Charles Hayford

Charles W. Hayford, having finished two terms as editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, now calls himself “Independent Scholar, Emeritus.” His publications include To the People: James Yen and Village China (Columbia UP, 1990), China (CLIO Press, 1996), Draft Bibliography of American-East Asian Relations (Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 2002), and articles on Chinese and Japanese film, Chinese food inside and outside China, and books on China. His long-term project is America’s Chinas: From the Opium Wars to the 21st Century, which looks at the moral discourse on civilization, power, and history in books written by Americans who lived in China.


Food, Family, and History: Hollywood vs. Confucian Film? 

Classic post-war Hollywood films mostly neglect food and eating or code them as merely regional or ethnic; but in post-Mao Chinese film, food and eating consistently move the plot, reveal character, dramatize politics, and express moral values. 

Why? Let’s try a hypothesis: Food evidently represents family, and family in turn social relations, therefore food and eating are cast in different roles as cultural and historical situations change. Social myths then shape how film-makers use food and family to conceptualize historical moments. The Confucian story presented family as structured by the father/ son relationship, while the Hollywood family was built around the myth of heteronormative romantic love – a guy and his gal. The Confucian patriline extended backward and forward in time – you can’t divorce your grandfather; the Hollywood family was trapped in the present, contingent and precarious. In the inherited Confucian imaginary, individualism meant being lonely and powerless, while on the American silver screen individualism meant being free and empowered, liberated from a prison of responsibilities. The officially unacknowledged famines of the Mao years made food especially dramatic in the PRC films that followed Mao’s death. Therefore, food and eating played different roles. 

We will visit classic food films, such as the self-conscious exercises, Ang Lee, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994) and Stephen Chow, God of Cooking (1996), but our hypothesis will be better tested in films not directly focused on food, Zhang Yimou, Judou (1990), Wong Kar-wai, Chungking Express (1994), but especially Xie Jin, Hibiscus Town (1986) and Zhang Yimou, To Live (1994).