- Changing Rice Bowl: Economic Development and Diet in China
Elizabeth Leppman, a geographer at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, has given us a valuable contribution to the literature on Chinese food and agriculture that should appeal to a broad audience, laypeople as well as specialists. Almost everyone loves Chinese food, but probably few really know much about it beyond what they order in a Chinese restaurant. One school of thought claims there are only two great cuisines in the world-French in the West and Chinese in the East-and all other cuisines are secondary. Be that as it may, there is no question about the rich tradition and variety of Chinese food, and the extremely important role that food has long played in Chinese culture. Hence, anyone wanting to more fully understand the nature of Chinese culture, past and present, and the changes that have taken place in China in recent decades would find their time well spent in reading Leppman's interesting and scholarly study, Changing Rice Bowl: Economic Development and Diet in China.
This is a relatively slim volume, just over 160 pages in the main text, but it packs a lot of information along with many very useful maps, graphs, and figures, even a few photographs taken by the author. There are seven chapters. After a brief introductory chapter, chapter 2 introduces some theoretical considerations related to culture and food and the contrasts between urban and rural settings, particularly in China. In this regard, the book is partly an examination of the process of urbanization in China in the People's Republic of China era, and of how that process has impacted food and diet. The emphasis in chapter 2, though, is on the broader realm beyond just China, and "the mechanisms by which individuals and cultures select what they regard as appropriate foods from the vast array that is available" (p. 5). Then, using a materialist, cultural-ecological approach, the author introduces the Chinese diet specifically and the foods that make up that diet. Chapter 3 looks at the Chinese dietary regime in greater depth and the role that various foods play in that regime, particularly rice and other grains, vegetables, meats, fruits, and drinks. As China grows economically, people's food habits also change-especially urban dwellers-toward less grain and more meat, vegetables, even dairy products. A brief section traces the evolution of the typical Chinese diet through the ages, in particular the twentieth century and into the PRC era. Chapter 4 goes into some other theoretical considerations related to urbanization, systems of cities, and regional development, including some of the models of T. G. McGee, to which Leppman tries to add. The relationship between [End Page 457] China's post-1949 development and changes in diet are examined, including rural/ urban contrasts. Graphs and tables in this section provide detailed data on the changes and quality of the Chinese diet.
Perhaps the most original parts of the book, and in some ways the most interesting, are chapters 5 and 6. The author spent a year doing fieldwork in parts of Liaoning Province in the early 1990s (Shenyang and surrounding areas), and she uses that province and her experiences there as a case study illustrating the broader changes taking place in food and agriculture in China as a whole. Chapter 5 thus begins as a basic regional geography of Liaoning, starting with an overview of its physical and human geography and the province's development in recent decades. Then the author goes into an overview of food and diet in the province, including consumption patterns. In recent literature on China, this is probably one of the most detailed analyses focused on food, urbanization, and development that is based heavily on firsthand data of an individual province. Chapter 6 complements the previous chapter by focusing in on households in Liaoning and their food consumption patterns. The author carried out interviews and surveys of some 250 families in 1994...