Separation and Reunion in Modern China

By Charles Stafford | Go to book overview

5
Commensality as reunion

In many of the specific examples I have thus far given of separation and reunion in China– for instance, the case in chapter two of the nephew who visits his father's sister, and quietly eats and drinks as his aunt strives to 'accompany' (pei) him– my descriptions have turned, often sooner rather than later, to the sharing of meals. Needless to say, more than food is being shared, and of course the centrality of food to Chinese culture makes it diffcult, if not impossible, to discuss any major topic (whether kinship or religion or politics) without questions of eating and commensality coming into play (cf. Chang 1977 and Anderson 1988). Food is redundantly a central aspect of Chinese kinship symbolism: e.g. to be a family is to eat rice together, whereas to 'divide the family' (fenjia) is to divide the family's stove, and so on. Familial rituals of the life-cycle, perhaps especially the sendingoff of the dead (songzang), entail food symbolism of a remarkable complexity and sophistication (cf. Thompson 1988). Local popular religion also routinely involves food-based sacrifice and commensality on a grand scale (cf. Ahern 1981; also see my discussion of the Penghu 'sending-off' in chapter three). Meanwhile, the 'art of social relationships' in China, at least in public and formal terms, is intimately linked to the arts of gift-giving (the gifts are often food) and banqueting (cf. Yan 1996 and Yang 1994). Banquets may be displays both of hierarchy and of equality (cf. J. Watson 1987), and they are, redundantly, the means by which social transitions (whether births, marriages, or new business agreements) are publicly acknowledged and effected.

Against the background of this all-pervasive food symbolism, my aim in this chapter will be to suggest that states of reunion, in China, are very often both conceptualised and experienced as states of commensality. To be 'reunited' and 'united' is to eat together, whereas the failure to eat together is not merely a symptom of 'separation', but is actually constitutive of it. (By extension, I might note, the failure to eat is taken as an expression of separation: the idiom 'hanging garments'– yi dai jian kuan – indicates the weight one loses through missing someone who is absent.) In short, commensality is reunion, and this fact has important implications

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Separation and Reunion in Modern China
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgements viii
  • Introduction: An Anthropology of Separation 1
  • 1 - Tow Festivals of Reunion 30
  • 2 - The Etiquette of Parting and Return 55
  • 3 - Greeting and Sending-Off the Dead 70
  • 4 - The Ambivalent Threshold 87
  • 5 - Commensality as Reunion 99
  • 6 - Women and the Obligation to Return 110
  • 7 - Developing a Sense of History 127
  • 8 - Classical Narratives of Separation and Reunion 144
  • 9 - The Politics of Separation and Reunion in China and Taiwan 156
  • Conclusion - The Separation Constraint 174
  • Notes 179
  • References 192
  • Index 200
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