Among the most powerful metanarratives in discourses on modernity, especially about China, is that of the transition from a condition of premodern food scarcity to one of potential plenty. Employing insights yielded from the recent discoveries of the calorie and of vitamins and minerals, republican Chinese identified patterns of widespread malnutrition throughout the country. Yet a closer look at the documentary record suggests a different historical trajectory than that implied by the scarcity-to-plenty model, with implications for how we think about “empires of food” across the early-modern to modern divide. In China, famine was common but relatively well managed until the modern period, and the late imperial poor, even when living at subsistence levels, appear to have been relatively healthy in nutritional terms. Instead, late imperial Chinese expressed considerable concern about the nutritional health of the rich. They further employed a discourse on nutrition that, unlike modern biomedicine, postulated different nutritional needs and indices of health for people living in different parts of the country. In examining discourses of nutrition in imperial and republican China, this article introduces the idea of “nutritional governmentality,” defined as a state's use of nutritional knowledge to conceptualize its political objectives and administer the health of its population in a manner suitable to meeting those objectives.

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