Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China.

Author:Hunter, Michael
Position:Book review

Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China. BY ROEL STERCKX. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNITVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. ix + 248. $90

One might recklessly infer that the ancient Chinese ate food; we do know that they wrote about it. In Food, Sacrifice, and Sagehood in Early China (hereafter Food) Roel Sterckx draws from a impressive array of early sources to show how "[t]his rich world of food inspired an equally fascinating world of ideas" (p.1). However, the "food" of Food requires some clarification. Sterckx is less interested in what Confucius ate for breakfast than in food as something that "far transcended the demands of physical sustenance" (p. 204). His focus is food's symbolism, its ritualization, its temptations for the uncultivated, as well as the tensions that emerged when a unavoidably material object was imbued with spiritual, moral, and even cosmic potency. A related theme in Food is the central importance of the senses to conceptions of spirits, sages, and rulership, which leads him to emphasize "the permeability of the human and the spiritual" (p.8) in early Chinese thought.

Food is the culmination of Sterckx's longstanding interest in the intersection of food and philosophy and is based in part on his article "Sages, Cooks, and Flavours in Warring States and Han China" (Monurmenta Serica 54 [2006]:1-46) and his earlier article "Food and Philosophy in Early China," which appeared in Of Tripod and Palate: Food, Politics, and Religion in Traditional China (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), a volume Sterckx edited. Chapter one ("Customs and Cuisine") is a concise overview of early Chinese food culture that includes sections on food staples, lore, terminology, taboos against meat and other foods, and banquet culture. This chapter in particular is sure to prove an excellent resource for non-specialists. Chapter two explores the use of cooking imagery as a metaphor for sagehood and rulership. It includes discussions of the Zhuangzi's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Butcher Ding and the legendary cook-turned-minister Yi Yin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as well as a final section on "Cosmic Dining" that details the sociopolitical and cosmological stakes involved in rulers' diets. Chapter three ("Sacrifice and Sense") turns to the feeding of spirits through sacrifice. Early ritual texts portray spirits as "operat[ing] in a world beyond taste" (p. 85) and thus preferring vapors and odors to actual food because such vapors were thought to...

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