Judith Farquar, Appetites: Food and Sex in Postsocialist China (Body, Commodity, Text, Studies of Objectifying Practice)

A Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina,
Judith Farquar has up to now focused mainly on research into medical thinking
and practice in contemporary China. Her first publication, in 1987, was entitled
Problems of Knowledge in Contemporary Chinese Medical Discourse (1),
and one of the most recent, Market Magic: Getting Rich and Getting Personal
in Medecine after Mao
(2).

Appetites follows on in the same area of interest.
It is a study, not of Chinese diet or cuisine, nor of the sexual behaviour of
the Chinese today, but rather of the ideas some of them have of those things.
While the author does not explain the reach of the notion of “objectivising
practice”, we may understand it to mean the representation one makes of these
needs as it appears in advertising, the cinema, the novel and through various
personal experiences. The introduction argues for a globalising, non dualistic
anthropology which harks back to Marx (3) and
Mencius (4). She emphasises the mark left by
history: the research seeks to uncover “a body totally imprinted by history”,
in other words to reveal the changes of habitus in the China, described as “postsocialist”,
of “reform”, in the author’s own words, “the shift from Maoist
asceticism to capitalist boom in the everyday lives and embodied experiences of
contemporary Chinese urbanites” (p.3). A secondary objective is to propose
thereby a model of methodological creativity: “an increase in and a blurring
of the boundaries between the genres of the source material that can serve as
an ethnographic text.”

The author has known China only since 1982 (cf. note 21, p.
295), a period, she emphasises, when “Maoism” was still much in evidence
(cf. pp. 13-14). Nonetheless, the gap between lived experience and idealised history
goes some way to explaining the conclusions in the last page of the research:
“The jolt that must have accompanied the first glimpse of the new [Lei Feng]
posters for those city dwellers was a reminder not only that big capital is taking
the place of the state, but that there was a time when the state offered youth,
sincerity, and optimism within an altruistic project. With all of its disappointments,
this vision promised and for a time delivered healthier bodies, bodies more connected
to a coherent collective, bodies that could take pleasure in the ordinary things
of a shared life” (p. 291).

The author does add: “I do not think that Lei
Feng’s image as offered by the Sanju Corporation would have produced quite
such an extreme response in Beijingers in the summer of 2000. But it, too, hailed
a remembered, embodied, and therefore far from lost self. There are contemporary
Chinese thinkers—Lu Wenfu, Mo Yan, Zhang Jie, and Zhou Xiaowen have been
heard from in these pages—who wonder whether the reform era can offer any
substitute for the simple but undeniable pleasures of socialism…”.

While the author, like any self-respecting anthropologist,
feels bound by the necessity to become aware of her prejudices as a North American
and to seek to sympathise with the object of her study, can these pleasures be
reconciled with the picture of two decades of “revolution” (and I for
one still find the word appropriate…) on pages 11 and 12, even in a slightly
softened version (“After several bad droughts and little alteration in the
intensification policy, much of the country experienced a disastrous famine. Many
died of starvation or associated illnesses, and only a small proportion of the
population, mostly highly placed urbanites, escaped periods of great deprivation”) ?

In short, the author does not seem to have always been aware
of the direction of the irony of the authors she analyses. Is it aimed at the
near-contemporary period of reform or at the recent past of Maoist fundamentalism?
One is left wondering about possible misunderstandings on this point. The research
remains, in its detail, full of interesting touches and provocative thoughts.
It is divided into three parts, the first of which is devoted to eating. Its three
chapters have ben trovato titles which are self-explanatory: Medicinal
Meals, A Feast for the Mind and Excess and Deficiency. In the first, which invokes
Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and The Cooked, the author shares
both her knowledge of Chinese dietetic discourse and her lived experiences in
that area, such as the restaurant which is patronised on the first floor by men
only and is always full, for reasons one can guess, or the case of the housewife
convinced that asparagus was good for what ailed her, sending for tins of them
at great expense and making her whole family eat them every day. The next chapter
takes its title from an ironic expression used in Gu Hua’s (1942- ) novel
Hibiscus (1981). The analysis follows that of The Whitehaired Girl
by He Jizhi and others in various versions from the 1940s onwards. That of The
Gourmet
(1983) by Lu Wenfu leads to the subject of the third chapter, headed
by a quotation from Jacques Derrida which calls into question the art of “eating
well”. Then Mo Yan (1956- ), with The Sorgho Clan and especially with
The Alcohol Country (1993), is most often put in the hot seat on the question
of the contrast between depletion and repletion, between famine and plenty. The
medical aspect of the antinomy is presented in an enlightening graphic (p.139).
The discussion leads up to the passion for banqueting which incurs costs to communities
which were estimated at US$12 billion in 1995 (cf. p.146). The author, quoting
Zhang Yimou’s film Life (p.127), has not failed to notice that in
these more recent works the irony has turned to sarcasm.

The second part, devoted to sexual desire (Desiring: An Ethic
of Embodiment) opens with a preamble devoted to the analysis of a short story
by Ding Ling (1904-1986), written in about 1966, but published in 1978, Du Wanxiang,
a model girl, the counterpart of Lei Feng, and possessed by an ardour which the
author describes thus: “This is a world that imagines love and sexuality
together in a general and diffuse eroticism oriented first toward the collective”
(p.170). For the three chapters which divide up this material, it is enough to
recall half of the titles: Writing the Self, Sexual Science and
Ars Erotica. The first chapter, subtitled The Romance of the Personal,
rests primarily on the short story by Zhang Jie Don’t Forget Love
(1937) which created a stir when it was published in 1980, rather than on his
better-known novel from 1981 Wings of Lead, which, it was said, flew to
the assistance of Deng Xiaoping. The following chapter focuses on the appearance
and development of a Scientia Sexualis which claims to have its roots in
modernity and relative sexual freedom. The chapter sheds a critical light on the
the still little-known field of nascent Chinese sexology. There is a subtle analysis
of the discourse of the growing numbers of these publications, and a pertinent
exposure of the limitations of surveys of sexual behaviours. Too many “fuzzy
spots” make it impossible to try to establish any Chinese specificity. The
last chapter refers almost entirely to the old sexual hygiene manuals, rediscovered
in Japan in the first half of the last century. To this are added the discoveries
of Mawangdui, which take the tradition back half a millennium, and are a pretext
for national pride and also, thanks to this confirmation of Chinese leadership,
for the rehabilitation of a domain that was once taboo. Is it the obsession with
impotence which is linked with capitalism or is it rather its advertising in a
liberalised economy (cf. p. 269)? There is no doubt that it has recently become
a widespread subject. On that question the author analyses Zhou Xiaowen’s
film Ermo, a comedy from 1994. A certain kind of feminism may feel overcome
with nostalgia for an asexual world, and be repelled by these old manuals which
have been accused of being imbued with a kind of male vampirism. “I myself
do not wish to mine these materials for particular techniques that would add variety
to my own or my readers’ sexual habits. This is partly because the most obvious
form of sexual embodiment encouraged by these texts is quite markedly male…”
(p. 249) the author confides. “Needham insisted that they were not [exploitative
of women] because of the ample evidence of sensitivity to women’s sexual
needs” (p. 281), she adds further on, with diverse warnings, and concludes:
“The woman of this natural, common sense sexual ethic has not enough distinct
presence to put her own preferences on the twenty-first-century agenda”.

These quotations show that, far from keeping a distance of
observation deemed to be scientific, the ethnologist becomes involved with the
material she is examining. One is left with a feeling of a sometimes unmethodical
impressionism, whose richness, however, cannot be fully expressed without falling
into tedious long windedness. The bibliography is revealing (pp. 323-336): no
publication prior to 1950. These are questions whose historical roots go much
deeper than the establishment of the new regime. The policy of the clean sweep
at certain periods need to be re-evaluated, at the very least. Has the measure
been taken of what went to ground without allowing itself to be buried? The index
deals with the major questions rather than the realia, which is a pity:
for example there is nothing on dogmeat, which appears as a subject in several
places (in particular the parody made of it by Mo Yan on p. 132), or on the heart
(p. 142, the classic Chinese medical maxim: “Too much joy harms the heart”).

In short, a book to reread in order to find the pearls hidden
in an overabundance of material.

Translated from the French original by Michael Black

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