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Less than a half century ago, China experienced a cataclysmic famine, which was particularly devastating in the countryside. As a result, older people in rural areas have experienced in their lifetimes both extreme deprivation and relative abundance of food. Young people, on the other hand, have a different relationship to food. Many young rural Chinese are migrating to rapidly industrializing cities for work, leaving behind backbreaking labor but also a connection to food through agriculture.
Bitter and Sweet examines the role of food in one rural Chinese community as it has shaped everyday lives over the course of several tumultuous decades. In her superb ethnographic accounts, Ellen Oxfeld compels us to reexamine some of the dominant frameworks that have permeated recent scholarship on contemporary China and that describe increasing dislocation and individualism and a lack of moral centeredness. By using food as a lens, she shows a more complex picture, where connectedness and sense of place continue to play an important role, even in the context of rapid change.
List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments
Note on the Text
1 • The Value of Food in Rural China
2 • Labor
3 • Memory
4 • Exchange
5 • Morality
6 • Conviviality
Conclusion: Stitching the World Together
Ellen Oxfeld is Gordon Schuster Professor of Anthropology at Middlebury College. She has also been a visiting scholar at the Hakka Research Institute, Jiaying University, Meizhou, Guangdong, China. She is the author of Drink Water, but Remember the Source: Moral Discourse in a Chinese Village, among other books.
"Bitter and Sweet is a rich and detailed ethnography that makes a convincing case for following food through its transformations as it is created, exchanged and consumed to reveal myriad themes of contemporary social life, what I would call a “gustemological” approach to culture."—Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition
"This is useful reading not only for fellow anthropologists in the China field, but also for anyone interested in knowing about modern China. Summing Up: Highly recommended."—CHOICE
"Oxfeld is able to tightly integrate detailed, intimate ethnography with a wide body of food studies and anthropological theory to illustrate how everyday people in rural China are finding ways to ‘domesticate’ social and cultural change. While many studies of China have either celebrated or critiqued the changes resulting from unprecedented economic growth, Oxfeld shows growth’s complexity—and through her detailed analysis of foodways, gives us an empirically grounded approach to explore these changes."—Fuji Lozada, Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies, Davidson College
"Bitter and Sweet focuses on a fascinating and important topic, food in modern China, as seen through the lens of one rural community. Oxfeld's portrait of this community and its food practices provides readers with a highly engaging introduction to some of the critical issues China faces today, ranging from food safety to mass migration to profound moral change. The book is thus both intimate and ambitious, in the very best tradition of anthropology."—Charles Stafford, London School of Economics