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Paul Webley Wing, SOAS
Today everyone, Chinese included, thinks of China as a civilisation founded on rice as the essential dietary, economic and cultural staple. But millet, not rice, was the grain which sustained the Central States, the northern heartlands of Chinese culture, from earliest times, nourishing people and the state materially and symbolically, and moulding visions of social order and natural process. Starting around a thousand years ago the bounteous rice-harvests of the southern regions steadily ousted millet as the economic foundation of the empire and the predominant staple. As a food, millet became marginal. Yet rice’s symbolic penetration was uneven, incomplete and sometimes startlingly out of step with its material impact. What might we learn from such discrepancies? I propose the concept of cropscape, the assemblage of plants, environment, techniques, social relations, worldviews and ideals within which a crop and its associated foodways flourish or fail over time, to rethink the history of China’s shifting geographies of power and its icons and hierarchies of civilisation, and to raise some broader questions about how we can use food to analyse the interweaving of material and cultural chronologies, geographies and significance
Francesca Bray (Professor Emerita of Social Anthropology,UniversityofEdinburgh) is an anthropologist and historian of science, technology and medicine inEast Asia, specialising in gender and technology, the politics of historiography and the history of agriculture. Her publications on food history include Rice: Global Networks and New Histories (2015), ‘Feeding the body national: rice as self in Malaysia and Japan’ (in Moral Foods, ed. Leung and Caldwell, 2019), ‘Translating the art of tea’ (in Entangled Itineraries, ed. Smith, 2019), Moving Crops and the Scales of History (2023), and ‘Food in medieval China’ (in Bloomsbury Cultural History of Technology, ed. Magnusson, forthcoming).
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