Dr. Ellen Oxfeld, professor of anthropology at Middlebury College in Vermont has spent a significant amount of time in rural China in a small village she has named “Moonshadow Pond” located in Meixian, Guangdong Province, southeast China. Ellen emphasizes that while many have studied China’s recent rise as an economic power, China itself does not exist solely in the economic realm. Ordinary Chinese still place intense value on moral obligations and the nature of the social ties that connect them to others.
Because food plays such a central aspect in Chinese society, Ellen’s most recent research focused on the way that food articulates a moral message about social relations and social actions in the daily interactions and discourse within Chinese rural society. She has found that food is a primary lens through which and with which villagers assess how and whether basic obligations have been met by the state, family members and a wider set of social relations. For example, villagers find health, safety, reliability and even the taste of foodstuffs from the wider market to be highly questionable and they see this as stemming from profiteering, adulteration, and the industrialized process of food production itself – implying moral criticism of the contemporary food system. Another example is the way that food is exchanged between friends and family. These exchanges can both express and create moral obligations between people. Food analogies are also used to invoke moral obligations. For example, Ellen quotes a common saying “when you drink water, remember the source” meaning that a person needs to remember the moral debt to those that have provided help.
Food also has a role in maintaining the balance and health of an individual and society. Certain foods are “hot” or “cold”, “bitter” or “sweet” and need to be prepared and served in a way that reinforces harmony. In her studies, Ellen found that there is a strong interest in“wild” foods. Different kinds of leaves are used to cure minor ailments, such as a stomach ache or sore throat. Also, some are used to enhance taste. Here she gives an one example: The three leaves here are:清明粄的材料﹕抽叶(chou ye),（艾)nee (ai),鸡屎腾 ( jishiteng) Qingming Ban (use of wild grasses, or grass medicine (chaoyao):First step: Boil three wild grasses: nee, jishiteng and chouye. That is done for about two hours, and then the water and grasses are taken and the grasses are strained and chopped very fine. They are put back in the water after this. Next they are mixed with 3 jin of sugar, 3 jin of sticky rice flour, and 4.5 jin of regular rice flour to make a batter which should be pretty hard. They are separated and made into cakes which are steamed for just a few minutes. After that, they can be eaten without resteaming. Ellen writes that “Of course, food is a commodity in China. But it’s meanings are too rich to be contained by its value as a commodity. Its moral significance resonate on many levels.”This program originally aired May 26, 2014. To learn more about Dr. Ellen Oxfeld look up her biographical information and curriculum vitae at: http://www.middlebury.edu/academics/igs/faculty/node/25771