SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Ethnography of China

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 2

Special theme for 2021/22: The Cultural Politics of Chinese Food

China is experiencing dynamic changes and is frequently described as a nation in transition. Yet at the same time, China is often represented as being shackled by its deep-rooted traditions and long history. This module critically engages with both of these characterizations, exploring key themes in the anthropology of Chinese societies through the lens of food and its cultural politics. In so doing, the module introduces students to a wide range of classic and emerging themes in the anthropology of China, providing them with a strong foundation for further study and research. The course focuses on the People’s Republic of China, but does so in relation to global processes and transnational connections, including to Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora.

In China, food figures prominently in the formation and expression of cultural identities, majority-minority interactions, political power, religious practice, and everyday social relations. Longstanding concerns about food security have increasingly given way to anxieties about food safety and dietary health and renewed interest in culinary tourism and heritage. Food also mediates the relationship between China and the world and shapes the experiences of Chinese in the diaspora. Weaving these themes together, the module is designed for students interested in anthropological perspectives on contemporary Chinese societies and cultural politics in national and transnational frameworks, as well as those wishing to deepen their knowledge and understanding of current debates in the anthropology of food through a sustained exploration of Chinese contexts.

Representative topics to be addressed include:

  • Culinary Sinicization: Food, Farming, and Internal Colonialism
  • Cooking Chinese: Transnational Migration, Restaurants, and Cultural Appropriation
  • Contested Chineseness: Culinary Nationalism and Heritage-Making in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan
  • Feeding the Family: Food Safety, Social Trust, and Inequality
  • Meat-Eating and Vegetarianism: Industrial Farming, Religious Resurgence, and the Cultural Politics of Meat

The module does not presuppose prior knowledge of Chinese history or language, but students may wish to explore some of the suggested readings in preparation.


This module is open to all undergraduates as an Open Option.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module, a student will be able to: 

  • critically evaluate a range of theories and ethnographic source material relating to Chinese society
  • locate and use secondary sources relevant to selected topics
  • have a grasp of the key debates in the anthropology of China     

The learning outcomes are designed to ensure that students develop a solid grounding in the anthropology of China, refine their ability to critically engage diverse literatures and communicate their knowledge in a variety of ways. These processes of comprehension, analysis and communication are central to all anthropology programmes, as well as to the broader humanities and social sciences at SOAS.

Suggested reading

Bruckermann, Charlotte and Stephan Feuchtwang (2016) The Anthropology of China: China as Ethnographic and Theoretical Critique. London: Imperial College Press.

Farrer, James (ed.) (2015) The Globalization of Asian Cuisines: Transnational Networks and Culinary Contact Zones. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

King, Michelle T. (ed.) (2019) Culinary Nationalism in Asia. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Klein, Jakob A. (2020) ‘Transformations of Chinese cuisines’, in Kevin Latham (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Chinese Culture and Society. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 376-394.

Mak, Sau-Wa (2014) ‘The revival of traditional water buffalo cheese consumption: class, heritage and modernity in contemporary China’, Food & Foodways, 22 (4): 322-347.

Oxfeld, Ellen (2017) Bitter and Sweet: Food, Meaning, and Modernity in Rural China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yan, Yunxiang (2012) ‘Food safety and social risk in contemporary China’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 71 (3): 705-729.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules