- Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton
In the past dozen years, a handful of interesting books have been published on the history of Guangzhou in the early twentieth century. Formerly known in the [End Page 204] West as Canton, the city was where Sun Yat-sen began, as well as ended, his political career. Among both anti-Manchu republicans and the Guomindang, it was lauded as “the cradle of revolution.” Rather than going over this well-trod political terrain, however, these recent publications have instead focused on the city’s social history.
Perhaps the first to do so was Michael Tsin’s Nation, Governance and Modernity in China: Canton, 1900–1927 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), which analyzes the gradual rise and rapid collapse of social mobilization in the city by focusing on two contrasting sets of local leaders, the civic elite of the merchants and the governing elite of the post-1911 Republic. Next was Virgil K. Y. Ho’s Understanding Canton: Rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Period (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). This is a collection of six loosely connected essays on different aspects of Guangzhou’s popular culture, including gambling, opium, prostitution, and the Cantonese opera. It is written from a contrarian perspective; thus, for example, the author asserts that opium smoking was not nearly so widespread or so deleterious to either society or the individual user as modern intellectuals and the governing elite made it out to be.
A more recent publication is Shuk-wah Poons Negotiating Religion in Modern China: State and Common People in Guangzhou, 1900–1937 (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2011). It argues that when the state in both the late Qing and the early Republic tried to modernize the urban landscape by abolishing temples and religious festivals in the name of combating superstitions, the common people were able to resist — more successfully than generally realized — in multiple ways. In 1932, for example, when the Guomindang did away with the Hungry Ghost Festival, which traditionally was observed in the seventh lunar month, the local elite asked for and received permission from the authorities to hold a memorial service in honor of the predominantly Cantonese soldiers of the Nineteenth Route Army who had died earlier in the year defending Shanghai from the Japanese. Though it was held in November rather than the seventh lunar month, “[t]he common people viewed the event more as a Ghost Festival than as a commemoration of the national martyrs” (pp. 113–114).
Then there is the book under review, which originated as a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley. It covers the same temporal ground as the other works — the late Qing and early Republic — and it, too, focuses on popular culture and on the tension between the political authorities and the people. Guangzhou is famous for its cuisine and its discerning and adventurous eaters. Seung-joon Lee examines one component of the cuisine, rice, and its consumption. As with other food items, Guangzhou natives were very discriminating about the rice they ate. The most desirable, in their judgment, were the locally grown varieties, such as the silk sprout (Simiao 絲苗) from Zengcheng 增城 county, east of the city. However, because the Pearl River Delta could not produce [End Page 205] enough to feed the city’s population, rice merchants took to importing the grain from Southeast Asia, principally French Indo-China and Siam. The foreign rice from Southeast Asia was regarded as next in desirability. Least desirable, though cheapest in price, was Wuhu 蕪湖 rice, shipped by sea from the Lower Yangtze region; it was “mainly consumed in the hinterlands” (p. 53) and by the lower classes in the city. Of these three categories of rice, the author is most interested in the second, which, despite its foreign origin and higher price, quickly became the staple of Guangzhou cuisine. The first half of...