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The Mouth That Begs: Hunger, Cannibalism, and the Politics of Eating in Modern China

The Mouth That Begs: Hunger, Cannibalism, and the Politics of Eating in Modern China

by Gang Yue, Stanley Fish (Editor), Fredric Jameson (Editor)

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Drawing on narrative works acoss a century and across Chinese and Chinese-American cultural lines,Yue examines Chinese cultural politics of the twentieth century as an “alimentary discourse,” where the roles of food and “eating” wi


Drawing on narrative works acoss a century and across Chinese and Chinese-American cultural lines,Yue examines Chinese cultural politics of the twentieth century as an “alimentary discourse,” where the roles of food and “eating” wi

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A very provocative view of the way modern Chinese practice, imagine, and politicize food culture and alimentary discourse. Instead of paying only lip service to materiality, Yue truly grapples with the material aspect of Chinese modernity.”—David Wang, author of Fictional Realism in Modern China: Mao Dun, Lao She, Shen Congwen

“Eating is certainly one of the great cultural metaphors in China, past and present. The Mouth That Begs is magnificent—sophisticated in writing and original in approach and interpretation. A most brilliant work indeed.”—Leo Ou-fan Lee, Harvard University

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Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
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6.10(w) x 8.96(h) x 1.44(d)

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The Mouth That Begs

Hunger, Cannibalism, and the Politics of Eating in Modern China

By Gang Yue

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9851-6


Discoursing Food

Some Notes toward a Semiotic of Eating in Ancient China

This chapter serves as a footnote, historical and cultural, to those that follow. Without this footnote, my reading of modern texts would stand on sand; yet to describe what came prior to modernity with sinological rigor would require lifelong research and result in a huge separate project. As a footnote, this chapter allows me to do the necessary without being drowned in the bottomless.

A footnote also allows me to isolate and highlight a few examples that make sense to my own reading without pretending to claim comprehensive expertise. To borrow a phrase from the traditional exegesis of the classics, it is the classics that "annotate" me rather than the other way around. By no means will these examples describe a complete picture of "Chinese eating." There are rules, for sure, that govern social behaviors, as minor as etiquette and table manners and as major as food taboos and sacrificial rituals. There also are many unwritten rules that prescribe who should produce and cook what kind of food for whom and under what circumstances. These rules in turn delineate the power structure whereby eating becomes not only a part of human regeneration but also part of the reproduction of social relations and institutions. And, much as our experience of food is diverse and open-ended, my reading of these instances is inconclusive and suggestive.

Semiotics, like any mode of thinking that claims to be scientific, could provide a bit of rigor for analytical intervention into such an "illogical" experience as that with food if–and only if–it gave up its claim to some kind of universal syntax and signifying structure. The poststructural shift from syntax to semantics and pragmatics that reemphasizes contextual production of meaning and culture-specific signification has raised the possibility that "[s]emiotics is mainly concerned with signs as social forces" (Eco 1979, 65). Without plunging into a general theory of semiotics here–and even less so in using its arcane terminology in my reading–I would simply define the title of this chapter as "a semiotic of eating in ancient China," meaning a culture-specific reading of food signs and symbols and alimentary discourse as social forces. These social forces have organized the Chinese experience with food and eating on the one hand and constituted a particular way of interpreting general cultural experience in accordance with the very principles of these social forces on the other. Or, to borrow a definition from James Brown and slightly alter it for the sake of simplification: "Semiotic ... refers to the relationship between the literary [and cultural] sign (here designated as fictional [and any textual] meal complex) and the cultural context wherein the sign is born and which invests it with meaning(s)" (1984, 9).

As for "discoursing food," Roland Barthes's description of "discourse" and "figures" is analogous to the way I will analyze the alimentary discourse of China in terms of figures: "Dis-cursus –originally the action of running here and there, comings and goings, measures taken, 'plots' and 'plans': the lover, in fact, cannot keep his mind from racing, taking new measures and plotting against himself. His discourse exists only in outbursts of language. These fragments of discourse can be called figures" (1978, 3).

Metaphorically, Chinese food is not served as "course" but as "dish." Symbolic of the "running to and fro" and "conversing" that occur between the East and the West–as exemplified by my writing of Chinese food and eating in English at the present moment–the "discourse" in which such writing is engaged cannot be better described than as "dis(h)-coursing" (food). As a result, the "figures" or textual fragments are carved out of the whole to serve up four thematic items: (1) the mythological figure of the Red Emperor/Noble Farmer and agri/cultural initiation and critique, (2) the rhetorical figure of cooking as a metaphor for government, (3) the mythological-historical figure of Bo Yi and moral-political fasting, (4) and the historical and fictional figure of the"Chinese cannibal." The central figure that "configures" these is the material body and its historical embodiment.

The Ancestral God of Agri/Culture and the Absolute Value of Food

Various versions of the inception of agri/culture in ancient China attribute the discovery of grains and the introduction of farming to one of the two legendary ancestral gods, the Red Emperor (Yandi), while the other, the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), is believed to be the one who invented the stove meant for cooking. The Red Emperor, whose name, yan, symbolizes the sun, is also called Shen Nong, the "Noble Farmer." From various written fragments about the Red Emperor/Noble Farmer, there are three significant roles he has played in the agri/cultural initiation of China. First, he introduced the farming of the "five grains," which is synonymous with all staple food, invented the plow and other tools, and taught the primitive people how to cultivate the land. God as he is, he is once described as having "a human body with the head of an ox" (Yuan 1979, 79), the latter being a folk cult belief because of the major role it played in farming until modern mechanization. Second, as god of agriculture, the Red Emperor/Noble Farmer also discovered hundreds of medicinal herbs by actually tasting them to gauge their effects, and according to some folk tales he eventually was killed by a poisonous plant. Third, the Red Emperor/Noble Farmer not only provides the source of energy (food) and health (herbal medicine) but as the "helio-god" he embodies the primitive measurement of time.

This "creation" myth is significant in four respects. Ontologically, eating occupies the core of a prehistoric belief system. In contrast to the biblical source or Greek mythology, it is the ancestor-creator who eats, not out of "sinful temptation" but to satisfy a primordial human need. Nor are the food and drink he "creates" such celestial stuff as the ambrosia and nectar served to the Olympian pantheon; they are the kinds of food and drink his descendants are still consuming today. This secular and "humanist" myth has nurtured Chinese culture with an element of rationality: food and eating must be taken as a matter of fact in this, the only world.

This earthly attitude toward food found expression in the early classics and survives in modern writings. In The Analects, when asked by Duke Ling of Wei for his advice about military affairs, Confucius says: "I have indeed heard about matters pertaining to tsu (meat stand) and dou (meat platter), but I have not learned military matters" (15.1; K. Chang 1977, 11) Such a novel cross-reference by the sage shows his contempt for the immorality of war on the one hand and the importance he attaches to food as a fundamental human concern on the other. In Mencius, the philosopher Guo Zi contends: "Appetite for Food and sex is nature" (5.3.4; Mengzi 1970, 161). While such a permissive attitude toward sex has rarely been the norm in Chinese society, especially for women, the appetite for food has been treated as a matter of fact. "If there is anything we are serious about," writes Lin Yutang, "it is neither religion nor learning, but food" (1935, 337) . In his introduction to the pioneering work Food in Chinese Culture, K. C. Chang's somewhat tautological remark drives this point home: "[P]erhaps the most important aspect of the Chinese food culture is the importance of food itself in Chinese culture" (1977, n). What is foregrounded here, to borrow a phrase from Ted Huters's reading of a contemporary text, is "food as an absolute value" (1985, 397).

Epistemologically, the Red Emperor did not exactly "create" food but "discovered" hundreds of herbs through his mouth. Eating thus also functions as the primary mode of knowing. His attempt to experience the "tree of knowledge" led to the birth of an old agri/culture rather than the downfall of the human race. This "eating epistemology" is not so much theological and transcendent as it is grounded in the practices of everyday life. The fact that Chinese cuisine utilizes as many "exotic" material resources as possible seems to be partly due to this ancestral god's pragmatic boldness. The priority of practice over speculation, or knowing as the result of doing, seems to anticipate the Confucian system that dictates that all action begins with gewuzhizhi (differentiation of things leads to knowledge).

Perhaps in every traditional culture food habits function as a means of cultural and class differentiation. Food and cooking have served as a cultural marker in ancient China to establish its cultural superiority. Chapter "Wangzhi" of The Classic of Rituals records such a piece:

The people of those five regions had all their several natures, which could not be made to alter. The tribes on the east were called Yi. They had their hair unbound, and tattooed their bodies. Some of them ate their food without its being cooked with fire. Those on the south were called Man. They tattooed their foreheads, and had their feet turned in toward each other. Some of them ate their food without it being cooked with fire. Those on the west were called Jung. They had their hair unbound, wore skins. Some of them did not eat grain-food. Those on the north were called Ti. They wore skins of animals and birds, and dwelt in caves. Some of them did not eat grain-food. (qtd. in K. Chang 1977, 42)

What is remarkable in this passage is that cultural differentiation hinges on an apparent distinction in appearance and food rather than social activities, religious practices, and cultural icons such as written language or the lack of it, all of which are commonplace in writings of the modern world.

The third aspect of the myth addresses a morality of eating. Because the Red Emperor/Noble Farmer's eating as a practical mode of knowing involves risking his life, he sets an ideal model of what I would call "divine sacrifice for mundane need." This mythological figure became a popular ancestral god most probably due to his sacrifice for the common good of the populace. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the high moral demand on the ruling elite in later Confucian culture calls for mythological creation and transformation of this highly worshiped ancestral god into an ideal moral example to be followed by all emperors and officials. Because this kind of sacrifice is rare in reality, the Red Emperor/Noble Farmer not only must serve food to his people but must sacrifice himself as spiritual nourishment for the hungry imagination of the hardworking but poverty-stricken peasants. The ruling elite is thus constantly reminded of the well-being of the ordinary peasants as theiryishi fumu (parents who provide clothing and food).

Yuan Ke, a leading scholar of Chinese mythology, wrote in the context of the PRC: "The emperor Shen Nong tasted hundreds of herbs until he sacrificed his life for the people, poisoned to death by the last herb he tried.... This spirit of loyalty to the people is unforgettable" (1960, 71). Obviously, the popularity of the myth lies in the god's "first bite," which "discovers" as much as his "last bite," which "sacrifices" him as ancestral-spiritual nourishment. The theme of "divine sacrifice" or, according to the Chinese tradition, "noble sacrifice"–"noble" in both the moral and the sociological senses of the word–has served as the mythological foundation for a quasi-religious moral philosophy. Modern revolutionary discourse, developed from scientific socialism, requires this sort of powerful (re)mystification to mobilize the masses for revolutionary sacrifice. Yuan's reinterpretation of the myth in terms of noble sacrifice is only part of the construction of the grand narrative of revolution in modern China.

The last but not the least important aspect of the "creation" myth is the ancestral god's power, which unifies both the "Chinese race" and, being the "creator" of time, Chinese history. Nothing could be more effective for cultural identification than the invocation of a shared ancestry, along with the idea of a great tradition that constructs the collective cultural consciousness and connects it to that ancestry. Since the dawn of modernity when the Middle Kingdom began its metamorphosis into a modern nation-state, the term yanhuang zisun (sons and grandsons of the Red and the Yellow Emperors) has been invoked whenever a national crisis is perceived.

The sense of a shared history rests on real or imagined shared historical experiences. Yet ironically it is one of the most devastating experiences shared by all humankind in the past–hunger, famine, and mass starvation–that has haunted the rulers of China throughout its history. If the myth of the Red Emperor/Noble Farmer has any historical value apart from its mythical power, it would seem to support the simple truth that the rulers of China must take food seriously or be devoured in the hungry waves of peasant revolt. It is in this real history that eating has served as a powerful weapon of social criticism.

The remark by Confucius quoted previously points to this critical implication. In Mencius, the term shi (food, to eat, to feed) is used 106 times, including once for "eclipse" (even an astronomical phenomenon is described as "being eaten"; see Mengzi 1984, 409). Many times where the word appears Mencius lectures his audience of kings and dukes on the importance of food and their mistakes concerning it. His attack on King Hui of Liang is a well-known passage, part of which reads:

There is fat meat in your kitchen and there are well-fed horses in your stables, yet the people look hungry and in the outskirts of cities men drop dead from starvation. This is to show animals the way to devour men. Even the devouring of animals by animals is repugnant to men. If, then, one who is father and mother to the people cannot, in ruling over them, avoid showing animals the way to devour men, wherein is he father and mother to the people? (i.a.4; Mengzi 1970, 52)

A couplet by the Tang poet Du Fu, which is part of the primer of classical Chinese from which schoolchildren in the PRC learn about their "feudal" past, reads:" [W]hile the wine and the meat have spoiled behind the red doors [of rich households], / on the road there are skeletons of those who died of exposure" (qtd. in K. Chang 1977, 15). The contrast of class difference shows the important function of food in signifying the wide disparity between the rich and the poor and the critical power of food signs in attacking such disparities. And it is this tradition of critical consciousness, traceable to the early Confucian sages, that would provide a meaningful, indigenous framework for the adaptation of historical materialism to Chinese soil in modern times.

The Red Emperor/Noble Farmer thus is a dual-faced cultural icon. It signifies two basic social forces whose contradiction and conflict have governed the operation of Chinese political culture. On the one hand, the (Red) Emperor represents the imperial state. The ideological legitimacy of the state depends on the believed mythological/historical authority and continuity of the mandate of the ancestral gods. On the other hand, the (Noble) Farmer represents the ideal and interest of the peasantry as the opposite of the imperial state. They share the same ancestry-orientated belief system, but the peasants demand that the mandate of the ancestral gods must be executed according to their own interpretation of the myth. In other words, it is not the (Red) Emperor but the (Noble) Farmer who justifies the very existence of the state, and thus the state must act like him. The fact that in Chinese history peasant revolts could topple one empire after another but the terms of ideological legitimation for such dynastic changes never changed testifies to this logic.

Such contradictory duality embedded in the formation of an ancestral god can be traced to the composition of a key term in the sign system: mu, meaning "to 'ox-herd,'" "herdsman," and, in classical political terminology, "governance." Its metaphoric structure appears similar to that in the Christian tradition except that the former emphasizes worldly governance and the latter spiritual nurturing. But the two are different in terms of animal symbolism and cultural implications: mu is derived etymologically from "ox," which corresponds to the mystical image of the Red Emperor/Noble Farmer, and adds to "ox" "a hand that holds a whip." The two halves of the character mu vividly describe the dual "face" of the ancestral god. The "ox," probably a sediment carried over from a primitive totem, symbolizes its intimate relation to a culture centered on grain production and was used by the peasantry to create their collective ancestor in the Noble Farmer. The "whip" represents the imperial power once that cultural icon was attached and transferred to the ancestral god in the Red Emperor. Thus, from the "egalitarianism" of the ancestral god as both the provisioner and the ox developed a symbolic and social division between the ruler and the ruled. Their relationship has never been stable in history precisely because ITLμITL requires that the ruler does not "crack his whip" but "herds" and, in times of hardship, makes "noble sacrifices." Much of the social tension between the state and the peasantry can be understood as the struggle between the two major conflicting forces embodied in the dual-faced god.


Excerpted from The Mouth That Begs by Gang Yue. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gang Yue is Assistant Professor of Chinese at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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