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The Food of China

Copyright Date: 1988
Published by: Yale University Press
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    The Food of China
    Book Description:

    To feed a quarter of the world's population on only seven percent of the world's cultivated land and at the same time to have developed a renowned cuisine is perhaps the most exemplary achievement of the Chinese people.  What accounts for their success?  And what can be learned from it in this age of widespread hunger? E.N. Anderson's comprehensive, entertaining historical and ethnographic account of Chinese food from the Bronze Age to the twentieth century shows how food has been central to Chinese governmental policies, religious rituals, and health practices from earliest times.  The historical survey of agricultural and culinary customs, in the first half of the book, offers a wealth of fact and interpretation on such topics as the effect of government policy on agricultural innovation; the relation of medical beliefs to appetizing cuisine; the recycling of waste products on the farm; the traditional absence of food taboos (including the practicality of eating one's pests, or feeding them to pigs and chickens, instead of poisoning them and the environment); and the key factors in the gourmet quality of Chinese food from the simplest to the most elaborate dishes.  Without glossing over the occurrences of famine China's history, Anderson concludes that the full story is one of remarkable success in feeding maximum populations over the millennia.  Underpinning this accomplishment, he cites China's traditional stress on food as the basis of the state and as fundamental not only to individual well-being but to the enjoyment of life.  Anderson turns to present-day China in the latter half of the book, describing in rich and enticing detail the regional varieties in Chinese diet, food preparation, and rituals of eating and drinking.  These lively, readable chapters as well as those in the first half of The Food of China make it a prime source for anyone-general readers and scholars alike-with an interest in Chinese history or food.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15783-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Chronology
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. 1 The Natural Environment
    (pp. 1-8)

    China’s natural landscape is one of the world’s most dramatic, ranging from the peak of the world’s highest mountain (Jolmolungma or Everest, usually given as 29,141 feet high) to one of the lowest subaerial depressions (Turfan, ca. 900 feet below sea level) and from tropical rainforest in the south to frozen glacial caps on the high Himalaya. No other country approaches this range. China’s endowment of plant and animal species is equally spectacular. The mountains of southwest China have the highest floral diversity of any temperate region in the world. The forests of South-east Asia—which extend north to China,...

  7. 2 Prehistory and the Dawn of History
    (pp. 9-28)

    Peking Man (Homo erectus pekinensis, formerly Sinanthropus pekinensis) was first found at Chou-k’ou-tien near Peking, in caves filled with limestone. Other specimens of early Chinese hominids have been discovered since then (Binford and Chuan 1985; Chang 1977a, 1986; Chia 1975; Jia 1980). At Chou-k’ou-tien, where finds are dated to about 500,000 B.C., hackberry fruits may indicate that early hominids took an interest in edible plant products, or they may be there by chance. There are many bones in the caves, especially those of deer. Although some of the bones seem to represent human food, most were brought in by hyenas...

  8. 3 The Crucial Millennium: Chou through Han
    (pp. 29-56)

    No difference between late Shang and early Chou agricultural technology or production has been convincingly demonstrated. A Neolithic technology persisted; peasants’ tools were almost all made of stone, bone, and wood, and crops consisted of the millets and coarse vegetables of earlier ages. Social organization was apparently still a rather inchoate feudalism. Chang (1977a) has pointed out that increasing social complexity and wealth during this period was not accompanied by much technological progress: wealth was accumulated at the expense of the poor.

    Soybeans seem to have been introduced to China by about 1000 B.C., but they were not popularized until...

  9. 4 Foods from the West: Medieval China
    (pp. 57-68)

    After Han, China was divided for almost four centuries. During this time, agriculture continued to change and progress. Rule by Central Asian peoples in the north led to introduction of crops and ideas from West and South Asia, including new land tenure systems. Local dynastic autonomy in the southeast led to rapid and dramatic growth in the importance of that area; its wealth became proverbial, its agriculture highly developed, especially near the great lower Yangtze cities. Crops and technology from South China—previously an alien realm—became well known and were incorporated into the Chinese system. In spite of disunion...

  10. 5 Definitive Shaping of the Food System: Sung and the Conquest Dynasties
    (pp. 69-93)

    During the Sung Dynasty, China’s agriculture and food took definitive shape. Food production became more rational and scientific. By the end of Sung, North China—no longer ruled by the Chinese—was agriculturally mature. Little change took place thereafter until the mid-twentieth century. South China expanded its farming and added new crops in succeeding dynasties, but there too the pattern was set in Sung, and little basic change in technology followed.

    China’s great cuisine also appears to be a product of Sung. T’ang food was simple, but by late Sung, an elaborate cuisine with regional specialties is well attested. The...

  11. 6 Involution: Late Imperial China
    (pp. 94-123)

    The Ming rulers have been blamed for failing to lead China to capitalism and industry, because the West developed these dubious blessings during the same period. A leading Western authority on Ming agriculture, Evelyn Sakakida Rawski, wrote:

    The economic landscape of Ming China is most commonly studied not for itself but as a reference point in larger interpretations of Chinese history. Modern preoccupations, in particular with the “failure” of China to respond as did Japan to Western “impact,” have shaped the nature and content of research, so that much of the scholarship on Chinese economic history in the Ming and...

  12. 7 The Climax of Traditional Agriculture
    (pp. 124-136)

    At the beginning of the twentieth century, by far the most productive lands in the world were those of East Asia. Japan was probably the most intensively farmed, due to spectacular development during the whole Tokugawa period as well as the Meiji era (Smith 1959); but Japan was using an almost purely Chinese technology. Java may have been ahead of China too. But at least some parts of China—especially the Yangtze and Pearl deltas and the Red Basin of Szechuan—were well into the competition. And the truly intensive measures used in other realms were primarily originated in China....

  13. 8 Chinese Foodstuffs Today
    (pp. 137-181)

    The Chinese are united by an interest in and commitment to good cooking and good food. People discuss food for hours, and almost everyone from the richest to the poorest, from scholar to laborer, from northerner to southerner, is concerned with the best and can tell the observer how to find it.

    The basis of the diet is boiled grain, which usually provides most of the calories. A few of the poor in marginal or soil-poor areas subsist on root crops and the like, but people in such situations regard themselves as exceptional and unfortunate and escape as fast as...

  14. 9 Some Basic Cooking Strategies
    (pp. 182-193)

    Chinese cooking is a cooking of scarcity. Whatever the emperors and warlords may have had, the vast majority of Chinese spent their lives short of fuel, cooking oil, utensils, and even water. Nothing comparable to the huge cookware stores that now bloom in elite occidental suburbs could exist in China. Chinese ingenuity has gone in another and ecologically sounder direction: designing the most versatile possible tools that can be used for every imaginable task.

    The traditional Chinese home is based around the stove, which is so important that the Chinese phrase for breaking up a household translates as “dividing the...

  15. 10 Regions and Locales
    (pp. 194-228)

    Attempts to specify the regions of Chinese cooking are subject to debate. Transitions are gradual, blends of regional cooking typical along borders. One person’s subregion is another person’s region, while a third may not think the area’s cooking is distinctive at all.

    The classical way to separate regions is in terms of cities, which gives us Peking cooking, Sian cooking, Canton cooking, and so forth. There is also a grouping of the urban cuisines into five styles or style areas: northern, focused on Peking; Honan (or central), focused today on Chengchou; eastern (or Lower Yangtze), focused today on Shanghai but...

  16. 11 Traditional Medical Values of Food
    (pp. 229-243)

    “It is hard to find a dish in the Middle Kingdom that is not based upon the recipe of some sage who lived centuries ago and who had an hygienic principle in mind when he designed it.” So wrote E. H. Nichols in 1902, with pardonable exaggeration. The truth is, of course, less extreme, but the point is well taken: the Chinese have a complex and very ancient science of nutrition.

    In the Chou Dynasty, the Chou Li (Rituals of Chou) prescribed that nutritionists be attached to the court as part of the highest class of medical personnel. The imperial...

  17. 12 Food in Society
    (pp. 244-262)

    There are, in social science, two general viewpoints. One is relatively materialist, espoused mainly by those who study energetics and economies. The other, sometimes called “idealist,” includes social-constructionist, hermeneutic, and phenomenological views of how humans form culture. Neither is adequate by itself to account for foodways. Everyone in every culture is constrained by the absolute necessity of adequate calories, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. In every habitable environment, however, many passably good solutions to this challenge may be found. Even if we restrict ourselves to broad classes of relatively optimal solutions, there are always choices. Moreover, human populations cannot expand...

  18. Appendix: Dinner at the Ngs
    (pp. 263-270)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 271-278)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 279-294)
  21. Index
    (pp. 295-313)