Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and
the Urban Experience in Shanghai

By Mark Swislocki

Reviewed by Jin Feng
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2009)

Mark Swislocki. Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the      Urban Experience in Shanghai Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009. pp. 320. ISBN 10: 0804760128 (Cloth).

Mark Swislocki. Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the
Urban Experience in Shanghai
Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009. pp. 320. ISBN 10: 0804760128 (Cloth).

Shanghai is said to be the New York City of China and Shanghainese the Chinese New Yorkers. Shanghai is now recognized as one of the world’s financial hubs, and it has long been considered China’s trend-setting urban center; its inhabitants, living a frenzied-paced life, are domestically famous for their ego-centrism as well as cosmopolitanism. It is therefore not surprising to encounter a book that traces regional food cultures in Shanghai. Mark Swislocki sets up just such a goal for himself in his new book, Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai, partly in an effort to correct the dominant popular and scholarly understandings of Shanghai as a modern city without a past and of Shanghai-style cooking (haipai cai) as merely “adaptive, innovative, and combinatory,” with little regard for its unique and original qualities (232).

Swislocki defines “culinary nostalgia” as “the recollection or purposive evocation of another time and place through food” (1), and, citing Boym,[1] differentiates “restorative” from “reflective” nostalgia. According to him, the former signifies efforts to reconstruct a lost utopian past, whereas the latter reveals a wistful and ironic indulgence in the longing itself while “delaying the homecoming” (3). The author also utilizes as a category of analysis Prasenjit Duara’s idea of “the local,” which “refers not so much to specific locations, but to the conceptual framework through which Chinese attributed historical significance to particular places [. . . and] linked the idea of the local to a sense of time, making in each case for a distinct ‘chronotope,’ a space ‘characterized by its own temporal rhythm'” (18).[2] In short, his study “considers the terms used to designate regional cuisines as discursive constructs rather than as simply analytical categories” (11).

Part of Swislocki’s discursive analysis distinguishes between two discourses on regional food culture in Shanghai: “one centered on local specialty foodstuffs, and a second on regional restaurants,” and examines a variety of written sources such as local gazetteers (fangzhi), guidebooks, directories, journal articles, and literary representations (12). Arranging his discussion chronologically through five chapters, he then delineates the embodiment and enactment of “culinary nostalgia” in Shanghai at several crucial junctures of the city’s history.

Chapter 1 opens with Shanghai’s growth into a fair-sized imperial city and the county seat from mid-Ming to early-Qing. Local elites extolled the “honey nectar” (shuimitao) variety of Shanghai peaches, purportedly grown especially well in the Gu family’s Dew Fragrance Garden (Luxiang yuan) in the city, in order to portray Shanghai as a “peach garden paradise,” and thereby link it to China’s literary and mythological traditions, namely Tao Qian’s “Peach Blossom Spring” and the Shanglin Garden built by Emperor Wu of the Western Han (r. 140-86 B.C.E.). During the mid-Qing, Shanghai opened to foreign businesses and churches as one of China’s first treaty ports following the first Opium War (1840-1842), and ushered in both a wave of immigrants from Fujian, Shanxi, Zhejiang, and Guangdong and diverse regional restaurants that catered to the different palates of the newcomers. Chapter 2 shows that this period of rapid urban growth caused widespread anxieties even as it helped to produce a reputation for Shanghai as the land of plenty and variety, so much so that Chinese citizens turned to both Shanghai’s past and their own regional food heritages in search of a more coherent individual identity and cultural anchor.

Late-Qing and Republican Shanghai saw the same practice of deploying discourses of “culinary nostalgia” for the purpose of identity-reinforcement by its Chinese residents. In Chapter 3, Swislocki shows how Chinese reformers sought to domesticate and traditionalize Western (and hence modern) foodways (i.e., attitudes, rituals, and practices related to the production, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food[3]). They circulated images of the modern housewife who could use new knowledge of food science and nutrition to make a well-ordered home and, by extension, a stable and harmonious Chinese society, following the prescriptions of Confucianism. In contrast, Chapter 4 describes the way that Shanghai residents availed themselves of the wide array of regional foods offered by a robust restaurant industry after the victory of the Northern Expedition, simultaneously giving rise to an unprecedented “national food nostalgia.” In the same period, the increasing commodification of regional foodways also sparked criticisms of conspicuous consumption and the unequal distribution of wealth.

In Chapter 5, Swislocki illustrates how escalating inflation, poverty, and class conflicts caused by China’s War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945) and the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists (1946-1949) eventually tore apart the social fabric and culinary kaleidoscope in Shanghai. After the Communist ascent to national power, the city entered into a new phase of food rationing, downgrading of previously high-end restaurants, and popularlization and “socialization” of the food industry. The Epilogue depicts how this general trend of food deprivation and mass production was changed and reversed by the economic reform and opening of China starting in the late 1970s, and the tension between Shanghai-style (haipai) cooking and “local foodways” (benbang cai) rose accordingly.

In meticulously tracing expressions of culinary nostalgia during specific stages of Shanghai history, this book provides a clear lineage of its creation, transformation, and deployment at different historical moments. It thus not only fills the hiatus in book-length English-language studies on Chinese foodways since K. C. Chang and E. N. Anderson[4] (one exception is Judith Farquhar, who devotes half of her book to food[5]), but also makes important contributions to the study of Chinese food history in two other ways. On the one hand, this book undertakes a study of an as yet under-researched area: China’s regional food cultures and their discursive enactments. On the other hand, it also showcases Shanghai as a vibrant site of discursive engagements despite or precisely because, as the author argues, its cosmopolitan public image and the common perception of its total Westernization, both of which often obscure its deep immersion in Chinese culinary traditions and its embeddedness in modern Chinese history. From this perspective, the book fulfills the author’s promise to show that “regional food culture was intrinsic to how Chinese connected to the past, lived in the present, and imagined a future,” and to explain why “regional foodways remain a core component of cultural identity in China” (2).

While Swislocki has achieved his goals admirably, there are several areas where he might have pursued different avenues of inquiry into his subject. First of all, this book is weighted more toward the early part of twentieth-century Chinese culinary history than its more recent developments. The author devotes Chapter 3 and 4 to the first fifty years of the twentieth-century and only one chapter, Chapter 5, to the discussion of events and discourses after the Communist takeover of Shanghai, despite the tremendous social and economic changes of Shanghai in the last fifty years. Moreover, he also conducts more in-depth study of literary works and authors published before 1949 than after. For instance, he discusses two essays by Ye Shengtao in Chapter 4 to illustrate critiques of commodity culture in Shanghai from the standpoint of bearers of regional food cultures. By contrast, in Chapter 5, although the author mentions Wang Anyi’s novel Song of Endless Sorrow, he does not acknowledge that Wang herself could be an embodiment and enactor of culinary nostalgia in “new China.” A second-generation Shanghainese who was born into a family of Communist cultural cadres, Wang’s novella “Comrade Li and Auntie Xiaomei” (Li tongzhi he Xiaomei ayi) describes how Communist cadres, who entered Shanghai after 1949 as a new ruling elite, initially felt alienated from but eventually became accustomed to the local Shanghai foodways. For that matter, Wang Zengqi (1920-1997), a renowned epicure in modern China who often wrote on food in fiction and essay, could provide at least one additional example of a backward gaze at Shanghai foodways: his short story “Xingqitian” (Sunday).

Furthermore, although Shanghai may have lost much of its luster and glamour as the “Oriental Pearl” to the Western world after the establishment of the PRC, it remained a beacon of modernity and luxury to the rest of China, until the establishment of Special Economic Zones such as Shenzhen and Zhuhai momentarily eclipsed Shanghai’s economic prowess. Its culinary reputation after 1949, therefore, was by no means diminished in status in Chinese eyes, a period when a trip to Shanghai always meant bringing back luxury food items as gifts for families and friends, such as the White Rabbit candies of my childhood memory. Despite official discourses that promoted an austere lifestyle, high-ranking Communist cadres also enjoyed spending time in the city and sampling many of its famed dishes. The central government in fact moved two famous restaurants, Laozhengxing and Meiweizhai, from Shanghai to Beijing in the 1950s in order to offer southern delicacies in the nation’s capital, and as part of its concerted efforts to represent a panoramic view of the new republic’s cultural life to the world.[6] Post-1949 developments in Shanghai’s culinary nostalgia thus warrant more in-depth study than the space that they occupy in the book.

Another concern arises from the author’s almost exclusive focus on writings by elite Chinese men. To be sure, they were the more prolific and more published authors in Chinese history up to the present day. The author also does include two of Ding Ling’s fictional pieces in Chapter 4. However, he arguably could have found a better gender and class equilibrium by incorporating writings by women and members of other social groups and classes. As mentioned, writings by Wang Anyi, an enthusiastic and prolific scribe of Shanghai life, could provide a woman’s perspective on the shifts in the city’s cultural landscape after 1949. Furthermore, the author could have paid more attention to women’s journals published in Shanghai in the Republican era, and to the writings, including essays and letters, by female students–of both modern Chinese and missionary schools–that discuss issues related to Sino-Western foodways such as Western cuisine and dining etiquette. Two English-language works, Charlotte Beahan’s The Women’s Movement and Nationalism in Late Ch’ing China (Ph. D. diss., Columbia University, 1976) and Jane Hunter’s seminal work, The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (Yale UP, 1984) immediately come to mind. Additionally, though not “mainstream” and not exclusively on food, Buwei Yang Chao’s (Yang Buwei) Autobiography of a Chinese Woman and Chen Nan-hua’s (Chen Hengzhe) Autobiography of a Chinese Young Girl (1935)[7] both describe their lives as students of modern schools in Shanghai. Yang Buwei, also the author of a cookbook published in English in the United States, represents her relations to Chinese and Western foods in an especially complex and nuanced way.

A third concern relates to the author’s (perhaps too) emphatic insistence on “continuity” in his discussion of Shanghai culinary history. It appears to this reader that he registers a certain anxiety by arguing exclusively for the “anchoring” function of culinary discourses while dismissing adaptation and flexibility as a defining feature of Shanghai cuisine (e.g., 234-235); the phrase “shore up” (e.g., cultural identity, heritage, etc.) appears in every chapter and many subsections of each chapter. Yet, as the author himself shows in Chapter 1, the “honey nectar” variety of peaches was not native to Shanghai, and neither were a lot of dishes that later became signature dishes in the “local cuisine”: they migrated from Ningbo, Yangzhou, and other Jiang-Zhe-style cuisines. Moreover, the power of culinary discourses lies not just in their use as “defense mechanisms” to assuage cultural anxieties and repair destabilized and broken identities; although talking about one’s regional food heritage is a way to connect the individual to a fast disappearing or maybe never-existent past, it is also, especially in the case of Shanghai, a way to reinvent the self and the city. More importantly, these discourses generated by the culinary nostalgia of Shanghai in effect constituted a unique “local” culinary culture of its own, precisely because it had no “authentic” or monolithic local cuisine to fall back on and had to reinvent itself continuously through the integration of various regional and national influences. While in his Introduction, the author acknowledges that culinary discourses are all cultural constructs, he seems to have lost sight of this idea in his eager defense of the “continuity” of Shanghai cuisine later in the book.

It is perhaps a truism to say that historical narratives are inevitably driven by available sources and defined by the perspectives of their authors. I believe that this book could have benefitted from integrating more diverse viewpoints and experiences of those who have participated in Shanghai’s culinary nostalgia. As a final side note (and this in all possibility has more to do with the publisher than with the author’s scholarship), this book could also be improved by more careful copyediting and a glossary of Chinese characters for all the restaurants and personalities involved, which would be useful for future researchers of Chinese foodways and regional food cultures.

Jin Feng
Grinnell College


[1] Svetlala Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

[2] Prasenjit Duara, “Local Worlds: The Poetics and Politics of the Native Place in Modern China.” South Atlantic Quarterly 99, no. 1: 13-45.

[3] Patricia Harris, David Lyon and Sue McLaughlin, The Meaning of Food (CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2005), viii-ix.

[4] K. C. Chang, ed., Food in Chinese Culture (Yale UP, 1977); E. N. Anderson, The Food of China (Yale UP, 1988).

[5] Judith Farquhar, Appetites: Food and Sex in Postsocialist China (Duke UP, 2002).

[6] Lillian Li, Alison Dray-Dovey and Haili Kong, Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 189.

[7] Autobiography of a Chinese Woman was first published in English by John Day, 1947. A Chinese version was published by Zhuanji wenxue in Taiwan under the titles of Yige nüren de zizhuan (1967) and Zaji zhaojia (1972). Autobiography of a Chinese Girl was published in English in Beijing originally (NP). A Chinese translation by Jin Feng was published by Anhui Education Publications in 2006.