Course Aims

Food constitutes a vital aspect of Chinese culture that figures saliently both in China and beyond. It forms a significant aspect of heritage identification for many ethnic communities in Singapore.

This course uses the lens of food to explore Chinese history and various historical methodologies.  Students will assess the complex ways that food connects not only to daily life, through cooking and eating, as spice and as medicine, from the expression and formation of the self to the mediation of social relationship, but to larger histories of trade, ecology, medicine, religion, agriculture, travel and ethnic identity.

You will analyse the deep history of food in China from antiquity to the present, exploring the rich culture of food within China, its longer-durée migration through East and SE Asia, and its rapid spread to the rest of the world in recent past. As you study food through the lenses of: agriculture, medicine, flavoring and sensory history, the history of practice such as techniques of cooking (which we may try ourselves), religion, cosmography, regional features, food trade, and Chinese food in the world, you will come to understand food not as an object on the tongue, but as a doorway to analyzing the world around you, past and present. Capitalizing on the sensory qualities of food, you will produce multi-media assignments describing how the past survives in, or has been transformed by, the present.

The course seeks to use the study of dishes and drinks in China as a gateway to not just understand the variety historiographical approaches to Chinese society but also illuminate how our dietary habits and ways of living here and now are themselves forms of received historical practice.

Content and Structure

In this course, you will study Chinese history from the perspective of food and food practices.  You will learn and apply critical perspectives from which to analyse the social, and ethnic importance and function of Chinese foodways.

The course will progress chronologically from pre-Imperial China to modern times, highlighting different periods of transition. Each class is coupled with different theoretical and critical approaches, which will help you reflect not only on changes in Chinese foodways over time, but also different historiographic approaches suitable to different primary sources and topics.  Classes will cover pre-imperial, imperial, early modern and modern periods, and themes such as agriculture, ecology, religion, medicine, recipe cultures, regional history, technology, migration and globalisation.  Attention will also be given to regional cuisines including SE Asia. You will present food as foci of historical reflection, and will make multi-media presentations.

Learning Outcomes and Objectives

Through this course, you (as a student) will:

  1. Investigate and describe the history of food in China, and compare various historical methods to study food in China, e.g. material culture, agricultural history, history of science, gender, economics, class studies, ethnicity, biochemistry – and how they draw on different data to approach a similar subject.
  2. Develop critical analytical skills such as assessing relevant sources (both primary and secondary) and extrapolating from historical knowledge to interpret contemporary experience.
  3. Develop your writing skills to present scholarly research with convincing arguments that draw on varied and relevant and high-quality data, with proper citations.
  4. Create innovative research presentations (multimedia) in the manner of online or television food blogs.
  5. Coordinate with others to create a combined presentation based on your individual work.