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The rural nostalgia of Chinese cottagecore
A Bite of China and the food of Chinese TikTok. Words by Barclay Bram.
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 6: Food and the Arts.
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During the mid-19th century, a tendency emerged in British design that prioritised traditional methods of craftsmanship, looking back to previous trends in architecture, pottery, and weaving, as well as rural folk methods, to revive what its adherents considered to be a moribund discipline. It was called the Arts and Crafts Movement, and its motivations were Newtonian in the sense that its reach behind into the past was equal and opposite to the Industrial Revolution’s jump into the future, and the exponential increase in mechanised production that came with it. As the Industrial Revolution accelerated the British economy from one which was predominantly based around domestic agriculture to one that centred on the factory and imported agricultural goods, there was a vast migratory upheaval: in 1800, 70% of people in Britain lived in the countryside; just a century later this was 20%.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that all British food writing that has come after this has been a process of dealing with this enormous rupture. Either you are an Arts and Crafter, idealising the foodways of the rooted peasant, yearning for a life that has been lost to you by making pesto from scratch, or you’re a factory apologist, romanticising an increasingly industrial and homogenised food system. Or you’re a mixture of both, but you still have to have an opinion. The genius of writers like Elizabeth David, Primrose Boyd, and Patience Gray is that they romanticised the peasants of other countries while they still existed, so the food with cultural capital went from grande cuisine to Mediterranean peasant food, from consommés to pottage (with Heinz in a can looked down on in both hierarchies). But soon, as the peasantry of France and Italy disappeared, and countries around the world have industrialised, every country has had to reckon with their own culinary rupture.
It’s now China’s turn. China’s mass industrialisation happened after Britain’s, so it’s no surprise that it’s only now having its own moment of peasant nostalgia. At the tip of this trend is the subject of today’s newsletter by Barclay Bram, the TV series A Bite of China, which is less a show and more of a phenomenon. Over a decade after it was first filmed, its startling how almost everything now looks like A Bite, from the American TV shows which lovingly film a table spread as if it were the Turin Shroud, to the TikTokers who – misleadingly or otherwise – monetise their own life in the country via ASMR and unnecessarily complicated cooking projects. In a Filipino restaurant recently, I couldn’t help but notice the YouTube video playing on the wall was of a woman in camo walking through a forest to forage for roots. Some of these videos have the feel of doomsday preppers, but they are reminders, as Bram notes, for ‘involuted city dwellers of where they came from’, a glimpse from the factory window on a world whose time is about to set. JN
The rural nostalgia of Chinese cottagecore, by Barclay Bram
A Bite of China (舌尖上的中国) opens in a forest, where a young Tibetan woman called Zhuo Ma climbs a steep hillside with her mother in search of highly prized matsutake mushrooms. For each kilometre of mountain she climbs, she will find only one mushroom, she says. Then the camera cuts to an extreme close-up of a cleaver slicing a matsutake into thin slivers. We are told that in the top restaurants a plate can fetch up to 1600元 (or £160 in 2012, when the show was shot). We see a chef in a tall hat, a steel grill between him and the camera, burning perfect griddle marks on the mushroom. But we don’t know who he is, or which restaurant he works in, because a few moments later we’re back with Zhuo Ma and her mother as they drive their moped in the early dusk. They’re going mushroom hunting again.
It took a team of some of China’s greatest filmmakers – eight directors, fifteen cinematographers, three researchers – thirteen months and over seventy different locations to film the first season of A Bite of China, which was produced by the state broadcaster CCTV. When the series landed it was a revelation, soon hailed – by both Chinese and Anglophone media – as the best documentary series the country had ever produced. Each episode takes a central theme, like ‘Gifts of Nature’ or ‘Secrets of the Kitchen’, and then travels to different places where a particular food speaks to that topic. You’ll like A Bite of China if you like the idea of moonlight dancing on the edge of a cleaver, or the hiss of oil, or if you want to dwell on the obsidian quality of soy sauce. It is so beautifully shot that its closest analogue in the west wouldn’t be a food show, it would be the BBC series Life or Planet Earth. (After people watching the third season noted that some of its scenes were eerily reminiscent of Planet Earth, one of A Bite’s directors sheepishly admitted that some of the season’s B-roll had, in fact, been licensed from the BBC.)
That first scene demonstrates how A Bite of China thinks about food. The show is interested in the hidden masters that exist throughout society: the grandmothers who know exactly how much salt to rub into a leg of pork to make ham, or the banquet chef in Shunde – one of the last remaining – who is able to build giant ovens to steam whole pigs for a festival. If there is one thing that is repeated over and over in A Bite, it’s that China is a land of traditions. The subtext to this, and the thing that cemented the show’s popularity, is that those traditions are disappearing.
But more than a focus on tradition, A Bite of China shone a spotlight on the food cultures of the periphery. Sometimes this literally meant the country’s edges – like Hainan, Xinjiang, Yunnan and Dêqên Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture – but wherever it was, it always privileged the rural over the urban. As one commentator wrote, the show is ‘a helpless elegy of the traditional Chinese rural world sung in the face of the impact of modern civilisation.’ In 2012, this expansive vision of Chinese food stood resolute against the economic headwinds that blew so intensely towards the supposedly urbanised and modern future of China. The show renders Zhuo Ma more worthy of screen time than the chef who griddles her mushroom because she represents a lineage of foragers. The chef, meanwhile, is part of China’s urban core, an individual node rendered nameless in a consumerist chain.’
For the stressed-out, glued-to-their-screens city dwellers of 2010s China, there was something utterly transporting about the type of food that A Bite of China showcased. When I lived in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and home to 20 million people, I lived with a retired chef known as Brother Bing. At the spring festival Brother Bing had to borrow a table from his friend to accommodate all the food he’d cooked. He then made so many dishes that they overflowed even that table, so plates ended up stacked on chairs. Afterwards, bellies full, we lolled around on the sofa. We put on A Bite of China, fighting fire with fire, as acid reflux gave way to vistas of mountains and sea. I watched Brother Bing watch the show, saw his eyes widen as a grandmother in Jiaxing, her hands gently quaking, wrapped glutinous rice in a bamboo leaf. He was rapt. The show’s subtle transgression was that it held up the rural not as somewhere backwards and undeveloped, but as a container of unremarked-upon – and rapidly fading – beauty.
Brother Bing was from the city. He was born during the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960s. In 1978, two years after Mao Zedong died, the government had radically changed tack, dismantling the staid Soviet-style planned economy of its predecessors. At that point, urban residents like Brother Bing made up only 18% of China’s population. Over the next 40 years, as the economy exploded, cities swallowed up the rural population like hungry mouths. By 2012, the urban population had increased to 700 million people – 52.6% of the total population. By 2022, 65% of China was urban – some 920 million people.
In Brother Bing’s lifetime, Chengdu and other Chinese cities had gorged themselves on the surrounding villages and towns. With all of this development and urbanisation came a series of propaganda campaigns and slogans. Deng Xiaoping, the economic liberaliser who succeeded Mao, said that it would be necessary for ‘one segment of society to get rich first.’ By this he meant coastal urban areas; China’s rural interior poured into the cities at the coast. The cliché of a city of 14 million like Shenzhen, across the water from Hong Kong, blossoming out of rice paddies was an image that replicated itself in various forms across China.
As one segment of society grew richer, the rural areas became demographic quagmires. People of working age went to seek fortunes (or at least, something more), leaving their children behind with elderly relatives. (Another slogan at the time: ‘Development is a hard truth.’) As China’s urban population rapidly increased, and the fruits of modernisation were made concrete by the whirring cranes and constant construction in cities, the rural fell ever further behind. The irony that Mao’s agrarian communist revolution had come to this, so shortly after his death, was not lost on some people. But the ‘hard truth’ was that, for China to claw itself out of poverty, it would have to do so unevenly, and in cities.
The relatively recent transition from the rural to the urban is why A Bite broke through in such a powerful way. Most people in China still had a strong connection to the countryside, whether through close relatives or land, but they’d also just seen decades of media mythologising the modern glory of cities. A Bite of China switched focus, taking as seriously the culinary traditions of the tiniest villages as those of major cities, and seeking to rebalance the story. If development was a hard truth, then there were soft truths nestled in the far-flung mountains of Yunnan, the ice-lakes of Jilin and the lush forests of Guizhou. The lengths to which the researchers went in order to find these stories was immense. In the second season, Chen Xiaoqing, the director of the whole series, apparently forbade his sub-directors and producers from driving to locations; instead, when they went scouting they had to do so via public transport, in the hopes they’d strike up the kind of conversations that would lead them to their subjects.
Chen Xiaoqing is, by all accounts, a humble guy whose love of traditional cooking is not affected. I spoke to Chuang Tzu-i, a food writer from Taiwan who consulted on one of Chen’s projects. Chuang had been introduced to Chen Xiaoqing through the publisher they share (Chen published a book, also called A Bite of China, to sit alongside the series), and Chen invited her for dinner: here was one of China’s biggest food personalities potentially taking a prominent food writer from Taiwan out on the town in Beijing. But instead of taking Chuang to a restaurant, he took her for a bowl of noodles prepared by the mother of his friend. He said he knew he could have received special treatment in any of the restaurants they’d gone to, but he just wanted Chuang to eat something simple and made with love. She watched, mesmerised, as the mother created a bing from scratch in fifteen minutes, somehow handling dough made sticky with boiling water without resting it.
Of course, A Bite of China was not without its controversies. Some netizens baulked when it first aired, calling the show a fairy tale that whitewashed the legions of food scandals happening in the country at the time (this was shortly after tainted milk poisoned 300,000 children, and 18 tonnes of pig carcasses washed up on the banks of Shanghai’s Huangpu river, among other tragedies). Some also missed the point, arguing that to spotlight these fading traditions was to ignore how people actually ate. Others complained that Season 2 had featured too much ‘humanity’ and not enough food, a criticism which was taken on board. Season 3, made without Chen Xiaoqing’s involvement, felt more like a glossy advert cycling through dishes than something with a story to tell.
The show had a bigger problem, though, which was there from its inception, and was possibly inevitable: something with so much beauty and gravity will inevitably reshape the fabric of the universe in which it shines.
In 2019, I travelled around Sichuan with a film crew for a project that ultimately came to nothing. I remember driving along a single mountain road that had three restaurants, all with banners claiming that A Bite of China had been filmed there. When Yunnan Nuodeng ham was featured in the very first episode of the show, its sales volume increased seventeenfold in just five days. In many small towns around the country, there are restaurants or family homes that are now tourist destinations, forever changed by the fact that they appeared for a few brief moments in the banquet of A Bite of China.
By trying to celebrate the hidden talents of a disappearing China, the show created new appetites. The entire cottage industry of rural douyin (Chinese TikTokers) has seen millions of young Chinese people give up cities in search of the kind of life A Bite of China so poignantly captured. Where the show had been novel in spotlighting the ancient and peripheral food ways of China, rural douyin empowered creators in those places to make their own content; in a way, A Bite of China cratered because of these douyin. Gone was the omniscient narration of Li Lihong (a fair baritone approximation of the gravitas of David Attenborough); now millions of creators could speak with their own voice.
The biggest, like Li Ziqi, became boons for local products and tourism. Li grew up in rural Mianyang, raised by her grandparents. She left aged 14, moving to a city where she worked first as a waitress, then a nightclub DJ. But she returned to the countryside in 2012, the same year A Bite of China took off, to look after her ailing grandmother. There she started an online shop and, in 2016, began vlogging. By 2021, Li was granted a Guinness World Record for the most-subscribed Chinese language YouTube channel; she now has 17.4 million subscribers. (This is notable not least because YouTube is banned in China, where her Douyin – China’s version of TikTok – has over 50 million subscribers and 200 million likes.) Li’s branded products are also legion, with her luosi fen noodles so popular that online distributor Tmall had to construct its own factory to produce them.
But Li is just one of China’s many cottagecore stars. There’s Uncle Rural Gourmet, who makes elaborate, multi-day dishes like steamed cow’s head baked in clay. Then there’s Chen Dan, whose online handle xiangchou 乡愁 translates to something between ‘nostalgia’ and ‘homesickness’ – a neat summary of the thread that binds all of these accounts. Chen has over 180 million likes across nearly 200 videos on Douyin, and describes her work as ‘using a small lens to capture rural life in the countryside.’ The popularity of these videos is intimately related to the desperation that many urban dwellers feel at the intensity of their lives. China has urbanised, but it has also grown unsustainably expensive and unequal. Another hard truth.
If A Bite of China was pushed aside by the creators of rural douyin, that’s not to suggest that these accounts are artisanal windows into the bucolic countryside. The biggest accounts, like Li Ziqi’s, have huge production teams, massive sponsorship deals and murky partnerships with local governments desperate to drive tourism and sell local handicrafts. Li’s attempt to promote the beauty of her rural life in Mianyang, Sichuan saw her embroiled in a lawsuit with her management company, Hangzhou Weinian, who were located in the eastern coastal boomtown of Hangzhou. The irony, of course, was what this spat revealed: ultimately, even the biggest champions of China’s rural traditions were themselves driving money into the cities.
Since the pandemic I have been living back in London. Sometimes I find myself watching rural douyin or rewatching old episodes of A Bite of China, suddenly nostalgic for a life that I lived adjacent to for a time. Food has a unique ability to connect people; I don’t imagine myself in rural Mianyang, nor do I have plans to quit London for a foothill in Yunnan, but I can imagine eating that food. I can feel myself sitting on the floor of a thatched cottage, a steaming bowl of noodles before me. Yet beyond the visceral pleasures of that image, it’s worth remembering what the show meant for millions of people when they first saw it. A Bite of China travelled to the furthest corners of the country and brought its bleeding edge into dialogue with its urban core. It reminded involuted city dwellers of where they came from – beyond those concrete confines, a diversity that stretches thousands of years into the past.
Where to watch A Bite of China:
Season 1 – with hilariously bad dubbing (I don’t know who decided that Tibetans would have Australian accents in English). You also lose the amazing sound of the original narrator Li Lihong’s voice, which sounds like a warm hug.
Barclay Bram is a writer based in London. You can find more of his work at http://www.barclaybram.com/
Vittles is edited by Jonathan Nunn, Sharanya Deepak and Rebecca May Johnson, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.