Lee, Seung-Joon 2010 Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton, reviewed by Amy Zader

Seung-Joon Lee, Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2010, 320 pages, $55.00 cloth, ISBN 9780804772266

As a densely populated empire, Chinese leaders were constantly concerned about China’s “food problem.” Efforts to control frequent famines carried over from the fall of China’s dynastic cycle to the nation-building period of the early twentieth century.  Measures to control grain supply intensified once merchants began to import rice and urban consumers developed a taste for foreign-produced varieties of rice. Gourmets in the Land of Famine argues that during the construction of the modern Chinese nation-state, scientific approaches to grain policy and rice production were central to constructing national identity.

This book provides a detailed account of the social and political events surrounding Canton (known today as Guangdong province) in the early 20th century. Rice provides a lens through which author Seung-Joon Lee examines Guomingdang (or Kuomintang, National Party) grain policies intended to unify Republican China as a strong nation built through science and technology. This historical narrative interrogates society-state relations and demonstrates how the seeds for nationalism were planted, grew, struggled, and flourished in a certain time and place.

Lee effectively weaves together a variety of narratives into a larger story of nation-building efforts.  Gourmet not only contributes to modern Chinese history in Canton, but it also provides the foundation for understanding contemporary Chinese politics of food security.  Part One (“Feeding the City of Gourmets”) of the book demonstrates the meanings of rice in everyday cultural, political, and economic practices in Canton.  It begins by exploring the challenges of shortage in Guangdong province and the Pearl River Delta region.  Although the province at the heart of China’s industry near Hong Kong and other major ports was affluent, it also experienced the nation’s most severe food shortages.  The coexistence of rice shortage with commercial prosperity sets the stage for the rest of the monograph.  From there, readers are introduced to the urban market for rice and consumption practices.   Consumers had a great variety of rice, each with their own geographic origin, from which they could pick and choose their preference.  In order for these varieties to appear and for markets to thrive, merchants created informal networks with rice suppliers from around the country and Southeast Asia.  Despite shortage throughout the province, the Canton market was filled with a luxurious variety of rice, unlike any other urban market in China at the time.  The coexistence of rice shortage and extravagance propelled the Guomingdang to pay attention and to take action.

Part Two (“Saving the Nation from Famine”) investigates Canton in the broader Chinese political context. Canton’s constant rice shortage led the nationalists, suspicious of foreign rice imports, to create a propaganda campaign around “national” rice.  After gaining sole authority in China, the Guomingdang were busy structuring and organizing the modern Chinese nation.  Central to this process was the recognition that science and technology provided answers to rice deficiency problems while they also helped establish a modern nation.  The party devised an integral set of national grain policies, massive railroad construction, and scientific development designed to ensure the transport of rice from Hunan, the center of grain production in China, to Canton.  Even though rice from Hunan was abundant, Cantonese considered it inferior in quality.  In their haste to develop the economy, technology, and culture of “national” rice, the issue of quality and taste of rice had slipped past the Guomingdang.  By 1936, Canton experienced a famine, and the outbreak of war in 1937 shifted leaders’ attention to external political matters.  Ultimately, China’s national rice policy was revamped and redesigned to include all measures to ensure grain supplies at reasonable prices, rather than the previous policy designed to centralize power.

Gourmets presents a strong narrative of attempts at nation-building while also providing a solid historical perspective of the ways through which human-environmental relations and geopolitical connections were shaped. By exploring the failures and successes of rice merchants, national policy-makers, and consumers, we understand how rice became an integral part of the construction of national identity in Republican China.  Readers see how lives are shaped at this particular juncture of time and place.  A historical perspective of grain policy and the role of rice in the lives of members of society relates to modern-day Chinese food and agricultural issues.  Indeed, today the Chinese state continues to struggle with how to effectively integrate technology and agriculture development projects.  Moreover, as urban consumers gain greater power in the marketplace, the issue of quantity vs. quality of rice is central to food security policies.  By demonstrating how important many of the same themes that shape contemporary Chinese food security were just under a century ago, this book provides an important intervention into these contemporary issues.  Today, China’s struggle to be food secure remains wrapped up in economic development, nation-building, and science and technology.

Gourmets in the Land of Famine is appropriate reading for upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses on the contemporary geography of Asia and China as well as courses on agro-food systems and food security.  Lee eloquently tells an historical regional narrative of central government intervention into a place beset by inequality and political chaos.  Overall, it presents a compelling narrative of the central role of rice in contemporary Chinese society and politics as it touches on themes of famine, agricultural technology, food consumption, nation-building, and food security policies.

Amy Zader, Geography and Center for Asian Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309 USA

 

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