In recent decades, research on environmental issues has drawn considerable attention from scholars working in various fields. Much of this attention stems from the remarkable harm that industrialization has wrought on ecological systems, including those in which human beings live. Scholars of Chinese history (e.g., Mark Elvin, Ts’ui-jung Liu, Robert B. Marks, Micah S. Muscolino, and Ling Zhang) have explored the richness of environmental issues in different periods of Chinese history.
Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China, written by E. N. Anderson, is perhaps the first book to incorporate the environmental perspective so broadly into research on Chinese food. For decades Anderson has studied Chinese food, and his published research includes The Food of China (1988) and Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture (2005).
In Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China, Anderson applies environmental perspectives to the evolution of Chinese food from the early imperial era to the medieval era. In addition to an introduction and two appendixes, the body of the book is divided into nine chapters. In the introduction, Anderson raises four significant points. Based largely on Jared Diamond’s groundbreaking research, the first point is that Chinese food has benefitted greatly from the area’s natural landscapes, which have enabled China’s food systems to take on a centralized form. The second point stresses that, rather than acquire food through territorial conquests, the Chinese have used their agricultural knowledge and technology to produce abundance. The third point—rooted in Immanuel Wallenstein’s world-systems theory of core, semiperipheral, and peripheral societies—is that the Silk Road enabled China, Inner Asia, and the Islamic world to exchange foods and food-related knowledge and technology with each other. And the fourth point is that the distinctive characteristics of Chinese food reflect a search for harmony.
In chapter 1, “Prehistoric Origins across Eurasia,” the discussion revolves around the evolution of agriculture in early times. Agriculture first emerged in the Middle East with the domestication of animals (dogs, sheep, cattle, and pigs) and the cultivation of edible crops (wheat, barley, and beans). Human migration led to the establishment of agriculture in China. Of note is that researchers can trace the routes of food-related knowledge and technology by drawing links between the words of far-flung languages. Chapter 2, “China’s Early Agriculture,” explores the effects that both the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops had on central China, including the areas surrounding the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. The central topic in chapter 3, “The Origins of Chinese Civilization,” is the emergence of Chinese civilization in connection with significant local cultures such as Longshan and Anyang. A fundamental argument is that the Warring States period was fundamental in the history of Chinese food. Entitled “The Development of China’s Sustainability during Zhou and Han,” chapter 4 explores both the relevance of the Five Elements theory to Chinese food, beginning in the Han dynasty, and the emphasis of classical Chinese texts on the maintenance of relationships between human beings and animals. Chapter 5, “Dynastic Consolidation under Han,” discusses foods and food-related technologies that emerged under the Han dynasty, including soy sauce, tea, irrigation, fermentation, and distillation.
In chapter 6, “Foods from the West: Medieval China,” the focus is on Qiminyaosu, a prominent agricultural treatise in Chinese history, and on Tang-Song food, which was strongly influenced by Inner Asia. Chapter 7, “The Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty,” explores the exchange of foodstuffs between Inner Asia and China. Interestingly, the chapter explains at length the significance of the Yuan-era texts Huihui Yaofang and Yinshan Zhengyao, both of which brought medical and dietary knowledges from Inner Asia to China. Chapter 8, “Shifting Grounds in Ming,” examines the transformation of the weather during the Ming dynasty and observes that a minor ice age triggered flooding and famine. Entitled “Overview: Imperial China Managing Landscapes,” chapter 9 reminds readers that historians have been able to uncover the important role the environment has had in the transformation of Chinese dynasties. For example, the Chinese peoples’ development of herbal drugs resulted in the practices and knowledge comprising traditional Chinese medicine. Also, flooding led to both flood-prevention methods and the effective irrigation techniques integral to the concerns of everybody from emperors, administrators, and governors through to ordinary people. Throughout Chinese dynastic history, moreover, differences emerged between Han Chinese and non-Han Chinese in terms of environmental management. Lastly, chapter 9 also stresses that the idea of environmental sustainability has long existed in China, as can be seen in the concepts of fengshui and in religious texts’ promotion of sustainable agricultural development and animal husbandry.
While reading Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China, I noted several pros and cons to Anderson’s research. On the whole, his book offers many insightful perspectives that will be of great use to readers. Notably, it pays close attention to Inner Asia’s food-related contributions to China and also emphasizes non-Han Chinese societies’ contributions to China’s food culture. Second, the author cites many sources useful for conducting research on Chinese food within a context broader than the conventional Han Chinese context. Third, this work applies several useful theories, including the world-systems model, to food-related topics.
However, I found that Anderson’s book relies largely on secondary English-language sources to the exclusion of important primary sources in Chinese. If the author had incorporated significantly more primary Chinese-language sources into his analysis, his arguments would likely have been more compelling. Second, the period covered in this work, stretching from ancient China to the Ming, is suitable for sweeping observations of long-term environmental transformations but is less suited to nuanced discussions of specific topics. Readers would probably form a much more substantive understanding of the relationships between food and the environment if the author had focused on a specific period spanning, at most, two or perhaps three dynasties.
Despite these criticisms, I firmly believe that Professor Anderson—drawing on more than four decades of valuable knowledge about the history of Chinese food—has produced a ground-breaking work with insightful arguments regarding the significant relationship between food and the environment in Chinese history. I strongly recommend this work to anybody interested in Chinese food or Chinese history.