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Cooking Soup Online and Being a Good Mother

XinyuanWang9 March 2015

soup images on social media

Images of soup on Chinese social media

In order to analyze people’s postings on QQ or WeChat I had to spend a lot of time viewing and recording my informants’ online postings, especially the photos and other images they posted on their social media profiles, and then categorize different kinds of images into different genres.

Among all the images, ‘food’ photos turned out to be one of the major genres which people frequently post online. ‘You are what you eat’- food is such an important part of Chinese perceived cultural experience, the use of food to express sophisticated social norms is highly developed in China (1). As Kao Tzu, a Chinese ancient philosopher said, ‘Shi Se Xing Ye’ (the appetite for food and sex is human nature). And a Chinese saying goes ‘Min Yi Shi Wei Tian’ (Food is the paramount necessity of the people).The importance of food in everyday life is also reflected in greetings. For instance, instead of asking “How are you?” it is quite normal to ask “Have you eaten?” Division of a stove is symbolic of family division (2). One of the most insightful anthropological discussions of communal dining in China is Waston’s (1987) study on Sihkpuhn (to eat from the same pot) banquet in a Hong Kong village. As Waston argues, eating from the same pot serves to ‘legitimize a social transition’, for instance, a marriage without Sihkpuhn feast is not considered legitimate; the social birth of males and heir adoption are both marked and celebrated by Sihkpuhn feast. This is why the family reunion meal is so important for every family member, it is not only a time to enjoy delicious and various foods and drinks, but an occasion to unite a family together. Every family member in the reunion dinner, eating from the same pot, represents a family collectivity and is therefore “eating for others”. It also seems that, especially among rural migrants, food and the feeling of ‘being at home’ when one is working far away from one’s homeland is closely connected.

All the previous study on Chinese food as above seems to have provided the convincing reason of ‘why food postings are so popular among Chinese people on social media’. However, curiously, when I counted the ‘food’ photos and images I found there is one specific kind of Chinese food was most popular among young mothers, which is soup. Why soup? The answer seems go beyond the Chinese social norms about ‘food’ in general- there must be something more specifically about mothering.

During my field work, I found that one of the typical criteria of a ‘good mother’ among my informants is to ‘cook well’ as many of them put it. From time to time, people told me that the thing they miss most when working outside is their mother’s cooking. Here the social implication of mother-child bond through the image of mother’s cooking seems to go beyond the real taste of the food. It is widely believed that food is a kind of medicine which helps to strike the balance of the ‘Qi’ (air, vitality) of one’s body in daily life, according to the philosophy of Chinese cuisine. In addition, among all kinds of Chinese cuisine, soup is unquestionably regarded as the one which can nourish one’s ‘Qi’ best. In my field site, the best way people could treat, me as they believed, was to feed me a lot of homemade food in overwhelming and non-stop manner. And from time to time it felt extremely difficult to say no when women started their lines like “oh it took me the whole day/ whole afternoon to prepare and cook this soup, and you have to have some, very good for you body!” Cooking a decent soup usually requires a very long time, a lot of patience, delicate heat control and decent knowledge of food material.

In a way, the process of preparing and cooking a decent soup is similar to ‘mothering’ – it’s always time-consuming, and you need a lot of patience, understanding and good control of the ‘heat’ in the relationship. Thus the frequent sharing of soup photos seems to just reinforced the widely accepted image of a good mother.

It’s universal that women feel anxious about becoming a mother, and a wise strategy to deal with such anxiety among young mothers in my field site seems to be posting a lot of ‘soup’ photos on their social media profiles. That is to say, before they cook the ‘real’ soup for their kid, they have cooked the soup online to prepare to be a good mother.

Reference:

(1) Watson, James L. 1987. “From the Common Pot: Feasting with Equals in Chinese Society”, in Anthropos, 1987 (82): 389-401.

(2) Stafford, Charles. 1995. The Roads of Chinese Childhood: Learning and Identification in Angang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p4

Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go?

XinyuanWang10 July 2013

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

Doing fieldwork always means you need to understand the local people before you look into anything particular. In which vein, most of my time so far has been contributed to knowing people and the local social life which provide essential context for the local social media usage. Here, in this article I’d like to talk about something quite unexpected: kids.

My field site is a small factory town in southeast China where Chinese rural migrants account for two thirds of the local residents. I had the impression that on the high street of my field site, the amount of babies and kids I have seen during the three months is more than the total I have seen during the three years when I was in the UK. It is not a joke; here it is not difficult to find a migrant family with five to seven children, which made me very confused at the first beginning given the well-known Chinese ‘one- child’ policy.

Now let me explain it a bit.The ‘one-child’ policy used to be conducted extremely strictly in China. A typical Chinese word “tou sheng” (give birth secretly) suggests the most popular folk strategy toward the tough policy.

“Years ago, they [local officials] would chase you to the end of the earth if they knew you have a baby secretly in other places, but now nobody bothers to catch people who ‘tou sheng’ outside [their home place].” one of my informants who has three kids told me how things have changed nowadays.

As a result, the rural migrant people seemed to have the “privilege” to have as many kids as they want during their stay at “other places” – they are “floating” in other places with their kids.  The way rural migrant lead their lives seemed to have already gave me the answers for the question “why do people want so many children?” – That is to survive on numbers.

“My mum believes that being a human being is to make human beings. The more the better and as many as possible.”  A man in his 30s told me.

What a philosophy of life. Clear, and strong, and each one can make a go for it. Among my rural migrant people, nobody has ever cared about which kindergarten, primary school, or middle school their children go to. They cared about how many children they have and others have. Many kids will be sent to factories to earn money by their parents when they finish middle school (15-16 years old). It is illegal to employ child labor for factory owners; however they have chosen to turn a blind eye to child labor given that all the kids have fake identification cards showing that they already are 18 years old. Education here is not something for freedom or a better life, but something to prepare potential labor that can read for factories. I once asked people how they can afford to bring up so many kids.

“’To be honest, if you are rich, you bring up kids in a rich way, if you are poor, and then bring up kids in a poor way. The kids of rich guys will learn how to play piano; our kids only need to know how to survive.” A man said.

I knew he meant it.

Here, in this small industrial town, most people work hard and treat each other for survival. There is no tourism agency, no gym, no cinema, and no garden.  Life is a lasting battle for survival, from this generation to the next. It is as grandeur as an epic, however as humble as weeds. The ancient wisdom of the nature has told people how to apply numerical advantage to confront with high mortality and high failure rates.

One day, I was sitting in the mobile phone shop, watching people. A very young lady came to top up her mobile phone. She was pretty, in a pink pullover, carrying her baby on her back. From the cloth baby carrier with colorful embroidery I could immediately tell that she must have come from the Guizhou province. She gave me a 20 RMB (2 pounds) banknote  and I thought she wanted to top up 20 RMB, which is very reasonable since the average cost of mobile phone among migrant people is 100- 200 RMB (10 pounds- 20 pounds). But she told me she only wanted to top up 10 RMB. When I was thinking why she only topped up 10 RMB, a delicate tiny little hand was reaching out from the baby carrier – it is just the most beautiful scene I have ever seen in my field site (see photo). Out of sudden I became very emotional, especially when I overheard the first phone call she made when she left shop was to her friend, saying that she had run out of money, and the baby was sick.

Until now I still felt guilty that I didn’t run out to catch up her and give her some money. Or, should I?  Here, everybody needs help. However, the thing made me sadder was the baby’s future. Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go? I may have known the answers, but I really hope it was not the truth.