Rice as self: food, history and nation-building in Japan and Malaysia

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Wherever rice is the traditional staple, people assume that eating rice, or growing rice, makes them who they are. The belief that their physical constitutions, mental aptitudes, social institutions or political formations are profoundly shaped by their dependence upon rice is sometimes expressed in everyday maxims and vernacular habits, sometimes formally elaborated by politicians, historians or scientists into theories of identity – as in the classic case of Japan, documented by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney in Rice as self.

Rice today is food to half the world, its history inextricably entangled with the emergence of colonialism, the global networks of industrial capitalism and the modern world economy. Native to Asia and West Africa, where it had been the major staple for centuries, as the modern world took shape rice sustained the slave trade, was one of the main plantation crops of the post-Conquest New World, and fed Europe’s new colonies. New ways of thinking about rice as self developed along with new circuits of commerce, imperial or post-colonial structures of political control, the rise to prominence of different academic disciplines and the growth and spread of international networks of science and development.

Stimulated by Jack Goody’s rethinking of modes of production in Technology, tradition and the state, and of modes of consumption in Cooking, cuisine and class, here I borrow his tactic of radical comparison, setting the histories and historiographies of Eurasia against those of Africa and the Atlantic region, to illuminate some key questions about the relations between rice and identity, and between rice and history.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventGoody Lecture 2014 - Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, Germany
Duration: 8 Jul 2014 → …


OtherGoody Lecture 2014
Period8/07/14 → …


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