Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China

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2002 Hard cover NEW / NO DJ (as issued). small publisher's mark on the btm edge. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 360 p. Contains: Illustrations. Body, Commodity, Text: Studies ... of Objectifying Practice. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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Judith Farquhar’s innovative study of medicine and popular culture in modern China reveals the thoroughly political and historical character of pleasure. Ranging over a variety of cultural terrains--fiction, medical texts, film and television, journalism, and observations of clinics and urban daily life in Beijing—Appetites challenges the assumption that the mundane enjoyments of bodily life are natural and unvarying. Farquhar analyzes modern Chinese reflections on embodied existence to show how contemporary appetites are grounded in history.
From eating well in improving economic times to memories of the late 1950s famine, from the flavors of traditional Chinese medicine to modernity’s private sexual passions, this book argues that embodiment in all its forms must be invented and sustained in public reflections about personal and national life. As much at home in science studies and social theory as in the details of life in Beijing, this account uses anthropology, cultural studies, and literary criticism to read contemporary Chinese life in a materialist and reflexive mode. For both Maoist and market reform periods, this is a story of high culture in appetites, desire in collective life, and politics in the body and its dispositions.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Evolving from her fascinating previous work concerning hands-on diagnosis in Chinese medicine, Judith Farquhar engages cultural artifacts of all kinds to probe the release of the passions in post-Maoist China. This is by far the most successful application to ethnography of the often confused and overly abstract discussions of the body as a central trope and object of recent culture theory.”—George Marcus, Rice University

“Judith Farquhar has done an exquisite job of clarifying why it makes sense to write a text that ranges across Chinese medicine, food, and sex, and how they are intimately linked through the specificities of appetites, desires, and anxieties about the body. Farquhar beautifully delineates how embodiment is historically and politically produced, how it forms the nexus of numerous enactments, some allegorical, some very concrete in terms of the body’s well being, but all linked to post-socialist Chinese life.”—Lisa Rofel, University of California, Santa Cruz

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822329060
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Series: Body, Commodity, Text Series
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Judith Farquhar is Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Knowing Practice: The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine.

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Read an Excerpt


Food and sex in postsocialist China
By Judith Farquhar

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2921-2

Chapter One


This chapter is about mundane powers and the relationships between eating and medicine. People have some experience of eating-they don't just do it, they enjoy it or wish they could-day in and day out, in sickness and in health. Since these experiences are generated within asymmetrical systems of domination (both economic and epistemological), one can hardly imagine a life that is not pervaded by "the powers that be" (i.e., the powers that, while constantly under negotiation, keep turning up in similar constellations with boring but not entirely predictable regularity). A political economy of eating emphasizes the uneven distribution of nutritional resources, while a political phenomenology of eating attends to the social practices that make an experience of eating. Medical anthropology, with its political-economic and phenomenological branches and everything that ranges between these poles, is founded on a body that eats: both constructing and constructed, its experience arises from life within and among unevenly distributed, and thus contested, resources. Its events, never really under control even for the most fortunate among us, present challenges to the naturalizations of power that make up common sense.

This chapter is perhaps more concerned with medicine than any other, since it explores atsome length the logics and practices of Chinese pharmacy. Yet therapeutic drug use is an aspect of medicine that at first seems particularly innocent of politics. In China, it is ancient, highly technical, and foundational in the sense that the powers of the materia medica are the most common and direct means by which medicine intervenes in illness processes. Chinese drugs have physiological efficacy, and Chinese doctors know "from experience" (two thousand years of it, they will remind you, speaking of the ancient and continuous archive of works on materia medica) how to combine them to maximize the benefits of this direct form of power. Surely this is a kind of power different from what we normally call political?

In theory, kinds and formations of power must be distinguished. In the practice of everyday life, however, they often get muddled. People may confuse the powers they wield by virtue of a longstanding social status-a teacher's structural ability to benignly coerce undergraduates, for example-with the personal powers they micromanage in bodily life: fatigue and a self-critical mood impair a teacher's effectiveness in coercing undergraduates or at least one feels this is the case. Mastery of one's own experience is not always distinguishable from one's degree of influence over others.

The disease of sexual impotence, a common concern in postsocialist China, offers a pertinent example (see also a more extended discussion in chapter 6). It is relatively easy to see common worries about sexual performance and self-diagnoses of impotence as a metaphor for the receding powers of a certain class-party cadres, for example -or the weakness of a nation-China seen as a "backward" country. The comparison mixes two rather different senses of the word impotence. A failure to achieve an erection in an intimate relationship is not necessarily similar to the reform era reallocation of Communist Party and civil government responsibilities or to popular images of China as a country that still lacks a certain credibility and influence among nations. Why should all of these instances be linked to a failure of power? It is due in part to an accident of naming in English, and perhaps we would all be better off if certain variations in male sexual activity had not been named with reference to power. The Chinese name (yangwei, or yang weakness disease) may not invite such a ready conflation of different types of power, but with its reliance on the extremely adaptable and gender-marked yin yang relationship, it still invites a certain generalization beyond the strictly medical domain.

As analysts, we should be careful about positing a theoretical relationship between the experiences of individual bodies and any national or class body. But when people themselves make this link, through some sense of identification with the nation or an explicitly named class (and aging cadres certainly are an explicit class in modern China), they combine their own experience with a higher level of practice and a collective structure of feeling. Here we are in the highly political domain of common sense and embodied experience. Interventions at the level of the body are not distinct from efforts to exert power in the world. And eating is one of our most ordinary exertions.

It has often been pointed out that food and medicine are not radically distinct in China. Chinese cookbooks and the new genre of books on herbal medicine cuisine emphasize the medicinal value of foods and the importance of nutritional therapies dating from earliest times; many of the vegetable and animal products decocted in Chinese medicines are used routinely in cooking. The oral genre of grandmotherly advice on how to eat right for health thrives in daily conversations, and talk at banquets frequently revolves around the healthful properties of the foods being consumed. Although many doctors of traditional medicine are too busy to bother, nutritional and food preparation advice is supposed to be (and often is) offered in clinics along with herbal prescriptions. Modern periodicals ranging from daily newspapers to the most formal and conservative journals offer seasonal advice on adjustments of diet for health and well-being. Tonifying and qi-supplementing foods and drugs are often given as gifts to senior male relatives, teachers, and supervisors, and there are books aimed at a female readership that advise on how to eat right for beauty.

Perhaps eating everywhere is a "technology of the self" (i.e., of embodied historical experience), but in modern China this is perhaps a more extensively theorized and differentiated field of practice than in most other places and times. In keeping with the new cultures of consumption that have proliferated especially rapidly since the early 1990s, those who can afford good food have many choices about what they will eat and many views about why they eat what they do. Both the things that are swallowed and the sources of information about them have been part of the explosion of commodities marking China's reform era. The food products available in markets are more diverse than they have ever been, thanks to rural truck farming industries, better transportation, and better information flow concerning new agricultural techniques. Supermarkets in urban areas are more and more common, as are their imported fruits and seafoods, shrink-wrapped or frozen, and their reputation for hygiene, which apparently justifies for some customers their high prices. Buyers who are still willing to wash their own food and prefer reasonable prices no longer need to rise at dawn to get to the street market before everything fresh is sold out. Markets are well stocked and stay open almost all day. All this convenience and diversity is the product of the rise of small entrepreneur agriculture in tandem with the vast increase in imports of food from Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and even the United States and Latin America.

In the case of Beijing, I date a certain turning point in food culture to the winter of 1990, when thousands of truckloads of state-subsidized Chinese cabbages, intended to provide a source of vitamins for urbanites during the winter, rotted at the depots for lack of customers. The work unit buyers, who in previous years had ordered large lots to be stored for the use of the workers in their agencies, simply didn't turn up. The Beijing residents for whom they once provided this nearly free food had recently seen the "chaos" of the student movement violently punished by their previously trusted army. They were, moreover, in an excellent position to quietly refuse this traditional form of nurturance from the state. The free markets were full of spinach, kale, snow peas, chives, bean sprouts, cauliflower, and root vegetables, offered at good prices by small entrepreneur farmers who had dotted the countryside around Beijing with cold frames and greenhouses. The monotonous routine of cabbage soup, pickled cabbage, and stir-fried cabbage that had once meant winter in northeastern China had been broken; families were cooking and eating meals that reflected, in great variety, the newly differentiated lifestyles of a growing middle class. Much less could be presumed about the "needs" of a population no longer organized into collective work units, no longer consuming only what the state provided. Even when it was offered free by government agencies-or perhaps especially when it was offered by a state that had lost some measure of legitimacy -cabbage in 1990 was not on the menu.

Speaking of menus, restaurant culture grew rapidly during the reform era, attracting people who were once accustomed to eating from the unit canteen or at home every night. As recently as the late 1980s, many of my friends hesitated to accept my invitations to take them to dinner in restaurants, as they didn't consider such places to be clean or safe. By the mid to late 1990s, I was often invited to restaurants myself by friends who were too busy to cook. Urban areas now boast restaurants of many kinds, offering not only the regional cuisines of China (which have themselves become much more numerous as they have been more clearly commodified) alongside various transnational fast foods and their local spinoffs but Buddhist-vegetarian, Korean, "Western," Muslim, medicinal, and imperial palace cuisines. There are one-food restaurants (hot pot, Mongolian barbecue, Beijing duck) and many neighborhood eateries offering "home cooking" (jiachang cai). Quite a few restaurants offer food in all price ranges, selling cheap (but sometimes famously good) bowls of noodles from a front window while hosting well-heeled parties in second-floor banquet rooms. And, although "modernizing" cities have recently been severely restricting mobile food vendors, in most places it is still possible to find cheap street food that is both sustaining and delicious.

This diverse field of alimentary practices and preferences is the setting in which health and food find their connection in reform China. In most mass market bookstores, for example, there are two places to look for materials on food, cooking, and eating. One is with the cookbooks, and the other is in the health section, labeled as "health care" (baojian) or "self-health" (ziwo baojian). The proportion of books concerned with food in this latter section has grown rapidly during the 1990s; works on nutritional therapy (shi liao) and medicinal meals (yao shan) are matched only by information on care of the aged in the number of publications filling the shelves. Books on the medicinal uses of food and the alimentary uses of medicines are of several main types: traditionalist works that link medicinal foods to a long history of "life nurturance" (yang sheng) and preventive medicine, cuisine-oriented works that emphasize elegant presentation along with the special powers of ingredients combined in certain ways, homely advice about the mundane use of herbals for better health, and lists of foods and recipes that address particular diseases (among them, tumor diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic heart failure, emphysema, acne, and the general debilities of aging). All of these sources are distinguished by a marked emphasis on the medical technique of bu, bolstering and tonifying the depleted or hypofunctional body.

One helpful work, Seasonal Meals for Body Bolstering, opens by defining the important verb bu as "a type of method that orally administers the food or drugs that function to build and supplement (buyi) or to regulate the yin-yang balance in the body, with the aim of strengthening the constitution, preventing disease, treating disease, and lengthening life. The word bu includes the meanings of repairing (xi-ubu), filling (buchong), supplementing (buyi), and nourishing (zibu)". This definition is not quite what would be provided by a Chinese medicine clinician uninterested in food therapies or by an acupuncturist (though the term bu would be key to their thinking), nor does it emphasize what would be obvious to an etymologist, that the roots of the written character suggest that it means "to patch," invoking a textile metaphor. It is clear, however, that the understanding of bu in Seasonal Meals is rather more committed to the idea of a basic yin-yang balance than many technical works on Chinese medicine might be. Although much of traditional medicine assumes the need to calibrate yin and yang processes, most practitioners usually find this level of analysis too general for elucidating actual clinical work. Yet it makes sense that authors explaining the uses of medicinal foods to a popular audience would posit the body's yin-yang balance as a fundamental aspect of their topic. Yang and yin are very broadly applicable as polar categories, making sense out of everything from the weather to the vicissitudes of history. As terms for passive (yin) and active (yang) states and incipient (yang) and developed (yin) processes, they can also figure in all manner of mundane experience. They classify things as well, including foods, in ways that are well known even to many who have never studied medicine. Yin foods can supplement the yin deficiencies of the body, and yang medicines can increase yang physiological functions. Thus, the usefulness of a yin-yang vocabulary for uniting the efficacies of food and medicine is fairly obvious; it suggests a body in motion, the activity of which can be influenced, and thus regulated, by the similarly classified efficacies of substances taken by mouth.

Although the notion of physiological balance seems obvious for a technique that makes medicine of food, the centrality of bu as a technique for maintaining this balance is suggestive. Why are there are so many more techniques for bolstering and supplementing an unbalanced system than for draining or depressing its functions? Is hypofunction a much more common disorder than hyperfunction? Are vulnerable or damaged bodies more prone to gaps, lacks, and failures of function than to excessive activity, redundancies, and proliferations? In Chinese medicine in general, the preponderance of bu methods relates to the inevitable decline that is human life. Gradually we use up our bodily resources, to the point that a good balance of yin and yang can no longer be sustained and death results. This is also a popular way of conceiving of life in general: sheng lao bing si (Birth, aging, illness, and death-that's life!) people often say. This is no more profound a cultural principle than the sort of "death and taxes" remarks one might hear anywhere. But the fact that the body loses functional powers as it ages suggests that foods and medicines that bolster and supplement (buyi) would be more attractive to practitioners, patients, and connoisseurs than those that clear and drain (qingxie).

Food is, after all, nourishing. It remedies daily cycles of depletion and appetite. Medicinal food is distinguished in its capacity to do particular jobs on the foundation of the daily necessity and mundane gratifications of eating. Even the most general works on medicinal meals are organized for use by individuals with specific problems, and divisions of such books may be made in terms of Western medical diagnostic categories, Chinese medical syndromes, parts of the body affected, or Chinese medical treatment principles. These modes of organization make it easy for consumers to find the substances, recipes, and explanatory principles that pertain to their own conditions. Thus, these are reference works that allow individual experiences of lack and depletion to be met with foods that fill and nourish, each of them articulated in very focused ways that address a particular illness, a particular constitutional vulnerability.


Excerpted from Appetites by Judith Farquhar Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Part I. Eating: A Politics of the Senses
Preamble to Part I: Lei Feng, Tireless Servant of the People
1. Medicinal Meals
2. A Feast for the Mind
3. Excess and Deficiency
Part II. Desiring: An Ethics of Embodiment
Preamble to Part II: Du Wanxiang, The Rosy Glow of the Good Communist
4. Writing the Self: The Romance of the Personal
5. Sexual Science: The Representation of Behavior
6. Ars Erotica
Conclusion: Hailing Historical Bodies
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