- Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton by Seung-Joon Lee
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. 320 pp. $55.
In April 1936, the final section of the Canton-Hankow railway was completed, and with it a new age of national rice (guomi) and the end of China’s food problem (shiliang wenti or liangshi wenti) was proclaimed. For Guomindang technocrats and engineers, the Canton-Hankow railway represented not only a triumph over space and time—a passage that had previously required ten to twenty days by boat could now be undertaken within thirty-two hours—but also an essential component of their plan to reduce China’s dependency upon foreign rice. Statistical surveys undertaken by government bureaus like the Central Bureau of Statistics in Nanjing, its provincial offices, and social scientists in universities and research institutes like Zhongshan University in Canton produced voluminous evidence throughout the 1930s that consumption of foreign rice in China had dramatically increased since the 1920s. Such increases, especially in coastal cities, were linked to rural impoverishment, such that political campaigning for increased domestic rice consumption became intertwined with calls for rural reconstruction and national security. That the city of Canton’s share of foreign rice purchases was among the highest in the country only served to highlight the importance and necessity of Guomindang efforts. With the new railroad, Canton would be extricated from its dependency upon foreign rice and, in effect, tamed of its luxurious ways. National rice, specifically rice from Hunan, would become the foundation of the national diet and the solution to China’s food problem.
One suspects that this rosy celebration of the triumph of technology and social engineering could hardly have been the end of the story, and Seung-Joon Lee’s new book vividly demonstrates just how misguided and premature such expressions of triumphalism were. By focusing on the politics of rice in Canton during the first three decades of the twentieth century, Lee illuminates the ways in which the struggle over Canton’s rice imports was embedded within a larger competition between different types of knowledge and the degree to which such knowledge [End Page 213] enabled modern state-building. Rather than focusing on the Guomindang’s ineptitude as an explanation for the failure of the Guomindang state, Lee recasts the party in terms of its “progressive stance and their audacious embrace of Western science and technology, whose fundamental rationales were quantification and simplification” (220). These very characteristics, however, proved to be the Guomindang’s blind spot, because when it came to understanding the nature of China’s food problem and its relationship to Cantonese consumption of rice, the Guomindang failed to appreciate not just alternative measures that emphasized qualitative characteristics of the rice industry but also the specificity of the city itself. Indeed, one might reasonably conclude that in its pursuit of a modern nation, the Guomindang proved unable or unwilling to see the local diversity shaping the myriad constituencies under its rule. The banner of national belonging became a blindfold to the distinctive, and unequal, ways in which different locales have been integrated into transnational networks of commerce and trade.
Canton and its particular relationship with rice prove an enlightening example. As a city defined by the topographic conditions of the Pearl River Delta—namely, rivers and mountains—Canton directed itself outward, aided as it was by numerous waterways. With the Nan Ling mountain ranges serving as a natural barrier separating Guangdong and Guangxi provinces from its northern neighbors, trade and commerce flowed overseas, and the prosperity of the city rested upon the florescence of the delta’s commercial agriculture (i.e., sericulture and the silk industry) that had taken place during the eighteenth century. Most of Canton’s urban and suburban population relied upon rice markets to obtain their daily necessity.
Throughout the eighteenth century, interprovincial grain trade became the de facto method for the two largest regional economies, the Jiangnan region and the Pearl River Delta region, to secure the necessary rice supplies...