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Industrialization and local foodways in the People’s Republic of China

How does the industrialization of food production and distribution affect people’s foodways? For example, does the intensification of agriculture and the proliferation of processed and packaged foods destroy or enrich the fabric of local cuisines and the social relations, moral frameworks and identities that these cuisines help to produce and sustain? How do people in their everyday lives respond to the challenges and opportunities of industrializing food systems, and what are the social consequences of such responses? These questions, which have long animated the anthropology of food (e.g., Counihan 1984; Mintz 1996; Weismantel 1999; Watson 2016), have become increasingly important in the study of China.

The socialist Chinese food system of the 1970s was premised on state planning, rationing, goals of national and local self-sufficiency, and the production of grain over other foods (Croll 1983). Mechanization in agriculture was limited, albeit not negligible, and the use of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers was underway but still far from universal (Wiens 1982). Four-fifths of the population lived in mostly self-reliant rural settlements, where diets were austere and in many cases barely reached subsistence levels (Smil 2004). Food supply in the cities was more reliable, but urban diets were typically grain-dependent and monotonous (Ibid.). Some industrialized products, such as milled rice, cooking oil and soy sauce, were essential, but there was little consumption of packaged or non-seasonal foods. Most vegetables and meats available in the larger cities were supplied by rural communes located within municipal boundaries (Skinner 1981). According to my interlocutors in Kunming, Yunnan province, where I have carried out food-focused fieldwork, home pickling of vegetables and tofu had once been a common practice in the city’s socialist work units.

These days, most Kunmingers purchase their pickles (xiancai) – an essential element of the local cuisine – from the city’s ubiquitous markets and shops. Over the last four decades, the Chinese food system has been transformed in the context of marketization, industrialization, urbanization and the growth of disposable incomes. Over half of China’s population now live in towns and cities, and fewer than one third rely on agriculture as their main source of income. A growing proportion of Chinese are becoming consumers of foods produced, processed or prepared by others. Chinese have witnessed the emergence of long-distance domestic and global food supply chains; a rapidly growing food processing industry; new forms of retail such as supermarkets, hypermarkets and now online shopping; a catering industry ranging from roadside stalls to transnational fast food chains to banquet halls to Michelin-starred restaurants; the spread of chemical-dependent grain-, vegetable- and fruit-farming; and industrialized meat, dairy and fish production. While undernutrition remains a serious problem, especially in impoverished parts of China’s inland, an industrializing food supply has accompanied and enabled a profound dietary transition for large swathes of the urban and rural population toward a decreased reliance on grain foods as a proportion of the diet, and a growing consumption of animal flesh, eggs, dairy, vegetables, fruit, sugars and processed foods; a dietary diversity and abundance unparalleled in Chinese history (Smil 2004; Garnett and Wilkes 2014).

Anthropologists of Chinese foodways have tried to keep pace with these developments. In the 1990s, they documented the resurgence of popular dietary therapies (Farquhar 2002) and regional cuisine restaurants (Klein 2006), the ‘localization’ of global fast food chains (Watson 2006), and the rise of a child-centred food industry (Jing 2000). As these studies revealed, pleasures of the table increasingly were being accompanied by concerns over diet-related, non-communicable diseases; anxieties associated with food choice and conflicting dietary advice; nostalgia over the loss of distinctive local foods and flavours; moral critiques of excessive eating and drinking among elites; environmental degradation; and, most infamously, the fear of ingesting unsafe and adulterated foods. Anthropologists and other scholars are now investigating a Chinese food system in which many small-scale producers have become dependent on dangerous chemical inputs or marginalized by agri-food businesses, and in which consumers appear ever-more disconnected from processes of production and from the people who provide their food (Santos 2011; Huang 2011; Yan 2012).

Ellen Oxfeld’s (2017) Bitter and Sweet: Food, Meaning, and Modernity in Rural China is the first book-length ethnographic study of Chinese local foodways in the context of an increasingly market-driven and industrialized food system. Her richly illustrated, thought-provoking discussion draws on fieldwork carried out between 1993 and 2012 in a village she calls Moonshadow Pond, located in a Hakka-speaking region of south China’s Guangdong province. As in her previous publications on the village (e.g., 2010), Oxfeld emphasizes the strength of moral frameworks, social relationships and shared cultural life in the face of economic and political transformations. Perhaps surprisingly, considering my depiction above of an increasingly problem-ridden Chinese food system, Oxfeld maintains that, in fact, local foods and foodways have flourished in recent decades, and that food itself plays a crucial part in maintaining ongoing moral obligations and social ties, mitigating against the growing individualism and social distrust that have accompanied the spread of the market and growing economic reliance on labour migration.

In Moonshadow Pond, food is the ‘essential building block’ (Oxfeld 2017: 3) of social relations. Through producing and preparing food, and sharing and exchanging it on ordinary and ritual occasions, people use food to both express and create moral obligations among kin, not least between generations, and between households. Also, the food offerings that structure relations with the spirit world have ‘been greatly elaborated during the reform era’ (2017: 115). A shared, local food culture underpins the social and ritual life of the village.

Villagers are explicit about the importance of food. Eating and sharing food are sources of pleasure, and this pleasure is crucial to creating the sentiments on which enduring relationships are built: ‘As food gifts circulate, webs of human feeling are being reinvigorated and produced’ (2017: 183). The fact that the foods being exchanged and enjoyed are primarily locally made and prepared is significant. In part, this is because the memory of the human labour that has gone into making them ‘strengthens lasting family relationships and obligations’ (2017: 92). In part (and perhaps not coincidentally), it is because locally grown rice and vegetables and locally raised pork are highly valued by villagers for their flavour, and regarded as vastly superior to foods from the outside – especially to foods available in urban markets.

On the whole, then, Moonshadow Pond villagers have responded to the industrializing food system by keeping it at arm’s length. Processed foods are hardly mentioned in Oxfeld’s book, and the electric rice cooker is the only ubiquitous modern kitchen appliance; even refrigerators, for those who have them, ‘are typically used to store only specialty items’ and ‘are rarely placed in the kitchen at all but may often be tucked away in another part of the house’ (2017: 58). Yet eating in Moonshadow Pond has not been entirely unaffected by the industrializing food system. Rather than being completely self-sufficient in food, the food universe here has become ‘a complex mix of cultivated and foraged, self-provisioned and purchased, the locally available and the more distantly procured’ (2017: 23).

Most households made a living through a combination of agriculture and wage labour, mostly outside the village, and by 2007 a third of households no longer grew their own rice (2017: 12). To varying degrees, villagers – especially those working outside Moonshadow Pond, of course – relied on purchased foods. However, nearly all families kept vegetable plots, which like the paddy fields were maintained primarily by women. These plots, tended to without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, provided a daily supply of vegetables and were vital to extending village-centred social networks to include labour migrants temporarily residing outside the village. Comings and goings between village and city were frequent, and were accompanied by the exchange of food. Women regularly supplied kin with vegetables and other foods from the village, while younger migrants returned at peak times to help on the farm, and at times brought special, packaged foods from town.

Thus, rather than being destructive of self-provisioning, labour migrants’ income from outside work enabled families to stay on the farm, farms which in turn grew foods that sustained migrants’ bodies and bound them morally to the village, and which provided a safety net in times of unemployment. The perceived quality of homegrown foods was crucial to this moral economy. Not only were these foods valued for their taste, they were also perceived to be safer than the foods available to migrants in urban markets and shops. Arguably, food exchanges solidified boundaries between village insiders and outsiders that were at once moral and embodied. Insiders were those who participated in village-centred exchange networks and were protected from potentially dangerous outsiders by local foods. Oxfeld writes: ‘A moral judgment is implied in villagers’ preferences for their own food – the assumption is that the village is a place where social relationships are more trustworthy and reliable, and schemes to adulterate food for profit urban phenomena’ (2017: 147). Thus, the value attached by villagers to self-provisioning and local foods is not just a testament to the endurance of local food and farming traditions, but a dynamic response to changes in the wider food system.

Bitter and Sweet is usefully read alongside other ethnographic studies, which often paint a bleaker picture of China’s changing food system. Compared to Oxfeld’s Hakka villagers, people in the cities appear to be much more anxious about their food supply. Studies of urban China reveal widespread consumer distrust in food and its purveyors and producers, while also documenting the various ‘coping strategies’ urban shoppers have developed to feed their families with safe, tasty, healthy and affordable foods (Yan 2012; Veeck et al. 2010; Klein 2013a; Gong and Jackson 2012). It is not surprising that urban shoppers’ distance from food production may contribute to their greater distrust of the food supply compared with rural residents (Caplan 2000). Arguably, however, in China different responses to industrial foods and food safety scares reveal not only urban-rural differences, but also divisions. Oxfeld’s ‘moral economy of food’ can be seen as the flip-side of what Yunxiang Yan (2012) describes as China’s ‘crisis of social trust’ – a crisis which, he argues, is both reflected in and deepened by the recent proliferation of unsafe, fake and ‘poisonous’ foods. Village-centred moral economies of food, informed by ‘relational’ rather than ‘universal’ ethics, may provide producers with some of the justification to sell pesticide residue-ridden vegetables and even knowingly adulterated foods to distant markets and unknown outsiders, while circulating self-provisioned, pesticide-free vegetables within village networks (see also Lora-Wainwright 2013).

That said, we need to be cautious in our use of the urban-rural divide as a framework for understanding the effects of food system industrialization on Chinese foodways and society. As reassuring as Oxfeld’s book may be for those of us concerned about rural environmental health and the fate of local foods and farming knowledge, Moonshadow Pond should not be taken simply as representative of ‘rural China’. Compared to other cases, the impact of industrial food production on the village’s environment, health and social life appear quite benign. By contrast, in the Sichuan village studied by Lora-Wainwright (2013), the use of chemical pesticides was regarded by villagers as the primary cause behind the village’s devastating cancer rates. In the Henan village researched by Lai (2014), the use of chemical fertilizers and commercial animal feed, which led to farmers abandoning time-honoured practices of composting and of feeding pigs on food scraps, and the accumulation of waste from food packaging, were key factors in a growing rural hygiene crisis (see also Santos 2011). Elsewhere in China, the effects on agroecosystems and farmer livelihoods of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for hogs and other livestock is only beginning to be uncovered (Schneider 2014; Veeck et al. 2017).

Nor have other rural settlements necessarily preserved distinctive local foodways to the same degree as Oxfeld’s Hakka village. Su (2001) showed how a Pearl River Delta village that turned to specialized farming and wage labour in the 1980s and 1990s had abandoned many home-grown and homemade foods and come to depend on purchased foods, including fresh vegetables and factory-made dumplings. While Su’s Cantonese villagers held on to homemade specialities associated with the lunar New Year, according to Veeck et al. (2017) in parts of rural northeast China farmers are increasingly giving up raising pigs for the traditional Chinese New Year pig feasts, owing to competition from CAFOs run by agribusinesses and a growing reliance on paid labour. Across China, further ‘rural urbanization’ is encouraged by a state drive to create a ‘new socialist countryside’ of rural consumers comprised of wage earners, specialized contract farmers and entrepreneurs, with food production and distribution to be vertically integrated by agribusinesses corporations (Schneider 2015; Huang 2011). Under such conditions, as in Su’s Pearl River Delta village subsistence farming and many associated food practices are likely to become increasingly difficult to maintain – which is not to suggest that what Oxfeld describes as the moral significance of eating and exchanging food will diminish in these rural areas.

In certain respects, urban Chinese may in fact be better poised to cope with the potential hazards of industrial foods than their rural counterparts. Urban food markets tend to be better regulated than markets in the countryside (Tam and Yang 2005). While Oxfeld’s villagers can purchase meat and bean curd from local, known sources, rural consumers who are reliant on larger markets and processed and packaged foods may be putting themselves at greater risk than urban shoppers. Furthermore, the greater variety of markets in urban areas allows those with ample economic means to source foods that may be unavailable in rural areas. As Oxfeld discusses, while villagers avoid spraying pesticides on vegetables grown for their own consumption, due to labour shortages they use chemical fertilizers on their paddy fields. Despite their misgivings about this, Moonshadow Pond farmers, like many others (Santos 2011; Lora-Wainwright 2013), were not able to produce this most important of shared substances in southern Chinese families without the use of agrichemicals. Middle-income residents of large cities, however, can choose from a variety of ‘quality’ assured rice, including (allegedly) chemical-free or chemical-reduced rice produced under Green Food, organic or Community Supported Agriculture schemes (Zader 2011; Klein 2014).

In the cities, industrialized food chains have undoubtedly affected the meanings associated with certain foods and food events. In Kunming, some of my acquaintances felt that the year-round availability of cheap pork has made meat consumption at the lunar New Year less meaningful than it had been under the planned economy. At that time, they recalled, work units would slaughter pigs for their members, providing them with the only opportunity in the year to eat fresh pork (Klein 2017). By the early 2000s, according to Osburg (2013: 39-40), elite male entrepreneurs and officials in Chengdu had reached a point of ‘banquet saturation’. To consolidate business ties, expensive dining had to be complimented by sexualized forms of entertainment in karaoke clubs, saunas and massage parlours.

Nevertheless, Oxfeld’s important argument concerning the significance of sharing food for the creation of moral obligations holds true both in China’s villages and its cities. For most urban Chinese, commensality and food remain central to the construction of relations and to the sense of what it means to live a good life. Like villagers in Moonshadow Pond, city people often address the challenges of industrial foods not as atomized consumers, but through kinship ties and social networks, and by drawing on shared, local understandings of good food (Klein 2013a). Such attempts to cope with the food system may consolidate social networks, in some cases excluding the urban poor and others lacking the social and economic capital to access these networks (Hanser and Li 2015). But in contrast to Oxfeld’s account of Hakka villagers, attempts by city people to cope with food safety concerns may also lead to the construction of new social and ethical ties, across previous divides. Emerging, urban-based groups advocating ‘alternative’ modes of food provisioning typically build on urban shoppers’ coping strategies, helping middle-class consumers to navigate the food system while encouraging them to expand their ethical concerns beyond the family, to include the health and livelihoods of rural food producers (Klein 2014) or the lives of non-human animals (Klein 2017).

Finally, it would be wrong to suggest that the reliance on industrializing food chains, any more than the arrival of western fast food (Watson 2006), has destroyed China’s distinctive urban cuisines. To be sure, in Kunming many informants associated the spread of what they described as tasteless, unnatural foods with the loss and deterioration of local specialities and food spaces (Klein 2013b). But if some local foods have disappeared, industrial processes are also at play in the spread, revival and reinvention of others. For example, the intensification of goat farming in the 1980s and 1990s provided Kunmingers with a steady supply of affordable ‘milk cake’ (rubing), a local goat milk cheese. Growing fears that unscrupulous producers were adulterating the cheese by adding cheaper milk from cows have been addressed by state-backed, corporatized makers, who offer an upmarket, quality- and safety-certified, vacuum-packed and branded version of the cheese, sold not only in Kunming but also in China’s eastern seaboard cities as a local speciality of Yunnan. Meanwhile, certain small-scale makers have begun to vouch for the ‘authenticity’ of their products through appeals to locality, ethnicity and nature, mimicking the ‘heritage branding’ of corporate producers while presenting theirs as ‘farmhouse’ (nongjia) alternatives to the corporations’ more industrial cheese (Klein forthcoming).

There is an implicit ‘Culinary Luddism’ (Laudan 2001) in some of the recent writing on Chinese experiences of food system industrialization, including my own. This romantic rejection of industrial foods is an understandable response to the growing concerns about food safety, quality, dietary health, cultural loss, farmer livelihoods and environmental degradation. But it may also blind us to the complex and diverse implications of the industrializing food supply for Chinese dietary health, culinary culture and social relations – including for gender relations, which have received far too little attention in the recent anthropology of Chinese food. The ongoing industrialization of food production has been both destructive and productive of Chinese foodways. It may exacerbate existing divides, while sometimes creating a platform for the construction of new social and ethical connections. Its study provides a fruitful way into the complexities of cultural change in the PRC. In meticulously documenting local foodways and carefully analysing responses to food system industrialization in one Chinese rural community, Oxfeld offers important insights into food and social life in contemporary China and provides us with firmer ground for comparison within China and beyond.


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