakob A. Klein draws a picture of a Chinese population increasingly concerned with the cleanliness and purity of its food.  He notes that as elsewhere in the world, foods often seen as cleaner foods are more expensive and out of the reach of poorer people who both value it and cannot afford it (p.246.)    In the fourth essay, Yunxiang Yan traces food safety concerns in contemporary China.  Originally, people were concerned with food being poisoned, in part because chicken, for one example, was dumped into lower class food stalls and restaurants.  At the time of Mao and even in the present government enforcement has not prevented poisonous additives and materials from entering food.

Taken separately and together, these essays show the interconnections and continuing changes between national identity, politics, culture, the search for well-being, and the concern with food safety, in East Asia.  These changes and concerns also mirror developments around the world.  Jonathan Kauffman shows similar concerns, for example in the origins of “Hippie Food” in the US, including many of its past and continuing connections to developments in Asia (2018).  Jean-Pierre Poulain sees the same trends in the Kim volume occurring in the United States and France and places food studies as central to understanding cultural, economic, political, and medical changes in any country (2017.) Kim’s collection serves as an assessment of current developments on most of these themes and as a marker for future changes as each country defines its identity and concerns in terms of food movements around the world.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

2018

Jonathan Kauffman.  Hippie Food: How Back to the Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat. New York: William Morrow.

2017

Jean-Pierre Poulain.  Translated by Augusta Dior. The Sociology of Food: Eating the Place of Food in Society.  London: Bloomsbury Academic.

2018

Joan Voight. Made Local Magazine. v.6, number 1. pp.12-19.

 

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Review: Puer Tea

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. Jinghong Zhang. University of Washington Press. 2014

Yingkun Hou (Southern Illinois University)

Many scholars believe that the province Yunnan, in southwest China, is one of the most important places in the history of Chinese domestic tea-producing. The ethnic minority groups in Yunnan started cultivating tea about one thousand years ago, but it was in the last two centuries that Han migrants became involved in tea trading and made Puer—a unique type of tea to the region—well known to inland China. The tea is named after a town that was then the center to Puer tea trading in southern Yunnan and is one of six categories of Chinese tea. The writer Zhang, who was born and raised in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, has been familiar with Puer tea since her childhood. Perhaps this underlies her later interest in studying Puer tea: after she realized Puer tea’s growing popularity, and especially the rapid soaring and plummeting of trading prices in the Puer tea market in 2007, she became deeply interested. In tracing the “detailed social biography” of Puer tea, Zhang set out from Yiwu, Yunnan, where tea is produced for several other Chinese cities (e.g. her main research site Kunming). She planned to study its “packaging and unpacking process”—a “jianghu” culture developed around the theme of “handcraft authenticity” (2015:9).

As Zhang explains in her introduction, jianghu, literally means “river (jiang)” and “lake (hu)”[1]; it is often used as an analogical concept in Chinese folklore (related to fantasy novels of martial arts, or more precisely wuxia[2] portraits) and literature, describing a world outside of state governance. This creates a set of implicit yet practical rules and common understandings of righteousness, morality, and authenticity by leading heroes (or xiake[3] in Chinese, similar to vigilantes/knights) and their people. In the following chapters, combining approaches from anthropology and ethnography with unique Chinese concepts such as jianghu, Zhang shows us how the different actors and intrinsic features in the world of Puer tea resembles the world of jianghu in Chinese culture, reflecting current consumer culture and business practices in modern China. The book also presents a complicated picture of contradictions people face in regard to new forms of individuality, social relations, intellectual pursuit, cultural and national characters, and so forth in today’s Chinese society.

Puer Tea consists of an introduction, eight chapters—featuring the theme of four seasons which parallels a yearly cycle of tea producing—and a concluding chapter. While tea as a plant grows as the seasons change, it is also a well-known tenet that human life should follow the seasonal rhythms. The two chapters of “Spring” depict the production of Puer tea as a “sprouting” phase for the book in Yunnan: Zhang introduces the history of Puer tea in southern Yunnan in general by exploring the reconstruction of the “tradition” of raw Puer tea in Yiwu, with specific discussion on the construction of authenticity of Yiwu’s raw Puer tea. Furthermore, by telling captivating ethnographic stories, she sheds light on the aspects valued by consumers and producers who admire Yiwu tea: contrasting the features of Yiwu Puer raw tea with “the other”—the artificially-fermented Puer tea that is produced in much shorter time from Menghai. She shows how both the local and the nonlocal constructed their identities through the making of “imagined originality” which proves its authenticity (53). Further, she addresses the challenges producers in Yiwu are facing while the demand of their Puer tea grows. Indeed, as she points out, the business of Puer tea is like “the world of jianghu,” as it can further reveal aspects of modern Chinese culture as a close-up and condensed version of the transformation the entire society is going through. For example, she addresses the concerns about authenticity of Puer as an aspect of Chinese-style individualism:

Though not a dominant theme in Chinese history, individualism does exist and is quite evident in certain contexts, as in the case of jinaghu actors, whether in reality or in martial arts fiction, Chinese to act bravely in trying situations and to find their own solutions with their own special skills. If the factors affecting the “original aura” of Puer tea production are read as the social distinctions and counterforce among jianghu individuals, such anxiety over authenticity appears to be rooted in conflicting desires activated in the Reform era and by rising commoditization (76).

Thus, as Zhang discusses in this book, although the current official regulations for Puer tea may not be sufficient to eradicate the counterfeits, the competition between multiple jianghu voice for the standard of authenticity has filled the gap and in turn influenced the market in a variety of ways.

The following two chapters of the “Summer” section explain the convoluted relationship of the name “Puer” as a place claimed to be the original/authentic representation of Puer tea, while the controversy of what is authentic Puer remains a topic for discussion. Zhang introduces the debate about the origin of Puer tea between Simao and Xishuangbanna from multiple perspectives. For instance, while contention between these two areas remains central to the local development, it is “unnecessary” on a provincial level. Both areas are in the Yunnan province, and most consumers and even tea experts accept Puer tea from “Yunnan” without making distinctions within that geographical designation. Thanks to the success of Puer tea, the history of Ancient Tea-House Road has also been revisited recently by the Chinese public. The home of Puer tea, as Zhang summarizes, is “transregionally authenticated and multiply imagined” (103). Similarly, while the economic and geopolitical forces transform the definition and packaging of Puer tea, there are also consumer voices evaluating Puer tea and demanding clarifications of the quality standards. These ongoing debates, such as the “heating up” and “cooling off” of Puer tea as a result of “hastened transformation” and the coexisting desire “to package Puer tea” and “unpack it,” resemble the jianghu Zhang proposes, embodying contentions, constructions, and negotiations among different actors in different social contexts (120).

The remorse of autumn is a common theme in Chinese literature. In the autumn section (chapter 5 & 6), Zhang investigates the local families involved in the private tea business. Through ethnographic materials, Zhang shows how the preferences of consumers in Taiwan affect the changes in Yiwu, and thus profoundly transformed Yiwu’s local culture. In the jianghu of Puer tea, the standards of the valued and the appreciated “are open to the influence of history” (141). Many local families had stopped other activities such as raising livestock, growing rice, or producing soy sauce, dedicating their time and energy in the Puer tea business instead, which brought them better income. At the same time, similar to the fair-trade coffee business in Rincón (Mexico), Daniel Jaffee discusses in “Brewing Justice,” the potential price fluctuation for products such as coffee and Puer tea can be quite unpredictable and therefore dangerous to family businesses. In the time of the coffee crisis, the sudden plummeting of coffee prices had greatly changed the producers and their families’ lives (2014). In the case of Puer, people have encountered a recession of the market in 2007, which leads to another process of transformation in local practices that Zhang proposes best described by the Chinese concept hua.

In traditional Chinese philosophy, the concept of hua refers to “ubiquitous transformation.” In the jianghu context of Puer tea, Zhang argues that hua “intrinsically indicates the strategies and settlements employed by multiple actors to transform an unsatisfying situation into a comparatively more satisfying one (145).” For instance, people use “chenhua” to refer to the “aging” or “fermentation” process in storage, which transforms “the astringent feature of raw Puer tea” into “a mild, smooth quality” (145). Despite the lack of the government’s effective supervision, a practice such as chenhua allows local people to redefine the authenticity of Puer “flexibly and pragmatically,” recontexualizing and transforming local pragmatic strategies.

The last section of the book, Winter, presents tea tasting events in teahouses in Kunming (complemented by the films she recorded). Zhang was most elaborate on the one organized by Sanzui (one of the most influential tea websites in China), which discusses whether the aged Puer tastes better and what condition it should be stored in to produce the best taste, in order to resolve the “battle” taking place on the Internet (their website) about the issue. According to Zhang, the tasting is more about human interaction (human space) than the supposed thematic tea storage space on site. In her analysis, she proposes that this event touched on “multiple layers of space.” For example, the space for the topic of this event—the tea storage space and the site where the tasting actually took place—the teahouse, are two layers of space she mentions. What is interesting to me is the role of cyber space: it was the cyber space where all these people first discussed Puer tea, which then turned into a debate that made it seem necessary and possible to hold this event in the teahouse. Further, the sensorial information of the event was recorded in the form of photos and articles posted on the website, and the discussion of the tasteful experience in the event also flourished on the website later that day, instead of an immediate discussion at the site of tasting. These interesting facts reflected how people constructed their identity in the real-life tasting event quite differently than they would have on cyber spaces. At the same time, we could also see the sensorial representation of the actual event on the internet as another dimension of the actual tasting event—people could post their pictures and comments to the website in the tasting session and also read other posts. In a way, it is quite similar to the function of social media ten years from then, which also makes me wonder what the tasting would be like today with the prevalence of the social media. I imagine most of the people would post pictures and videos on site to their WeChat moments (in Chinese, it literally means the “friend circle” among one’s contacts, and mostly consists of the friends in one’s life. Almost everyone has access to their WeChat and Wechat Moment[4] at any point on their phone, as long as the phone can use cellular data), which can reach almost any Chinese in theory. Many business like Sanzui and organizations have their official account on WeChat in order to take advantage of the access to the immense user market.

Zhang’s Puer Tea provides a rich and multi-perspective ethnographic account of the jianghu of Puer tea in China in the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially in connecting the packaging and unpacking of different actors in the process of “making” and transforming the authenticity of Puer tea. By investigating into a variety of narrations and representations, Zhang presents us a snapshot of contemporary China where debates and contentions are constant and ever-changing.

Jaffee, Daniel, 2014.  Brewing justice: Fair trade coffee, sustainability, and survival. Berkeley Univ of California Press.

[1] The Chinese character for jiang is “江” ; hu is “湖.”

[2] Chinese: 武侠

[3] Chinese: 侠客

[4] Wechat (微信) is an instant massaging app in China. Wechat moment is a social media platform in this app. People can post pictures, videos and messages to their friend circles and read others’ posts in it.

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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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Conference Report: 6th annual Asian Food Study Conference, Kusatsu, Japan

While there are many conferences of potential interest to food anthropologists, last weekend (December 3-4, 2016), I attended a conference that I found particularly useful and inspiring: the 6th annual Asian Food Studies Conference.

This is a conference that attracts historians, nutritionists, anthropologists, and researchers from fields like hospitality and tourism. The diverse presentation topics included these titles: “Chinese Ancient Food Culture Implied in Oracle-bone inscriptions” (Cheng Xuerong), “The Comprehensive Discourse on Edible Flowers in Pre-modern China” (Liu Jun Li), “Plagiarism and Originality: Focused on the Study of Modern Printed Cookbooks in Early 20th Century Korea” (Ra Yeon-jae), “Nutrition Education Affects the Use of an Escalator and Elevator to Reach a Women’s College on a Hilltop” (Ishihara Kengo and Takaishi Tetsuo), and “Beyond the ‘Super Shark’ Myth: Promoting Sustainable Shark Foodways in Japan and Asia” (Akamine Jun).

What really impressed me, however, was the true sense of internationalism evident at the conference. The conference’s venue changes every year. Last year the conference was held in Shangdong, China, this year in Kusatsu, Japan (hosted by Ritsumeikan University), and next year the conference venue will be in Korea. There are presentations in multiple languages (this year: Chinese, Japanese, and English). The first day’s keynote speeches, one in each language, were translated into the other two. But beyond this, the conference theme—Exchange and Dynamism of Food Culture in Asia—encouraged presentations of research that was itself transdisciplinary and transnational, with a mission toward forging connections and sharing knowledge.

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Takagi Hitoshi explaining how the Miskito categorize and use different parts of the sea turtles they hunt.

Let me give some examples. One of the panels on the first day included presenters from Malaysia, the Philippines, the US, Bulgaria, and Korea. All of the research on this panel had an obvious transnational component. A key example of such a project would be Korean scholar Ja Young Choe’s (Hong Kong Polytechnic University) research on the relative popularity of various Asian cuisines (Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian—in that order) in Hong Kong. On the second day Francoise Sabban’s research on the culinary perceptions of French and Chinese diplomats and envoys in the 19th century, Takagi Hitoshi’s observations from fieldwork conducted among the sea turtle hunting Miskito of the Caribbean, and Osawa Yoshimi’s probing of the simultaneous global appeal of umami and distrust of MSG are other examples.

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SAFN member Shingo Hamada describing traditional foodways–fishy and fermented–in Fukui prefecture, Japan.

Representing SAFN at the conference, Shingo Hamada presented new research on obstacles to commoditizing traditional fermented foods in Japan’s contemporary Fukui prefecture and I explained how Kyoto cuisine has benefited from international support (collaborators, promoters, funders) and resources (ingredients, ideas, technology) from far outside of Japan.

Next year, the conference will be hosted in South Korea. I heartily recommend attending to anyone interested in the topics of transnationalism, food, and Asia.

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Roundtable Report: “Globalization of Asian Cuisines”

To celebrate the publication of “Globalization of Asian Cuisines: Transnational Networks and Culinary Contact Zones,” three of the edited volume’s authors—Stephanie Assmann, James Farrer, and David Wank—gathered for a roundtable discussion on June 2 at Sophia University, Tokyo. While the book contains chapters that examine different Asian cuisines in different contexts—Sidney Cheung writes about crayfish in China, Krishnendu Ray about “Indian ocean cuisine,” and Keiichi Kawaguchi about Japanese food in Italy, for example—for this roundtable Wank, Farrer, and Assmann chose to talk about globalization and Japanese cuisine, offering insights based on their research in China, the US, and Japan. They observed that the globalization of Japanese cuisine is being led primarily by non-Japanese actors, with the Japanese state trying to shape the process of diffusion.

IMG_5312.jpgChuanfei Wang, who conducts research on Chinese and Japanese wine cultures, introduces the roundtable participants. From left to right: discussant Christian Hess, chair Chuanfei Wang, James Farrer, David Wank, Stephanie Assmann.

James Farrer discussed the globalization of the Japanese culinary field via a case study of Japanese food in Shanghai, where the number of Japanese restaurants surpasses the number of French and Italian restaurants. Interestingly, in Shanghai, the authenticity of Japanese cuisine is important and it is bloggers and Chinese individuals who have tremendous influence in determining what is deemed authentic Japanese cuisine. Shanghai’s chefs and entrepreneurs show great creativity in localizing Japanese cuisine. Farrer gave the memorable example of Anthologia (地球美食劇場 chikyu bishoku gekijo in Japanese), a restaurant-theater in which the entire menu is in Chinese and the dramatically costumed and made-up chef performs not just cuisine but also ikebana (flower arrangement), music, dance, and swordplay in front of eaters. This restaurant has been such a success that a second such restaurant is planned to open in Nagasaki to accommodate demand from Chinese tourists there! In response to a question from discussant Christian Hess about periodization and change in contact zones, Farrer explained that in the late 19th century quite a few Japanese restaurants existed in California and in China but they didn’t last and didn’t create a Japanese food boom. While it might seem odd that Japanese food would enjoy such popularity in China given the political enmity between the two countries, the Chinese divorce politics from cuisine to a great extent. Even though Japanese restaurants were destroyed in protests, for example, the Japanese food scene in China recovered very quickly afterward.

IMG_5316An example of Shanghai’s booming Japanese restaurant culture from Farrer’s presentation.

David Wank’s presentation focused on the role Fujianese chefs and restaurateurs have played in popularizing Japanese cuisine along the East coast of the United States, a phenomenon he refers to as an “ethnic entrepreneurial niche.” He noted the presence of elements of deterritorialization and localization, with sushi now a regular feature of people’s foodscapes even in rural areas without a sizable Japanese or Asian population, and the development of the California roll, inside-outside roll, New York roll (with pastrami), Philly roll (cream cheese), and in Indonesia the gado gado roll. When asked to elaborate upon Fujian innovation in Japanese cuisine as related to localization, Wank gave the example of sauces; there are 5 basic sauces chefs use in Fujian-run Japanese restaurants, but he talked to one chef whose culinary arsenal includes 50 different sauces. This process of innovation within the current Japanese food boom continues—with ramen and izakaya (Japanese gastropubs) among the latest trends.

In her talk, Stephanie Assmann switched the focus to government actors in Japan, analyzing efforts to promote a specific concept of Japanese cuisine domestically and abroad. Through the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad, a revived shokuiku (food education) campaign in schools, and projects encouraging Japanese consumers to purchase Japanese agricultural and food products for health reasons as well as to boost the national self-sufficiency rate for food. She noted a rhetoric of crisis operating in this discourse and perceives it to be a feature of the contemporary neoliberal state confronting globalization in line with national interests.

The roundtable touched upon key themes from the book—the role states play in determining what counts as national cuisines, debates around authenticity, processes of diffusion and change—and concepts such as “culinary fields,” “culinary contact zones,” “culinary infrastructure,” and “culinary capital.” The presentations and the enthused question and answer session that followed makes the edited volume seem well worth checking out.

 

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