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Farming, Cooking, and Eating Practices in the Central China Highlands by Wu Xu
by: Wu Xu
Edwin Mellon Press, Ltd 2011, Hardbound
Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Spring Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(1) page(s): 16
This author reports about specific ethnic populations and does so as all who study any cultural group should. He is critical and detailed, his book a pleasure to read. He cares about and looks at cultural foods in new and better ways not grouping people by where they live or what someone else may have called them. He understands who they are and why. I suggest that everyone copy his attitude, his technique, and his expertise. Everyone needs to realize that cultural groups are not what they seem, not what governments call them, and not how others categorize them.
His first forty pages detail the people he will write about and who they really are. Next comes fascinating details about them. After this major portion of the book, he ends with seventy pages of bibliography, stories, farming, gardening, related activity calendars, wild plants used, lineage identity, and the gods they worship. The book ends with a detailed cross-referenced index.
Publishers listen up! Encourage your authors to provide this type of critical information when they write about one or more ethnic minority populations.
When we started reading his book, we did not know where and who the Enshi were. We did not know what types of restaurants prepare their foods, where they are, or what their agricultural and ecosystems were, what were their basic foods, wild foods, famine foods, banquet and ritual foods, or the foods they used at their various life-cycle events. We did not know their different festival foods or any identities they give to themselves. Now we have many detailed pieces of information about each of these.
Wu does not see what the Enshi eat as exotic or unusual. He just looks at their special foods and cites them in their specific cuisine system, something the Chinese call caixi. These he shares and they include but are not limited to hezha---a dish of soybean and vegetable leaves, baogufan—a dish of maize flour and rice, and zhaguangjiao—a preserved maize flour and red chili pepper preparation. He also tells us they were and still are also regarded as Tujia common foods.
Chinese scholars generally believe the Tujia culture includes hezha foods. Some think the Tujia labeling of their restaurants might be an ethnic manipulation. He finds the Enshi people indifferent to these manipulations, that they are foodways culturally shaped as reflections of social order and identity. He refers to them as behavior patterns, the kinds reported by Mary Douglas and Jack Goody.
Wu Xu believes lineages have cultural and regional markers, and that they can be important, also can conflict. He cites artificially created ones including some in Han populations. He points out that in the Enshi region, many people do not know if an ancestor moved here years ago hundreds of years ago. Therefore, he does wonder about group designations and if they are not deserved from government higher ups. He asks if some of them are selected to reduce agricultural tax, gain better schools with government subsidies, etc. He implies they can be why they call themselves by one group name or another, and says that those that study them need to explore these questions.
Wu Xu sees cultural borrowing and resistance to change and wonders if the maize eaters became so with knowledge aforethought. He agrees that they can and do influence social organization and the language they speak. He suggests future regions and lineages, and not ethnic groups are the way to describe and analyze people and their heritage.
We suggest that all who study ethnic popuations read his book and understand his premises before they report about the people thay are studying. We do, too!