Consuming power — Xi’an snacks

Power, its cultural incarnations, and subsequent transvaluations fascinate me. How we work with and through inequality defines us not only as an identifiable people, but also as a moral community. I understand the scholarly imperative to be discovering who, what, where, why, when, and how our appetites and assumptions, our attachments and defilements inform and transform shared worlds. That said, my interest in power tends toward the practical; I like knowing when I should pick up the tab and when silence is not a sign of respect, but a sin of omission.

Last week, I interrupted my obsession with the Bo Xilai imperial family drama to have dinner with the students who had designed the individual pieces for Boom! We were to meet at the Tianli Old Xi’an Restaurant. However, I arrived early and ended up reading the restaurant’s history, which had been written in standardized li-style characters (隶书):

The ancestors’ tradition of snack stalls has been passed down for generations in Xi’an. Some say that the origin of crumbling dry bread into beef or lamb soup [paomo-泡馍] originated in the Western Zhou [1046-771 bc] dish “gelatinized red-bean cake” and there were already paomo eateries in Daxing City, during the Sui Dynasty [589-618 ce] — snacks originated in Xi’an and spread with the city’s growth, thus it was unavoidable that the Zhou, Qin, Han, and Tang Dynasties would all eat them. However, that happened in the far distant past and cannot be proven. Instead what has be left is the impression that Xi’an is boasting about having invented this tradition. In fact, it’s unnecessary to go that far back in the past. If we return to Republican-era Xi’an, we discover that those eternally popular snacks were being sold in famous restaurants. The Fan Family Restaurant was established in 1904, with its first shop was at Hutang Alley and then moving to Zhuba Market. Fan’s preserved meat was fatty without being greasy, lean without being dry. It began to dissolve as soon as touched the tongue and had a sweet aftertaste. The famous Tianxi Mansion beef and lamb paomos were documented as early as 1644 (明代崇祯十七年). When the Queen Mother Cixi escaped to Xi’an [in 1900 when the eight colonial powers invaded Beijing], she still took the time to enjoy local delicacies. Restaurants famous for their paomo include Old Sun Family Restaurant at Duanlumen, Zhengxingkui at Nanda Road, and Yihua Mansion at Dongda Road. If you want to eat Hourglass Vegetable (葫芦头), it has to be  Chunfasheng. If you want to eat dumplings, naturally only Baiyunzhang will do. The preserved meat of Fan Zhipo’s hometown, the Beef Market Alley Wang Family’s lamb’s blood vermicelli soup, the Old Guan Family’s dried persimmon, and the Old Xu Family’s thickened rice wine are all flavors that brand the tongue with local flavor.

This bit of promotional posturing struck me like a revelation. Tangled as I was in the Bo Xilai imperial family drama, I had contracted a minor case of imperial drama syndrome, and thus could not resist flourishing my theoretical apparatus. “Power, Its Flavor, and Conspicuous Consumption at a Chinese Chain Restaurant — Neoliberal Aspirations Served,” I thought in appropriately Chicago-style headings.

I assumed that the restaurant had chosen to write their history in standardized li-style characters for two reasons. First, because this standardized style is easy to read. Second, and more to the point of today’s post, because li-style is also known as hanli-style. The han, of course, refers to the Han Dynasty, which although the second of China’s imperial powers (the terracotta warrior Qin of Xi’an being the first) nevertheless holds pride of place in ethnic Chinese cultural identity. Thus, ethnic Chinese are the Han and they have used Han characters (汉字) to transmit this identity for over 2,000 years and if nothing else, this history was a retelling of Chinese history from the point of view of Xi’an cuisine.

Once started, my theoretical engines hummed effortlessly through an elaborate hypothesis. The metaphoric identification of Xi’an cuisine with Chinese culture situates later dynasties with capitols in other cities (like Beijing) as merely transmitting what had originally been created in Xi’an. In this sense, the fact that Cixi’s flight from the Qing capitol included savoring Xi’an food is telling.

In conclusion, I mused, Old Xi’an invites its customers to partake in China’s true history, which begins with the Qin-Han reaches exalted heights through the Tang and Song, stumbles through the Yuan, when Beijing replaces Xi’an, arrises ethnically cleansed in the Ming to be usurped by Manchurians in the Qing. Appropriately enough in a Shenzhen Mall, this history easily sidesteps Revolution and cuts right to the neoliberal chase — the true heirs of China’s imperial history are not Party leaders in Beijing, but rather famous entrepreneurs who occupied Xi’an’s streets and alleys, serving delicious food to anyone who could pay.

At this point, my students arrived. I asked them to read the history panel and tell me what they thought. Not much it turned out. As one of them said, “Chinese people like to eat. Leaders are people. Ergo they like to eat.” Another nodded and added, “Also, we like to gossip about leaders because that’s as close as we ever get to them.” They chuckled and the one intuited my over-investment in interpreting the panel. She patted my hand and said reassuringly, “It’s just advertising. You don’t have to take it seriously.”

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