Biomass stoves, or shaoguo, are used exclusively in rural China for everyday cooking. Making use of agricultural wastes, these improved cook stoves are an economically efficient way to prepare foods and provide a complex taste profile to the everyday wheat-based staples cooked in them. Nevertheless, these stoves are associated with rural backwardness and failures of rural development. In this article, I understand shaoguo as a productive part of making home and belonging for families affected by urban migration. Considering the ways that shaoguo indexes rural identity and social belonging, I think through the connections between cooking and creating spaces of home.

I meet Aunt Tang on the village road near her house. She promised to show me what kind of wild plants to eat and how to cook them, so she points out several plants, wide green leaves and more narrow ones with red hearts. “These are also good if you have a toothache,” she says. Gathering the plants, she puts them into her small electric cart where her eighteen-month-old grandson has been playing. Next, we drive back to her house, passing a field where she has a plot of vegetables. “It’s more than we can eat,” she boasts, and thrusts a bag full of spinach in my hand when we arrive at her house. A neighbor has dropped by and the two women chat while preparing firewood in front of her gate. She uses one foot to provide enough leverage and snaps long, thin branches into small pieces for her stove.

Sometime later, in the kitchen, Aunt Tang lights a fire under her large stove with the firewood and a few dried corncobs that are laying in a pile in the kitchen, preparing to shaoguo (to cook using biomass fuels). She pours water scooped from a bucket with a large plastic-handled ladle into the top portion of the stove—a shallow iron cooking surface. While the flames heat the water, she rolls flour-based dough into small circles and seasons wild vegetables with spices, salt, and store-bought chicken essence to stuff inside. When the fire has transitioned from flames to coals, she stirs in flour and water mixed in a small bowl with chopsticks. The flour is from the year’s wheat harvest, milled and stored in large grain bags that line the kitchen area.

“You like rice in your hetang, right?” she asks me and, without waiting for my reply, adds in a handful of rice. Placing a large metal steamer over these ingredients, she arranges the stuffed bread atop and covers the pot with a wide-brimmed lid. Some fried pork and peppers, unfinished from the midday meal, are finally set upon the cover, the heat from the stove warming them piping hot. The bread steams with the flour-based soup in about forty-five minutes. When it’s cooked, she brings all the items to the table and calls her three grandchildren and husband to eat.

I start this article with an everyday cooking scene from China’s rural wheat-belt that is in no way notable or significant. In its everydayness, the labor performed by Aunt Tang can be easily passed up for more ritually significant forms of cooking for festivals and holidays. Yet these profoundly small acts are the very basis of identity, kinship, and local belonging. Food is a central part of producing the sensorial landscapes of familiarity, care, and embodied belonging (Abbots 2017; Barlow 2010; Garth 2020). Yet food matters not only in the what, but also in the how and who: that is, how is a good meal made? And who is responsible for its making?

In this article, I explore how older rural women cook, and talk about cooking on biomass stoves. In turn, I argue that shaoguo enables belonging across a larger discursive landscape of rurality and migration. While cooking on biomass stoves is generally regarded as “traditional,” “pre-modern,” or even “dirty,” investigation of the ways in which rural women actually use these cooking methods goes far beyond limits of poverty, illiteracy, or ignorance. Rather, when cooking and talking about cooking, rural women are making statements and choices that reflect novel recombinations of modern and traditional elements. Utilizing traditional cooking methods is one of the ways in which women are creating sensations of familiarity and comfort, preserving their rural homes against radical social changes (Bruckermann 2019). Women cook and use cooking as a way to understand themselves and their gender, and to create feelings of mutual obligation for those who they cook for.

Background and Methods

Located in the northeast corner of Henan Province, Jiatian village has a population of approximately 150 households all sharing the same surname. In 2012, the county surrounding the village was a targeted recipient of several poverty-alleviation initiatives. Since then, the township adjacent to the village has changed rapidly, affecting villagers’ daily lives, including a large-scale urbanization project, the influx of new market industries, and the establishment of three private boarding elementary schools. Along with many other impoverished rural sending areas, Jiatian village has been profoundly affected by internal migration, and many able-bodied men and women aged 25–45 work 200–900 miles from home. Approximately 76 percent of my survey sample of local children in 2015 were separated from a migrant parent. For comparison, Chan and Ren (2018) estimate that in 2015, 66.7 percent of all rural children in China lived apart from their migrant parents, a population totaling 68.8 million. However, statistics bely the ordinary movement in and out of the village, and everyday life is punctuated with separations and reunions of family members.

In Jiatian village, families have small landholdings of approximately 1 mu (one-sixth of an acre) per person that were allotted during the mid-1990s. A climate analog to the United States’ Kansas and Nebraska, the area is ostensibly the heart of China’s “wheat belt” (Simoons 2014: 65–67). Most families grow one crop each of winter wheat and corn per year. More recently, farmers have begun to grow other crops such as cilantro, which requires more intensive agricultural cooperation during its harvest. Families in Jiatian village maintain elaborate courtyard vegetable gardens and grow a large portion of the food they consume, including wheat flour, peanuts, cucumbers, spinach, eggplant, peppers, pole beans, daikon radishes (luobo), and napa cabbage (baicai). Families also cultivate fruit trees such as pomegranate, peaches, and persimmons, and raise poultry for meat and eggs. More rarely, families raise goats or pigs for meat.

This article is part of a larger project that examines care and obligation among rural older women. My research is based on thirteen months of participant observation. I lived in the village with my husband for eleven months during 2014–15 and returned with my then-three-year-old son for a short trip in 2018 and again when I was newly pregnant with my daughter in 2019. As a white female researcher, cooking and learning to cook became a significant part of my research methods, even though I did not set out to study food. My rural informants, largely women in their middle to late age, discussed cooking and the provisioning of food more than almost anything else.

These discussions reflect the centrality of foodways to rural China, in particular, and China more generally. Recently, food scholarship focusing on China has explored food as a vehicle for understanding local and global identities (Goodman 2006; Gillette 2000), highlighting the role of Chinese food internationally (Cheung and Wu 2012; Goody and Goody 1998), and international foods within China (Swislocki 2008; Watson 2006). The risks of food and food poisoning are a significant factor in how contemporary Chinese understand moral consumption and health (Klein 2009, 2013; Y. Yan 2012; Lora-Wainwright 2009). China’s unique political history has shaped the ways in which different generations understand food’s significance (Guo 2000; Watson 2011). Daily conversations surrounding food are colored in relation to China’s Great Famine (1959–61) in which millions died of starvation and many more suffered from hunger and malnutrition (Manning and Wemheuer 2011; Dikötter 2010). While rural Henan now has comparatively abundant food, the nutritional effects of poverty continue to exist. Recent years have seen a rise in obesity and metabolic disorders, and significant numbers of children suffer from malnutrition and stunting (Zhou et al. 2020).

During my tenure in rural Henan, in agreement with Ellen Oxfeld, I found that food “remains a potent means of fulfilling obligations to elders, children and ancestors; cementing and reinvigorating social and emotional connections” (2017: 189). However, in contrast to the rice-based Southern diet known for culinary delicacies where Oxfeld completed her fieldwork, rural Henan is not known for its culinary delights, but usually is identified as a place of poverty.

While historically significant, Henan has largely been passed over in contemporary development projects, leaving it behind in terms of cultural and economic significance. In terms of cuisine, formal investigations and popular imagination have centered either Shandong’s Imperial Cuisine or Beijing’s capital foods as defining Northern Chinese foods, largely passing over the everyday foods of Henan’s impoverished wheat-based agriculturalists (cf. Simoons 2014; Anderson 1988). Henanese people are characterized as backward, poor peasants who ignore moral standards, cheat, bribe, and remain stubbornly patriarchal (Ng 2020; Lai 2016). Henan migrants have been marked for their body types, clothing, and dialect. A series of widely publicized scandals highlighted the difficulties for Henan migrants in obtaining jobs (Cai 2019). This characterization of Henan rural spaces colors identity, and specifically marks decisions about local cooking and cuisine, making my findings an important addition to the scholarship on Chinese foodways.

Figure 1:

Shaoguo, a biomass cook stove. Bricks cover the combustion chamber. Hetang and mo steam inside.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

Figure 1:

Shaoguo, a biomass cook stove. Bricks cover the combustion chamber. Hetang and mo steam inside.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

Biomass Stoves

The term shaoguo is both verb and noun, used specifically in Henan and neighboring provinces to refer to the use of a large stove that burns agricultural refuse to heat a large wok.1Shao, a verb that describes a number of different kinds of cooking methods as diverse as roast, stew, or boil, here directly refers to the burning of fuel, usually small sticks or dried corncobs and leaves. 锅 Guo references the iron wok that sits over the fire in a specially designed furnace. Shaoguo is both a method and an appliance specifically constructed in Henan homes in the Northwest. Throughout this article, I translate shaoguo as a biomass stove. The family stoves that I observed are technically classified under the World Bank term ICS, or “improved cooking stove” (Onyeneke, Nwajiuba, and Aligbe 2017; myclimate n.d.).

The biomass stove is constructed in a specially dedicated kitchen room, usually located across the courtyard from the main house. Villagers prefer to have the kitchen and food storage areas distinct from sleeping and eating quarters for two reasons: the agricultural waste and smoke from the fires creates dust and dirt, and so that the heat from the stove does not radiate through the house in the summer. The stove is usually tiled, about three feet by three feet square and standing 25–30 inches in height, slightly lower than the standard American kitchen counter. Often the stove extends into a counter that provides a food preparation space. Underneath the stove is an area for burning fuel that contains a small opening for feeding the fire and adding additional fuel as needed during cooking.

The stove is constructed out of thick concrete, which insulates the combustion chamber. A grate sits below the combustion area to capture ashes and provide additional airflow. The exterior of the stove is usually tiled in a light-colored ceramic, mainly for aesthetics, but also for ease of cleaning. Above the combustion chamber is fitted a large wok or steel bowl about 2.5 to 3 feet in diameter. A small chimney running behind the stove allows smoke to exit.

This stove is fuel efficient because of the limited air flow inside the burning chamber. Using mixed agricultural refuse from straw, corncobs, firewood, and other excess biomass, these improved stoves are important ways of recycling agricultural wastes and provide a far better alternative to coal, which emits considerably more particulates into the air. While smoke from these cooking stoves does affect the air quality, these stoves have considerably improved air quality over other alternatives, such as coal-fueled stoves or stoves with inefficient burn methods. Because of the chimney, the inside environment remains relatively smoke free, which is important for the health of the user (Gregory 2010).

To operate the stove, a user builds a small fire in the combustion chamber and tends it continuously for the duration of cooking time, which usually runs approximately forty-five minutes. The flame should be kept at a proper temperature so as not to scorch the soup and burn the bread. Although one woman alone could manage to tend the fire and make the other preparations needed for the meal, often two individuals operate the stove. Tending the fire is usually left to children of about five years old, who grow very accustomed to the intricacies of temperature, flame color, and fire to ember ratio. At one time I thought the process of shaoguo was simple, but when I tried, I had no recognition for these finer points of operating the technology and I quickly became the butt of my host family’s jokes. The youngest boy, then just six years old, delighted in recounting my incompetence every time I visited with them.

The stove, of course, is not the only tool utilized to prepare a meal. In addition to the stove, associated pots, steaming baskets, and a tight-fitting lid, the kitchen space typically holds a storage space for biomass, usually corn husks, stalks, and cobs. Most kitchens have a second natural gas burner, sometimes utilizing the methane off-gassing from nearby animal husbandry. While some newly built homes do not have a biomass stove, and solely use gas burners, the majority of older women preferred biomass for complex reasons I explore below. In the winter, some families also utilized a coal burner to heat extra water. Most homes I visited had a refrigerator/freezer that was given as part of a bridal trousseau. The refrigerator was often stored in an area separate from the kitchen—sometimes in a living room or other spare room. In two homes that I frequented, the kitchen also had been designed to directly access well water through the use of a pipe and electric pump. Tap water infrastructure was installed throughout the township and nearby villages in August of 2015.

Shaoguo is particularly useful in the production of two Henan staples: mo (steamed bread in Henan dialect, mantou in Mandarin) and hetang (soup in the Henan dialect, made from boiled water and flour, miantang in Mandarin).2 While fried vegetables, peanuts, and meat (cai, or dishes) would be prepared on a gas-fueled stove, the main staples (zhushi), mo and hetang, are almost always prepared on the biomass stove. The significant advantage of shaoguo was that it was so large it could handle the steaming of a large quantity of mo and could also simultaneously be used to make hetang. Homemade mo was often made two or three times a week, and hetang was made three times daily. These staples are part of a local culinary grammar (Douglas 1972) in everyday meals.

Mo is a round steamed bun made from wheat flour, water, and either fermented culture or yeast. Mo is so fundamental to eating that individuals who are sick or whose stomach is ailing might comment, “One bite of mo, I cannot even eat.”2 Mo can be eaten as a light meal or snack, served alongside simple accompaniments such as pickled garlic or chili, or with a larger meal. Mo can have savory and sweet fillings or contain millet, buckwheat, or other secondary grains. Sometimes it is rolled into a bun (this is called zhuanmo, or rolled mo) and sometimes shaped into a round smooth ball.

Purchasing mo was very easy—there were two small electric cars that daily drove through the village and anyone could flag them down and purchase hot mo for half a yuan each (the equivalent of about seven cents). Many families bought their mo from these drivers; a multigenerational family usually purchased large bags of about 10–12 mo each day. Besides this delivery service, one could also ride a few kilometers and purchase mo from either a roadside vendor or one of the two bakeries in the township. However, purchased mo was not understood as the best tasting or the most nutritious. It was best to make your own mo; and the best mo was made not with packaged yeast but from a starter culture requiring advanced planning and knowledge of the fermentation process. My own attempts to make mo from yeast revealed this instructive criticism from my host families. Yeast produced a more cake-like rise, but fermented starter dough was more flavorful. Rolling the dough in a particular way would also produce the correct kinds of texture in the mo that were ideal for sopping up sauces from side dishes. Shaoguo would apply a more even heat and result in a lovely sheen on the top of each mo.

Figure 2:

A surface prepared to roll wheat dough.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

Figure 2:

A surface prepared to roll wheat dough.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

Hetang, a porridge made from wheat flour, was likewise foundational to rural Henan cuisine. During breakfast and lunch, hetang is sometimes paired with rice or noodles with cabbage or other vegetable to create a complete soup. During dinner, hetang is usually presented without accompaniment, as a way to finish the meal. During most meals, hetang and mo are served together, but since both hetang and mo are considered a grain staple, they can be interchangeable—one or the other served alongside protein and vegetable dishes, especially if noodles or rice has been added to the hetang. A favorite lunch is hetang with noodles, wild lettuces, garden cabbage, and a few pieces of pork.

Notably, both these foods are directly related to agriculture, as are the biomass stoves upon which they are prepared. The winter wheat crop grown and harvested by villagers is, in part, sold to grain markets and, in part, milled and stored for the family’s personal consumption. Corn was likewise milled, the grain sold and the center cobs and husks kept for fuel. The economic stability and independence from the cash market that underlies subsistence agriculture allows families greater economic flexibility in the face of insufficient harvest or wage-labor earnings. Individually produced wheat was better, fresher, and more dependable than purchased wheat, and farmers had a distinct advantage for food safety concerns (Klein 2013; Lora-Wainwright 2009; Y. Yan 2012). For example, an informant presented me with a bag of flour one afternoon after becoming intensely concerned that the flour we had purchased from the grocery store in the township could have been from GMO crops. “This one is more fresh,” she insisted, and told me to make a little hetang for my husband with the bag of flour.

Using shaoguo was not value-neutral, however, as I explore below. In contrast to other wealthier or more urbanized areas of rural China where biomass stoves were used only occasionally,3 daily use of shaoguo marks rural inhabitants according to complex constellations of values, identity, and sensorial commitments.

Figure 3:

A typical kitchen in Jiatian village, this building was constructed in the mid-1990s.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2018

Figure 3:

A typical kitchen in Jiatian village, this building was constructed in the mid-1990s.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2018

“I am luohou, I still shaoguo

When I watched Aunt Xu stretch and mold the white dough into perfectly round spheres, placing the perfectly sized lump of red sugar and finishing the top with a decorative crimp, I thought of all the muscle memory and study needed to master this repetitive motion. I had seen her start the fire for shaoguo and knew that she would place these rounded spheres over just the right amount of water, apply just the right amount of heat, and the spheres of round dough would be transformed into cooked, steamed bread.

Aunt Xu, however, did not recognize this magical transformation, but described her chore simply as an everyday obligation. “No one taught me to cook. I just did it. I had to.” I was incredulous, searching for some memory or some record of her study. “What about your mother, or your grandmother?” I ask.

“They died.” She said it plainly with little pain recognizable in her voice. “No,” she continues, “I have never studied at all. I have no education (wenhua; literally, I am not cultured).”

Aunt Xu, indeed, had a tragic life. Orphaned at a young age, she was sent to live with her older brother as domestic support. He arranged a marriage for her, but after her first husband died, leaving her a widow with two young children, her older brother decided to find a second husband for her. According to her story, she was trafficked and tricked into marrying the older man; from his perspective, however, he had arranged the marriage fairly. The two often fought, and out of fear, obedience, and a moral sense of duty, Aunt Xu continued to prepare meals for her husband. In our conversations, despite this cooking knowledge, Aunt Xu insisted that instead of expertise, her cooking indexed a lack—a lack of educational resources, material access to other kinds of kitchen technology, and perhaps even her lack of ability to refuse her husband’s demands for mo and hetang, which she made with the biomass stove three times each day.

This conversation and others with women in the village indicate a logic of kitchen technological development that echoes larger discursive constructions of rural spaces as behind, backward, and left out of modern development and technological advances. Biomass stoves, because they make use of agricultural wastes and dried twigs, are assumed to be the most basic of technologies and required only a primitive kind of knowledge. Gas and electric stoves, on the other hand, reliant on purchased materials and electric or natural gas infrastructures, were assumed to be at the ideal of modernity. This logic was most evident in the ways that women questioned me about my own kitchen technology use—what kind of stove did I use in the United States? Does anyone still shaoguo in my hometown? The kind of stove I used to cook with indicated to them my standing in kitchen development. This was demonstrated to me profoundly in a conversation with a returned migrant, Aunt Wang.

Aunt Wang had accompanied her son and his young family as domestic support while her son worked in an urban area. When her first daughter-in-law left in divorce shortly after the birth of her grandson, she took on the boy’s full-time care in the absence of his mother. When I asked her what kinds of foods she ate and how she cooked them, she laughed and said, “Me? I am so louhou (backward or uneducated), I still shaoguo.”

Both Aunt Xu and Aunt Wang echo anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s famous culinary triangle, making a distinction between “cultural” and “natural” forms of cooking when decrying their “backward” cooking preferences. Levi-Strauss argued that the more technological the kitchen device, the further away from its raw form a food is consumed; for example, using a pot to boil requires technology and expertise (Lévi-Strauss 1994). Aunt Xu and Aunt Wang place themselves at the bottom of a hierarchy of kitchen technology use.

Meaning “backward,” “undeveloped,” or “to lag behind,” the term luohou is inherently comparative. To “be behind,” one must always be behind something or someone. Luohou, then, is utilized in conversations about modernity and development, both nationally and internationally. This echoes the vast array of scholarly and popular accounts describing rural space as “unequivocal” (Jacka 2005), a “space of death” (H. Yan 2008), separated by “rural-urban apartheid” (Zheng 2009), and rural people as “dead brains” (Liu 2000) or tu (earthy, i.e., country bumpkins) (Ng 2020). I encountered the term luohou in conversations with men about agricultural technology and with women about kitchen technology. Yet the term is not a statement about personal failing as one might assume coming from the neoliberal West; rather, it is a statement of political and infrastructural failing—a way to point out the inadequacy of development and modernity in changing their own lives.

Rural ways of cooking are—as the two conversations above suggest—imagined as problematic barriers to the national project of rural reconstruction and technological advancement. The burning of fires for cooking in urban areas is controlled by burn bans, and several other provinces have launched campaigns to change rural cooking practices, citing air quality concerns and environmental waste (Isaksen 2017; Xiang et al. 2016). These campaigns are well intentioned, but further enforce an urban-rural divide based on access to material goods and infrastructure. Biomass stoves were also understood as dirty because they required the storage of agricultural wastes en masse. Dried corn stalks and piles of dried cobs usually sat in the kitchen space, attracting mice and spreading a fine dust throughout the kitchen. This dirt was criticized not only as unsightly but also as contrary to an imagined ideal of an orderly and neat rural space (Lai 2016).

Despite the widespread acknowledgment of the failures of biomass stoves to be clean or modern, however, most rural women, particularly older rural women, continue to cook with recycled agricultural wastes. This followed three central logics. First, shaoguo was economical, making use of the corn and wheat waste products that were otherwise unused. Second, shaoguo used a very thick iron cooking surface and therefore was able to impart essential iron nutrients into the daily soups made in them. This nutritional content was important for poor families who did not have regular access to iron-rich foods. Third and finally, shaoguo created a superior flavor in staple foods cooked in them. It was not only the flavor in the foods but also the smoke scent in the kitchen and cooking area that created a full sensorial experience of comforting provisions.

Shaoguo, however, was usually not the sole cooking method on a daily basis. Dinners typically included vegetables or meat fried on a gas stove. Everyday foods were sometimes purchased from the market or restaurant or made hastily from packets. Yet grain staples, central in kinship exchanges (Santos and Donzelli 2009), were almost always cooked on biomass stoves. Likewise, when cooking food for family reunions, shaoguo was often the preferred kitchen technology for frying dishes in order to impart the correct flavor profile. The biomass stove is one tool among many that women utilize in preparing foods. Like all technology, the stove affords particular advantages and follows the logics of local taste profiles (Sutton 2014).

Sidney Mintz’s notion of “common cuisine” is instructive here (1996: 96). Mintz argues that cuisine is localized, reflecting how the food should taste and be prepared. Rural Henan food, in other words, should taste like rural Henan food; and rural Henan food is made on shaoguo. Usually unavailable in urban areas, shaoguo defines local cuisine by placing a sensorial and phenomenological boundary on taste possibilities. To my own admittedly unrefined palate, the distinction in foods made on shaoguo or a gas-powered burner was unnoticeable, but locals stated that staples made on biomass stoves held more flavor. Even side dishes made on shaoguo tasted better, with a higher smoke profile and more savory notes. Thus, Aunt Wang’s choice to shaoguo even while she is in an urban area throws local distinctions into sharp relief. When Aunt Wang is displaced from luohou rural space, she carries the cooking method with her, despite urban access to gas and electricity infrastructures. She doesn’t say that the shaoguo is outdated but rather that she herself is luohou. Here, she constructs identity and cooking methods in the same frame—both are rural, both are backward and out of sync with urban modernity.

Figure 4:

Shaoguo is used to fry dishes for a reunion meal during the Lunar New Year.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

Figure 4:

Shaoguo is used to fry dishes for a reunion meal during the Lunar New Year.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

Conceiving of the kitchen as an arena marked with small social rebellions, Luce Giard (1998) argues that cooking is one example of how individuals mix, recreate, subvert, and play with established modes of doing and being. As I explore further below, using biomass stoves and cooking Henan staples are part of women’s everyday labors to create experiences of belonging for themselves and others. Shaoguo is a cooking method that is simultaneously and conflictingly marked as backward, dirty, frugal, nutritious, and tasty, allowing food made with shaoguo to index complex orders of rural and kinship belonging.

“When I am home, I drink hetang

One afternoon, Xiaoli listed the numerous reasons that she did not like her married residence at her mother-in-law’s. Among the list of complaints was that the water did not taste good. “It’s too salty,” she explained. “Haven’t you noticed that water tastes different in different places?” Indeed, at her suggestion, I did notice that the water had a particularly strong mineral flavor. Water, she said, was a key indicator of how well your personal body was suited (heshi) for a particular place. Later, when Xiaoli divorced and returned to her natal home, I couldn’t help but think about the connection between water flavor and home. Home was suited to you because of the way that your personal body recognized the familiarity of food, water, and landscape.

One of the ways that migration enters the everyday conversations of villagers is around food and regional differences in shuitu, or water and soil. Shuitu, as Xiaoli had explained to me and was later reaffirmed by several different informants, was not only the flavor of water or the taste of food but also was indicated by physical reactions in the body. If not correctly suitable for the place, a person’s body and spirit could become ill, especially affecting the stomach and appetite. For wheat-consuming Henan people, the regional foods of the rice-eating South, which coincidentally also hosted a number of better-paid manufacturing and technological jobs, was very difficult to handle. Upon return from these other spaces, migrants discussed a strong desire to eat local foods, such as mo and hetang, that were more suited to their palate. While they could find a substitute for these foods, such as mantou (steamed bread), bing (fried or roasted circles of bread), and millet or rice porridge, none of these had the same feel as staples made fresh at home.

Dawei was in his mid-thirties and had just returned from the south of China, where he worked as a manager in a clothing factory. Having been separated from his mother, wife, and two children for more than nine months, he and his family celebrated with a reunion meal. His mother and wife had prepared dishes of egg and green onion, spiced chicken, pork and peppers, and fish-flavored tofu with mushrooms. They also prepared a variety of staples such as hetang, rice, and mo, along with several pans of steamed dumplings. When offered a choice of rice or hetang, the migrant, Dawei, stated, “When I am home, I drink hetang.”

I took the opportunity to ask him about the flavor since we had begun to discuss our favorite regional fare from all around China. I asked him whether or not he actually enjoyed the taste of hetang and would choose it over other foods (since I myself preferred rice). He admitted: “It’s actually not that I enjoy (xihuan) the taste. It’s that I am used to it (xiguan).”

By putting the bland, regional staple into the category of xiguan, or habit, Dawei points out the weight of everyday consumption as a marker of familiarity, a central part of making home. Habit implies a feeling of repetition, of practice, and of comfort. Habitual action is outside the realm of logics of desires like taste and preference, but inserted into the space of everyday gestures that have social consequences (cf. Bruckermann 2019: 161–64 for a discussion on xiguan relating to Bourdieu’s concept of habituation). Outside the rural area, hetang prepared over a biomass stove was generally unavailable. Not only was the preparation cumbersome and inconvenient in urban spaces, but very few people outside of Henan cared to eat such a humble staple. Even so, the soup held deep habitual connections for people who had grown up eating it.

By making a claim about habit over preference, Dawei highlights the place of familiarity in constructing an experience of home. Writing about the role of ethnic food in migrant experiences, Ghassan Hage states that home food “provides a clear intimation of familiarity in that people know what to do with it, how to cook it, how to present it and how to eat it, thus promoting a multitude of homely practices” (1997: 109). In reunion meals, returned migrants seek out sensorial experiences of familiarity even when presented with other (perhaps even tastier) options. Practices that provide comfort and familiarity, as Jared Zigon has argued, can be conceived as a kind of moral imperative, “to continue—as best one can—to feel right in one’s world” (2014: 27).

Figure 5:

A meal prepared for guests, including dishes with bowls of hetang. The mo is placed in a basket and covered by a towel.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

Figure 5:

A meal prepared for guests, including dishes with bowls of hetang. The mo is placed in a basket and covered by a towel.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

In some ways, movement has enunciated the regional differences in different areas of China. In increasing global flows of people and information, food and flavors become a primary indicator of the ways in which one relationally engages with a place and its particularities (Collins 2008). As these conversations point out, food is intimately tied to feelings about being and making home. When Xiaoli discusses the flavor of water and Dawei states his habitual preference for hetang, both are assertions of belonging in light of displacements—Xiaoli from her natal home and Dawei from the place of his birth.

These are profoundly sensorial experiences, wrapped up in tastes and smells, and also noticeable in the affective feelings of connection that one has to those who occupy the spaces of home. Xiaoli may have been able to overlook, or even enjoy, the taste of the water in her new home had her relationship with her mother-in-law and her husband been going well. Dawei admits that it’s not even about a particular tasty flavor, but more an issue of comfort and habit that draws him to hetang. This comfort has also been brokered by his own mother and wife, who prepared the meal in a style and method similar to the foods eaten in his childhood.

Figure 6:

A grandmother with her three grandchildren eating breakfast of hetang and mo accompanied by pickled garlic and fried winter melon, photographed by Jiatian village resident.

Photograph by Ren Meiyun © 2020

Figure 6:

A grandmother with her three grandchildren eating breakfast of hetang and mo accompanied by pickled garlic and fried winter melon, photographed by Jiatian village resident.

Photograph by Ren Meiyun © 2020

“If you haven’t Shaoguo’ed, then you haven’t eaten”

On a winter’s afternoon, I huddled under my down coat with several of my neighbors making small talk about the prices of vegetables. Forty-year-old Meili told a joke, “Once a husband asked his wife, ‘Is dinner made yet?’ The wife responded, ‘It’s made, but I haven’t shaoguo’ed yet (zuohaole, haimei shaoguo).” The women all pealed with laughter. Puzzling over the punch line, I asked Meili for an explanation. She said, “If you haven’t shaoguo’ed, then you haven’t eaten. You haven’t eaten well.”

Cooking is an active presence in discussions between women. How to cook, where to cook, and what to cook are all prominent ways that women discuss their daily lives. In fact, talk about cooking is one of the key ways that women relate to one another. While the joke never became funny to me, I was able to recognize the significance of its telling. The joke is about a wife who is refusing, in a small way, to perform her gendered responsibility by making food without cooking it correctly. The punch line is found in language: the word guo (锅) in shaoguo usually refers to pot, but said in a different tone, guo (过) is a past participle indicating that an action has been completed. The wife has “made dinner, but she has not yet built a fire,” in other words, she’s “made dinner, but it’s nothing good.” This joke underscores the relationship between appropriate gender roles and the cooking methods to provide “good” food.

Social village life largely follows the rhythm of household domestic tasks. Families rise with the sun and women prepare hot water, hetang, and breakfast. Meals are usually taken in the courtyard or the living room on low tables. Daily preparation of foods such as shelling peanuts, sorting beans, drying vegetables, and plucking chicken feathers are often performed in public view. Villagers walk and chat with neighbors, making conversation around domestic chores. Agricultural chores are paused during lunch and many people take a long midday rest. In the afternoon children are fetched from school, local laborers return home, and the streets are full again with people socializing. At the arrival of dusk, women return to their homes to cook the evening meal and families retire for the evening.

Like many other patriarchal societies, women converse about their household care duties and bond over the difficulties or advantages of particular ways and kinds of care. This makes performing care within the home productive within the wider community as women recognize each other’s status as moral persons by fulfilling their duties within the family. Gender roles are enforced through these kinds of community discussions about what one should and shouldn’t do and about what one should and shouldn’t cook (Murcott 1983; DeVault 1994; Sutton 2014).

Because shaoguo signifies making a good meal, shaoguo also signifies being a good woman. Without shaoguo one cannot impart the correct flavor, or provide the correct sensorial experience to the meal. This is perhaps especially true in the winter time (when this joke was told) because the kitchen fire is the significant source of warmth for the family. Being just below the “Yellow River Line,” Henan has been considered too temperate for indoor heat and local people have not historically used heated beds. While most women and children have chilblains on their hands and faces due to temperatures dropping to 15–20F degrees at night, only the elderly or sick are expected to need indoor heating. During shaoguo, the entire family may gather around the stove and all will eat food that is piping hot. The failure to shaoguo was not only a failure to cook good food but also to provide a substantial source of warmth and heat.

Given the significance of cooking in daily life, it may not be surprising that one of the indicators of togetherness in China is whether or not the family unit continues to share a kitchen, the stove being a major symbol of family unity (Santos 2008). Intergenerational families in pre-revolutionary China usually shared food and domestic responsibilities, the daughter-in-law being the primary domestic support performing cooking and cleaning tasks for the entire family (Wolf 1972; Fei 1992). More recently, however, family roles and responsibilities have shifted along age and gender lines. Young couples prefer their own housing with separate kitchens so that families can hold different routines and practices, and dividing the generational living spaces has been an increasingly common practice among young couples in rural China in order to gain autonomy and privacy from their parents (Y. Yan 2003; Jing 2004).

Despite the construction of distinct living spaces and houses for parents and adult children, normalized migration and increasing numbers of women working continues to throw the intergenerational family together for practical reasons. China’s tidal wave of internal migration follows similar trends as international migration in the Global South, radically reconstructing expected roles for women (Abbots 2012; Parreñas 2001; Coe 2013; Yarris 2017). While young adult women migrate for work or undertake long hours of labor nearby, older women often take over the domestic responsibilities of cooking and childcare (Chen 2004; Silverstein and Cong 2013). This means that older women are even more responsible for constructing the domestic sphere through everyday practice. Older women “claim homes” through labor, kinship, and everyday practices such as cooking (Bruckermann 2019).

Many families that I visited in rural Henan could be defined by the phrase spoken by one of my informants, Aunt Liu, who described their intergenerational family as “fenguo, bu fenguo” meaning, “we have divided kitchens, but we are not really divided.” At the time of our interview in 2015, her two sons worked in an urban area a few hours away, returning for weekend trips every few weeks. Her daughters-in-law, along with the three young grandchildren, remained in the countryside. Although the two sons’ families had their own houses and separate kitchens, Aunt Liu undertook the majority of the cooking, making meals for her husband, daughters-in-law, children, and mother-in-law who was in her late eighties. Some years later, when her daughters-in-law joined their husbands in migrant labor and left the three children in her care, Aunt Liu described their division of labor as working together—she performed the domestic tasks while the younger generation earned income. Sharing food and food preparation was a foundational signifier in the intergenerational family’s cooperation.

Despite the physical demands placed upon older women, novel divisions of labor facilitate the conservation of traditional cooking methods such as shaoguo. Recently a spate of new urbanized housing units has radically changed the area immediately adjacent to Jiatian village, yet, with few exceptions, new housing in Jiatian village continues to have biomass fuel stoves. Younger couples expect the older women of the family to cook most of the meals and thus provide a kitchen optimized for rural cuisine. One family I knew owned an urban-style apartment in the township with a modern gas-fueled kitchen, but they stayed in their village house so that the older woman could continue to cook in a familiar kitchen with a biofuel stove.

The role of women, and particularly older women, in the protection and continuation of traditional cooking methods has been explored in a variety of different contexts (Williams-Forson 2014; Abbots 2011; Watson 2011; Beoku-Betts 1995). Particularly analogous are the ways in which Black women’s labor has led to the continuity, preservation, and dissemination of Black foodways even under slavery, white supremacy, and oppression. As preservers of tradition, women (and men) who perform cooking labor are both powerful and powerless; while continuing to exert everyday agency in how, why, and what foods are cooked, they are also in service to others—their family members, slave owners, customers, or discourses about health, modernity, and taste (Nettles-Barcelón et al. 2015). Preservation of foodways does not always arrive through self-conscious or empowering movements; rather, it can come through radically changing labor conditions such as those prompted by migration and changing family relationships.

Figure 7:

A kitchen, newly constructed in 2017. These stoves use propane gas.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

Figure 7:

A kitchen, newly constructed in 2017. These stoves use propane gas.

Photograph by Erin Thomason © 2019

Belonging in Rural China

What do cooking methods tell us about belonging in rural spaces affected by migration? I have argued that belonging is complicated by multiple demands put in place by different commitments. This is most evident in the twin logics of modernity and local belonging. For rural people, at once excluded from modernity because of poverty and welcomed into rural life for the same reasons, shaoguo is an exemplary indicator of their very exclusion from larger orders of urban or cosmopolitan belonging. Cooking with shaoguo is unlikely a simple act of rebellion from these orders, or simply a resignation to conservative habits of food preparation. Rather, as I have pointed out in my exploration above, there is a confluence of factors, all of which center around the centrality of comfort, habit, and commitment to traditional cooking methods within a home.

An ethnographic analysis of practices surrounding shaoguo reveals that villagers are not simply backward or uneducated, following traditions blindly. Rather they are, as Akhil Gupta (1998) argued in his work with Indian agriculturalists, unevenly mixing modern and traditional practices with both local and global commitments. As migration and urbanization change family structure and redefine life possibilities, rural women are “engaging with new circumstances of market expansion in complex ways” (Lora-Wainwright 2009: 59)—in this case, utilizing shaoguo in order to make claims about peasant identity, gender, and morality.

The view of migrant families in the countryside adds to our understanding of how spaces of “home” are shaped in manifold ways. Abbots (2016) explores how practices of migrants at home shape preferences and performances about food in both their communities of origin and migrant centers. In rural Henan, these practices shape cooking in at least two ways. First, the sensorial cravings for familiar and habitual “home food” such as hetang require the use of particular cooking methods in order to impart to these foods the correct flavor and phenomenological profile. Second, migration has reorganized domestic roles within the family, imparting new agency and responsibilities to older women as the creators of good food.

In rural China, shaoguo produces unique affordances for community and family belonging—throwing the regional differences in food preferences into stark relief. As particularly immobile and even impractical, biomass stoves are ill suited to densely populated and fast-paced urban life, creating stark differences in the everyday food of rural and urban areas. Displaced from familiar sensations, returning migrants desire nostalgic foods from their childhood to reenact a familiar sense-scape and recreate home even if much of their rural homeland has changed. These desires, shared by migrants returning home, have the potential to create a consciousness about rural conditions that may not have been possible without the displacement of migration.

Migration has radically reconfigured gender and age-based roles and has helped to solidify older women’s roles as the provisioners of food. This has supported the conservation of “traditional” cooking methods like shaoguo, so that newly built homes continue to have biomass stoves despite many younger women’s concerted efforts to obtain more modern appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators (Sargeson 2004). As these older women are also cooking and caring for young grandchildren, they hold a prominent role in socializing the next generation into what good food tastes, smells, and feels like.

Shaoguo is at once empowering and disenfranchising, as shaoguo is imparted with both positive and negative valences. Despite disparaging labels of backward or dirty, older women in rural Henan maintain creative resistance in their cooking tradition that displays the profound resiliency of taste, comfort, and habit. Shaoguo is central to the practice of creating home.

Notes

1.

In other areas in China, cooking fires may be referred to by the more general term shaohuo, to tend a fire (see Oxfeld 2017: 54). In Henan and its neighboring provinces, however, the replacement of huo with guo makes the term specifically about cooking, usually referring to the improved cooking stove I describe here.

2.

In Jiatian Village and other areas of Henan, people speak a non-standard dialect. While the dialect is a derivative of Mandarin, many words, such as mo and hetang, are regionally specific.

3.

For comparison of essential foods contributing to perceptions of satiety, see Williams-Forson 2014; Beoku-Betts 1995: 543.

4.

Claudia Huang, personal communication, summer 2018.

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