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Harvard professor discusses function of food and meat in Chinese society

<oducing convocation speaker James L. Watson on September 26, Food Truth member and Animal Rights Coalition (ARC) co-founder Mike Stevens ‘10 spoke of single parents taking their children out to eat at McDonalds, a common occurrence in the United States. Due to the topic of Watson's presentation, "A Cultural Biography of Meat in South China," any mention of McDonald's originally seemed out of place, but that changed as the presentation proceeded.

Watson, Fairbank Professor of Chinese Society and Professor of Anthropology at Harvard, attended undergraduate school at the University of Iowa and then earned a doctorate in anthropology at the University of California Berkley. His name may be recognized around campus by students taking Introduction to Anthropology, since his book “Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia” is required reading in the class.

Watson has devoted 40 years of his life to studying Cantonese villages on the Pearl River Delta in South China, mainly focusing on members of the Man lineage. In regard to the nature of his anthropological studies, Watson said, “I do what the people do, talk about what they talk about, get interested in what they’re interested in.” The convocation focused on the function of food, and especially meat, as “a very powerful lens through which one can see and view critical changes in Chinese society.”

Until the mid twentieth century, meat in rural South China was reserved for the rich or special occasions. Villagers ate pork only at weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies, and offerings to ancestors, an important part of Watson’s studies. His presentation discussed the role of ancestors and their wealth in the lives of their descendants and how the changes in these roles relate to evolving Chinese food practices and culture. Watson spoke about the Chinese desire to avoid social death and the Man lineage’s seven-century-old ancestor whose estate is still visited today, due mainly to the fact that he owns the entire Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and thus continues to provide for his descendants.

In the past, descendants of wealth would have been part of a restricted “sphere of exchange,” which includes the processes of producing, exchanging, and consuming meat. Now, according to Watson, the once-highly isolated spheres have overlapped, and meat has become a freely-traded commodity rather than a privilege. In relation to this, current generations rarely understand the traditional practices of ancestral reverence, and Cantonese culture is drastically different than fifty years ago.

This situation interests Watson because of its vast implications for the rest of Chinese society and the world. Recent pork and dairy scandals have evoked weariness of local products in China, increasing the demand for imported food. By 2020, China will assumably account for 40 percent of new demand in meat and 25 percent in grain. Watson predicts this means good things for American farmers. As the world’s consumption of meat increases, however, grain will be used more and more to feed meat-producing animals rather than people, and the global market will change immensely as new spheres of exchange and cultural norms emerge, as will the environment. Watson encouraged students to take advantage of new opportunities to explore these changes and their anthropological implications, as they are now part of the “Chinese body politic.”

Watson was quick to remind, however, that meat was not the facilitator of the change. It was, instead, a result of various cultural and political transformations in recent years, including the demise of socialism and rise of state democracy. Food is not an instigator, but a window to the foundations of a culture.

To conclude his speech, Watson compared cultural evolution and globalization to a locomotive, which is where McDonald’s comes into play. In response to complaints that the fast food chain is corrupting Chinese values and causing obesity, Watson said, “[McDonald’s] is not the locomotive. It’s the caboose of social change.”

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