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Senior Research Seminar: Dr Jakob Klein (SOAS)

When Feb 08, 2019
from 04:15 PM to 06:00 PM
Where Edmund Leach Room, Department of Social Anthropology Free School Lane, Cambridge
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Dr Jakob Klein (SOAS)

Eating potatoes is patriotic! State, market and the common good in contemporary China


Ethical food consumption has typically been addressed by scholars in the context of alternative food movements, and debates have revolved around the role of capitalist markets in furthering or appropriating these movements’ ethical goals. Yet states, too, attempt to shape food consumption in ways that may be understood as ‘ethical’, and often do so with the help of market mechanisms. This paper explores attempts since 2015 by the Chinese state to promote the potato as a Chinese staple food. According to China’s Ministry of Agriculture, the ethical benefits of the potato include strengthening national food security, furthering environmental sustainability in Chinese agriculture, and improving the nation’s dietary health. But how does the reform socialist state go about promoting this ‘foreign tuber’, as the potato is known in many dialects, among Chinese eaters? Does the state try to convince citizens that eating potatoes is for their own benefit and rely on the ‘hidden hand of the market’ to translate individual self-interest into a greater common good, as historian Rebecca Earle has argued was the case of potato-promotion in eighteenth century Europe? Or does it appeal to citizens’ moral values, including their concern with national well-being, strength, and environmental health? And how does it reconcile the patriotic potential of the potato with its foreign origins and associations with Western cuisines, include fast food? Through an investigation of potato-promotion, this paper seeks to shed light on the relationship in China’s contemporary, reform-socialist political culture between state and market, individualism and morality, and nationalism and internationalism.

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