When Chinese talk about Food, what are we talking about?

The annual Chinese New Year came as usual in 2018. But during this Chinese New Year, it was also the time of the premiere of the season 3 of Shejianshang de zhongguo《舌尖上的中国 (A Bite of China), a documentary series produced by China’s national television CCTV about Chinese food and culture. Like the previous two seasons, the latest season was lively discussed on Chinese social media, like Weibo 微博, Douban 豆瓣, Zhihu 知乎 with #舌尖3 (Shejian III), #舌尖上的中国. The discussion was mainly about the content of the new season. Unlike the previous two seasons, which they received most positive reviews, most Chinese audiences don’t appreciate the newest season.

One of the things they discuss about is authenticity. There are various types of Chinese food in China. Each region has its own regional food and eating habits. Occasionally, there is discussion and argument over the “proper” way to eat a type of food on Chinese social media, especially during festival seasons. For example, during Labajie 腊八节,some people usually eat Labazhou 腊八粥 (a kind of porridge made of 8 kinds of bean) on that day. Almost every year, there is a “fight” over whether Labazhou should be sweet or savoury. In general, people from the North prefer the savoury one, while people from the South prefer the sweet one. When I say “some” people, as a Chinese, I literally just found out the custom of eating Labazhou on Labajie few years ago. Because my mom has never made this kind of food at home before. Beside the “fight” over Labazhou, there is also a similar fight over Douhua 豆花 on Chinese social media. Of course, we can never draw a conclusion on these kinds of subject. Because everybody think they are eating their food in an “authentic” way.

Whereas in Shejian III, people don’t think it rends the authenticity of Chinese food and culture. On Zhihu 知乎 (China’s version of Quora), someone named Qingque青雀 accuses Shejian III film something fake about Shidawan 十大碗 (ten dishes), a local country feast from Pingjiang County平江县, Hunan Province 湖南省. Qingque claims he or she is a local from the Pingjiang. He or she says the Shejian III shows some eating habit and eating custom that he or she has never seen, never heard, or never experienced about them in his or her life. Some customs are even staged for the filming of Shejian III (Staging!? Yes, sometimes when watching Chinese documentary, you would see something is staged). He or she also accuses that as a food documentary Shejian III doesn’t focus on the food itself. The episode of Shidawan doesn’t tell the audiences about that what is Shidawan, what kind of ingredients people put in Shidawan, or how to make shidawan. The production team turns their cameras on the eating custom. Indeed foods convey different meanings among the eaters and indicate the closeness of the relationship, so eating custom is part of Chinese food culture.[1] But the team shouldn’t forget about that the food is the main topic of a food documentary.

Another critique of Shejian III is the documentary is not scientific or educational enough. There is one episode about Cantonese soup.[2] The narrative of the Cantonese soup is biased towards traditional Chinese medicine, instead of science. When some areas of traditional Chinese medicine/therapy have not been scientifically verified, the Shejian III highly praises about the healing/therapeutic result of Cantonese soup. But in Shejian II, the narrative of Cantonese soup is more scientific and more authentic. As a Cantonese, I grew up eating/drinking Cantonese soup, to be honest, I really like the context of Cantonese soup in Shejian II. I think it renders Cantonese characteristic and our attitude towards Cantonese soup.

现代科学认为,任何对食物的加工,都会造成营养不同程度的损失,但这绝对不能说服广东人[3]。In Guangdong, people are particularly fond of clay pot soup. They seem undeterred by scientific evidence that processing food diminishes its nutritional value. — Cantonese soup, episode 4, Shejian II

However, Shejian III seems to forget about the scientific part as a documentary. The Cantonese soup is emphasized on Qushi祛湿 (expelling the damp out of the body)[4]. Scientifically speaking, I really doubt whether that kind of damp exist, when my mom says this soup is good for your health, because it can Qushi. Whether it is out of my mom’s “authority” or a habit, I always drink/eat the soup immediately. Food therapy is also part of the Chinese food culture. Cantonese still believe in the Qushi in our soup. But we also find out that our clay pot soup can be bad for gout. We understand that our soup is not a medicine. It is more or less like a good-tasting energy drink in our life!

Chinese food is diverse and regional. We might have disagreement on other people eating habit or cooking methods. But we respect their definition of the authentic food. Because it represents their regional identity. In that aspect, the authenticity of Chinese food seems that it doesn’t exist. But as a food documentary produced by the national television, Shejian III doesn’t the dimensions of authenticity:

It is true to itself? Is it what it says it is? —

 Museums and Authenticity,  Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore [5]
[1]       Guansheng Ma, “Food, eating behaviour, and culture in Chinese society”, Journal of Ethnic Foods (2015), 195-199.
[2]       Cantonese Soup, Reflection of Canton Culture and History http://www.cits.net/china-travel-guide/cantonese-soup-reflection-of-canton-culture-and-history.html (accessed on 07 March 2018). This link of Cantonese soup just provides some general introduction of Cantonese soup. Its content is biased towards tourist attractions.
[3]       广东人 Cantonese people. A similar comparison the narrtive of the Cantonese soup of the Shejian series is also made by Xiaokuan 小宽 on Zhihu
[4]       Guangdong Province is located in the southern China, where is warm and humid all year round. Traditional Chinese therapy believes that it is important to get rid of the damp outside to rich a balance.
[5]       Pine II, Joseph and James H. Gilmore. “Museums and Authenticity,” Museum News May/June (2007): 76-93.

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