Hunanese all pau pau
Photo: The remnants of a Chinese meal eaten on 1940’s American dishes with Japanese chopsticks.

I never much cared to visit China. Other places in Asia, yes. I lived in Japan on two separate occasions. I traveled to Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore. I was disappointed that I missed out on Cambodia. The two Mongolian sumo champions in Japan made me imagine checking out a yurt, but I rarely felt a strong pull from China. I did go once to Hong Kong, enjoyed the food, had a coat made, walked the streets, thought it a fine visit, but I never shared the desire of many acquaintances who were feverishly booking the eight-day package tour of the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Terracotta Warriors. Yes, I would like to see those places, but I always noticed that no one returned from these trips with glassy-eyed glee. The stories were subdued and sometimes grim, as if their protagonists had been severely educated and had learned things they had rather not.

Much of my disinterest was just ignorance. We all live in our own limited imaginations about the world. I forgive myself easily for not knowing much about, say, Guyana, but China’s importance and size force my guilty attention. Some of my images of China come from Chinese movies, tragic stories set in cruel but cinematically gorgeous pre-Communist China. Some images come from Free Tibet campaigns (I subscribe to an American Buddhist magazine which puts me on certain mailing lists). But it was less politics and more time and money forcing travel choices. I had chosen Hanoi over Beijing, Penang and Melaka over Shanghai. Still uneducated about China, I left East Asia behind and returned home to the United States.

Recently, a friend who studies China recommended Jasper Becker’s The Chinese. I read the book with admiration for how Becker’s writing could inspire great loathing in me for the country. On the bus to work, before bed, while waiting for a chicken to roast, I made my way into stories of horror, corruption, abuse of power, environmental collapse, human folly in the full range of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Chapter after chapter the stories actually gave me nightmares, dreams filled with images such as a man thrown out of a window in a Cultural Revolution purge, “reeducated,” put back in power, crippled but living to oversee the same abuses he thought he was fighting against. There I was among peasants being taxed into starvation, local Party bosses buying cars and houses with money meant for infrastructure and education. The author occasionally wonders—can’t help but wonder—at the system’s survival despite all the abuses of the people, of the land, of trust in government. I finished the book one evening with a feeling of drab soul sickness.

To be honest, it left me with a cold-blooded urge to eat Chinese food.

Hunanese meal
Photo: Liuyang black bean chicken. Recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop’s, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province.

All I could think about were two Chinese cookbooks I own in which the stories convey lightness and happy ceremony: Chinese people making delicious food and enjoying their cultural inheritance. Here and there are a few references to poverty and injustice, but all is glossed over in Foodese:

Whenever we drove out to Liuyang, we would go on an urgent gastronomic tour, swooping down on the central market to pick up armfuls of freshly picked vegetables and spicy stewed meats. One of the gang would buy a bagful of golden, doughnutlike puffs of glutinous rice dough, dusted liberally with sugar, for her husband. […] Chief among Liuyang’s prized local food products are black fermented beans, whose fame is said to have been spread by monks who tasted them while visiting a local Buddhist temple as far back as the Tang dynasty. The following recipe makes generous use of these richly savory black beans, and it is scrumptious.

—Fuchsia Dunlop, Revolutionary Chinese Cooking: Recipes from Hunan Province

Are there any Buddhist monks left? I wanted to reconcile Becker’s Chinese purgatory with Dunlop’s happy stir-fries and wry invitations to try Mao’s nephew’s red-braised pork. Becker includes tragic stories of individuals, but they are illustrations of a principle. Becker admits to being mystified by attitudes among the Chinese. I couldn’t learn in his book what remains in Chinese culture to soothe and inspire people despite all that has been destroyed.

Hunanese meal
Photo: Stir-fried turnip greens with chilies and Sichuan pepper. Recipe from Dunlop’s Sichuan cookbook, Land of Plenty. The original recipe called for water spinach.

Dunlop herself tries to touch on the narrative of change in her introduction to Revolutionary Chinese Cooking:

[Y]ou will find echoes of Hunan’s ancient past in the hotpots and chafing dishes, the zong zi rice parcels that are tied up with the memory of the poet Qu Yuan; and the ingredients, like black fermented soybeans, that have been eaten in this richly historical region for more than 2,000 years. For the food of Hunan, like that of China itself, embodies a narrative of a place, a tale of shifting ideologies, […] of political change and revolution and, through all this, of the joys and sorrows of ordinary people’s lives.

The scrumptious photos and the titillating stories of food markets and of rich pork dishes sends me to a different China. If food is mentioned in Becker’s book, it is to illustrate that there are millions of starving peasants while the Party gives extravagant feasts and consumes the wealth of the country. These two stories of China abide in me simultaneously. The stories could multiply into thousands and I’m sure the paradoxes would never reconcile. Thus we learn of the world, the contrast of the particular experience and the sociological report. My previous images of China have not been erased, I simply add to the multiplicity.

Mao’s nephew’s red-braised pork recipe looks good, maybe I’ll do that next.