Chienwei Pan | 9 January 2017
To begin, let me share a photo I took when I first visited the Confucius Institute for Scotland. As one can see in the picture, three books are arranged with deliberate care, with Shejian shang de Zhongguo (A Bite of China, 2012) displayed in front of the book-length Introduction to the Confucius Institute (2010) and accompanied by Kongzi mingyan lu (The Famous Remarks of Confucius, 2006). For those who may not understand the connotations of such an arrangement, allow me to accentuate the bizarreness of the mise-en-scène: behind a book about savory cuisines in China are two serious texts about the most famous East Asian educator. It should be noted that these books exhibited in the reading room of the Confucius Institute represent what the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government aims to flaunt, since this is what a government-funded educational body such as the Institute is supposed to do. So, my puzzlement turns out to be: why this particular book? How can a book about palatable dishes epitomise China as an economic and political superpower nowadays?
A Bite of China is actually a byproduct of a TV documentary series of the same title. First aired in 2012, this series, comprised of seven episodes, captured the attention of audiences with its sentimental voiceovers, in which the food that Chinese people consume daily was described not as material substances but as spiritual supplements. The Chinese cultural imagination emphasises the spirituality of food, and this might explain the popularity of A Bite of China. In 2014, season 2 was broadcast and, rumor has it, the next season is just on its way. I could write an entire post praising this programme, but a brief look at the titles of the seven episodes in the first season allows us to gauge the spiritual altitude these visual representations aim to reach: (1) “Gifts from Nature,” (2) “The Story of the Main Course,” (3) “Inspiration for Change,” (4) “The Taste of Time,” (5) “Secrets of the Kitchen,” (6) “A Perfect Blend of the Five Flavors,” and (7) “Our Farms.” As these titles imply, A Bite of China is more than a programme about people’s daily eating, since descriptions such as “gifts” and “inspiration” are abstract and melodramatic, and point towards a desire, on the producer’s behalf, to go beyond a purely sensory interest in food. That is, A Bite of China and the subsequent printed version have therefore become the epitome of certain parts of Chinese culinary culture, enabling diasporic Chinese from all around the world to re-identify with their own culture.
In his seminal work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983), Benedict Anderson coins the term “print-capitalism” to explain how citizens from disparate regions, though they might not know each other, can still form a sense of community from which national consciousness then arises. Anderson distinguishes between Latin (as the language of religion) and vernaculars (that booksellers adopted to print books). With printed vernacular as the communicative method, Europeans recognized the differences and thus paved the way to form disparate nations. As Anderson explains, albeit somewhat in passing, imperial China unified the whole nation with “mandarinal [sic] bureaucracy” through which the Chinese communicated with each other (40). By contrasting Latin with Mandarin, Anderson aims to demonstrate how various vernacular languages contribute to the formation of modern European consciousness and how speaking authentic Mandarin allowed the Ancient Chinese to form their own, different national identity.
But the truth is, there are still various regional dialects spoken by people with various ethnicities in different Chinese regions today. That is, a unified Chinese identity has been a myth, a naive thinking that panders to the taste of the PRC government. The Chinese version of “print-capitalism” turns out to illustrate how the PRC government invests money in print texts that help to reaffirm the fugitive Chinese identity. Indeed, books are effective means of communicating official propaganda in China, where the government indoctrinates readers by telling them what to believe, and it is from these beliefs that the PRC government hopes to raise a sense of unified national identity in contemporary China.
I would like to return to my previous questions concerning why A Bite of China has to be printed and exhibited inside a state-sponsored institution. The formation of Chinese identity has something to do with cultural/political hegemony. This used to be done with an official language. But now, this is achieved with additional methods such as this book, which aims at unifying ways of eating. Even though what Tibetan people eat is different from what people in Shanghai consume daily in the images we witness on TV and read about, their differences are now seemingly dissolved due to an umbrella term of “Chinese ways of eating”.
About Chienwei Pan
Chienwei is in his first year for a PhD in Chinese Studies. His research aims to examine the interrelation between modern Chinese food narrative and its concurrent socio-cultural context.
Article edited by Adam Clay, Bradley Copper, and Alice De Galzain.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983. Print.
Shejian shang de Zhongguo [A Bite of China]. Dir. Chen Xiaoqing. China Central Television. 14 May. 2012. Television.