The change in Southern China's food culture and its social significance

An understanding in food anthropology

Essay, 2017
17 Pages



It is not easy to write about the development of Food Anthropology over the past half century and its contribution to the understanding of human society and culture around the world. Yet, it is honoured to have Ellen Messer (1984), Jon D. Holtzman (2006) and Lynne Phillips (2006) published articles in the Annual Review of Anthropology. With the themes of diets, food and eating, globalization and memory, they concisely reviewed the development and significance of food anthropology at different times and its importance of interpreting social culture, as well as explored the mutual relationship between global and regional food culture. The development of food culture spans hundreds of years and spreads around the world, expanding our horizons and repositioning the problem of global integration. In view of this for the review of Food Anthropology, this proposal will only introduce some of the more representative theories and situation after the Second World War. In addition, food culture in Hong Kong’s community will be used as a case study, in order to provide an understanding of the food culture change in Southern China and its social significance.

From birth till death, humans are inseparable from food in daily life. The impact of food extends all over various social organisations, such as families, churches, schools, workplaces, hospitals, hotels and restaurants. It may be due to its universal, eating habit and related activities has more or less helped comprehend other cultures in anthropological research. Whether it is the early national classification, diffusionism, structural and functional analysis, understanding of symbolism or difference between gender identities, Stanley Tambiah (1969), for example, pointed out that food taboos reflect human’s perception of the environment, by studying the relationship between animal’s edibility and understanding of the living space in northern Thailand.

Granted that we are easily able to find some classical food-related bibliography and conduct further discussion, e.g. in Christian’s Old Testament, Deuteronomy and the part that Adam ate the forbidden fruit and was driven out of the Garden of Eden has classified food into clean and unclean, this reflects that the symbolic meaning of food comes to be much more complicated than its practical meaning; ethic between food and code in Chinese Confucianism has also enhanced to a better level of social morality, personal character and morality from its original practical value.Meanwhile, it is often mentioned in an English saying, “we are what we eat”, reflects food as our identity symbol, to highlight the class background and living environment of an individual (Gabaccia, 2000). In addition to anthropology, sociology and cultural studies and other disciplines have made a lot of important investigation in food and social culture, which involves tourism development, nutrition and health, social status, cultural identity (considered as popular research topics in recent years) (Bourdieu 2004; Finkelstein 1989; Fieldhouse 2002; Beardsworth and Keil 2005; Anderson 2014).

As early as half a century ago, cultural anthropologists had regarded food as an important intermediary in conveying ideas and concepts, and their meaning could be recognized in religious activities, class differences and mythological analysis. Three major themes can be generalized on the above theory of food anthropology development: 1. social indicators, such as gifts, banquets and feasts (Arnott 1976; Appadurai 2016), 2. investigation of social status and symbol and status (Goody 2011; Mintz 1987, 2007), and 3. interpretation of the construction of national and cultural identity (Ohnuki-Tierney 1995; Sutton 2006; Wilk 2007).

Anthropologists are also particularly concerned about how the rise of certain eating habits reflects the changes in the demands and tastes of the material life in the community (Counihan and Van Esterik 2013). The changes in the food culture of Asian society therein are the most popular research in recent years (Tobin 1992; Watson 2006; Cwiertka and Walraven 2014; Watson and Caldwell 2011; Cheung and Tan 2009). Current research has highlighted the inheritance of internalized local eating habit and localised imported eating habit, reaffirming that the diet of Asian society reflects a share of complex relationship between global integration and localization in terms of production, manufacturing and marketing (Ohnuki-Tierney 1995; Cwiertka 1999; Bestor 2008). When the society is becoming more stable and the economy takes off, people enjoy a more prosperous life. They do not only pursue the daily necessities of life, but also the satisfaction brought from other material possessions. Different material culture represents different symbolic symbols, which is just enough to reflect the value orientation on different classes and ethnic identity. In the less populated tribal community, anthropologists have observed that there is political task of allying in banquets with reciprocity; in Christian communion, it is not difficult to see the affirmation of religious identity and the differentiation of self and other. Additionally, anthropology reminds us of the delicate relationship between reality and supernaturalism in the process of distributing food to gods, ghosts and ancestors in Chinese folklore ceremonies. Apart from examining the evolution of food culture and the development of dishes in the flood of civilisation, anthropological research is sensitive to the practice and social changes of everyday life, which there is often some unique insights especially to home cooking and snacks, such as childhood snacks, street snacks and even the inheritance of anonymous home cooking dishes. (Jing 2000).

Anthropology has experienced a number of theoretical stages of development, inferring numerous substantial views on psychological reflection of food, etiquette symbol, social function, physiological needs, economic activity and political status, etc. With the review of Ellen Messer (1984) as a division, it is not difficult to look from the differentiation between edible and inedible food, anthropological studies do not only emphasise the characteristics of food as a matter of material and physical needs, but through food as a symbol to interpret the deep structure of human nature, which at the same time is able to identify how physique consciousness cooperates with spatial domain. The Culinary triangle proposed by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1996) illustrates the complex relationship between natural resources and cultural goods, and the cooking method by different social needs, highlighting the universality of human ideology – notably theoretical basis on the importance of binary relationship in the understanding of culture or nature, self or other, daily or non-daily, raw or cooked, and the need of symbolic and structural analysis on cultural phenomena. Meanwhile, Mary Douglas (2008) teaches the importance of using food as cultural symbol and a concept to interpret body via the bilateral relationship between food and body. She also provides the unique symbolism resulted from food classification. Marshall Sahlins’ (2010) has a view on the symbolic meaning of class identity in the American society through the habit of eating beef, which allows us to consider placing the universality of food in human’s life in particular social environment among the regional culture. Alternatively, Marvin Harris (2005) attempts to use scientific methods to explain the changes in food and social economic and economic environment in the context of the cultural ecology of cultural materialism, and these changes are the result brought forth by the synergy of human culture and natural evolution. The emergence of these theories cannot only by carried out in the discussion of diet, but an important milestone of the development of cultural anthropology since the sixties.

Food anthropology could be regarded to have taken charge of the early eighties, as there was a theoretical breakthrough, mainly by virtue of Jack Goody (2011) and Sidney Mintz (1987) whose work lay an important foundation for the study of food culture. “Haute/high cuisine” proposed by Goody (2011) manifests that the formation of national cuisine is not only due to the change of ingredients and cooking methods, more importantly, it is the impact of political economy and international relations that makes a change. In France, for example, local raw materials, spice trade under imperialism and hospitality of palace banquets in bordering country have cohered to represent the French food culture. Likewise applied, “high cuisine” of Goody (2011) and the subsequent Indian cuisine, Japanese cuisine (Cwiestka, 1999), American cuisine (Gabaccia, 2000) and other national culture discussion are not without any relationship. Mintz (1987) explores the concept of sucrose has made a breakthrough on the concept of anthropologists’ on-the-spot investigation in the field; the popularity of sucrose tells the “global” production system, consumption, social class and identity issues from the seventeenth century, and opens a new page for more anthropological research on materialistic culture, especially in the study of the evolution monoingredients have on production and circulation, bringing a lot of fruitful result to global integration and transnational trade research. In retrospect of the research development of food and globalisation, Lynne Philips (2006) has confirmed that Mintz (1987) pioneered the exploration of historic culture with sucrose as pivot, he has also analysed similar food culture in three aspects: food as the flowing of commodity, promotions of transnational corporations and large enterprises (i.e. the driving force behind brand promotion and consumer culture) and international control of food safety.

From local traditional food to the phenomenon of globalisation

There is no doubt that the pattern of food production has changed dramatically since the European fleet found the “new world”. If comparing the current way of food production with its era of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, some inspiration might be found. Ingredients consumed in daily life are at bottom mainly imported rather than produced locally; that is to say, according to its source and flow, it is clear that there are many different types of food disperse through imperialism, colonialism, cross-border networks and global trade. Certainly, these are related to international politics, power relations, cultural exchange, domestic and foreign trade networks, economic development and other factors. Our daily consumption of vegetables, such as tomatoes and potatoes, are unique to the Andes region, but after more than two thousand years of indigenous breed, they were introduced to Europe by Spaniards after the colonial rule of the Americans in the sixteenth century. A lot of similar vegetables are also introduced into Asia likewise, and thus become local’s main ingredients. Other examples of cucumbers from India, which have a history of three thousand years, black pepper from Malabar, as region of the South Indian West Bank, and purple tomatoes brought to Spain by the Moors’ from India over 1,300 years ago. Corn prehistorically grows in Mexico, but a lot a different flavours and colours of corn are now planted in the southwestern United States, Central and South America. These examples confirm that food has free circulation to travel all around in the rest of the world.


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The change in Southern China's food culture and its social significance
An understanding in food anthropology
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Anthropology, Food, Culture, Social science
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Andrea Fung (Author), 2017, The change in Southern China's food culture and its social significance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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