Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China by E.N. Anderson
by: E.N. Anderson
University of Pennsylvania Press 2014, $69.95, Hardbound
Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Fall Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(3) page(s): 14
This is the best book about China I have ever read, no exaggeration. Furthermore, I am not an environmentalist, quite the contrary, and I still love it. If there were a more powerful way to say this, I would. Here is what I like about it. This book traces the development of foods and food systems from when China emerged as an empire through all imperial times some two thousand years ago. It deals with China's ability to feed itself, manage its food supply, its forests, too, and it explains how it has done so.
China's rulers did this not knowing they would or could, the 'how' is detailed. The book is very well referenced, all thirty pages of them, and it is worth the price of the book. I even bought two copies for friends. In addition, you may want to do what I did and photocopy the reference list to find and/or check out the many wanted for reading. There will be dozens on my night table, what to order to put them in will be a serious problem
I join Paul Freeman of Yale and Thomas Allen Emeritus professor of the College of New Jersey and agree it truly is marvelous, is wide-ranging, and it does debunk myths and mountains of misinformation. It provides readers with challenges about lots of inherited wisdom that may need a divorce from your brain. I commend the series editor, Victor H. Mair. He sought out and convinced Anderson to tackle the topic, and include it in the Encounters with Asia series, a genius of an idea.
Most chapters have sub-headings, they need attention. Wish they were listed under each chapter title in the Table of Contents. Suggest you do as I am beginning to do, keep a list of them as I reread this volume. Some say: "Han Food and Medicine," "Tang Food," "Medicinals: Numbers and Counting," etc. Several places within every chapter point out discrepancies with past popular thinking; I actually will make a list of them, too.
One expert did not appreciate all Hu's Food Plants in China. She may be correct even though this ack of appreciation does conflict with that person's golden oldie in Huihui Yaofang. Anderson suggests further research is needed because the golden oldie may be incorrect and in need of review and updating. This is not the only item needing updating, other items about farming, medicine, forest management, and more could benefit from the same thanks t more recent archeology, history, science, etc.
I, for one, do appreciate knowing when an author calls attention to his and the errors of others, and advises when he or she s right or wrong. It is difficulty to deal with the upending of long-held facts, but we all need to do just that!
The book has much of value about the foods and the environments of China, Central Asia, and Eurasia. It includes much about when western foods and Mongol medicine mixed with those of China; many are discussed and clarified and the add to our knowledge of things archeological, historical, and technical.
All new information does enlighten. This book provides an updated picture of what we knew and what we now know. It details language relationships, cultural innovations, and inter-cultural exchanges.
Want the best and the latest thinking? Read and relish the information provided in Food and environment in Early and Medieval China. You will be glad you did!
Suggest you check out all of Professor E. N. Anderson's books; there are many and they all are worthy of your attention. He also has a website mentioned in this magazine before; www.krazykioti.com Check that out, too, and yes, it is with 2 'k's.' We find many wonderful things in his books and on his website. Missing either of them can be a great loss; recommend looking into both.
Do see one of Anderson's efforts in this very issue on page eighteen. That volume was co-translated with Paul Buell and Charles Perry. It is one of Hu Sihui's books, itself featured in this issue. The Anderson group gave it the English title of Soup for the Qan. They are to be commended for this difficult challenge; we have all learned a lot about cultural intermingling through our Eurasia thanks to that massive effort which has won the hearts of many of us; this editor included, who has consulted it many times to answer her own and/or reader questions.