Five Questions: Yin Yuan on Alimentary Orientalism

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Yin Yuan is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her work focuses on British Orientalism, Anglophone literature and East Asian popular culture; she has published articles on these topics in Studies in Romanticism, the Keats-Shelley Journal and SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. Her first monograph, Alimentary Orientalism: Britain’s Literary Imagination and the Edible East, which we discuss below, was published this month by Bucknell University Press.

1) How did you first become interested in edible things in the long eighteenth century?

I remember being taken by eighteenth-century literature’s tendency to exhaustively detail every item on the menu when it comes to the depiction of Oriental banquets. The Greek dinner scene in Lord Byron’s Don Juan, with which my book begins, is one of the more famous instances, but examples like it abound in literature from the period and trace back to the Arabian Nights story cycle. There had been critical work on the function of the epic catalogue in British Orientalism, but not as much (with the exception of Timothy Morton’s The Poetics of Spice) on the particular significance of the cataloging of edible things. On the one hand, these culinary lists provided readers with a sensory experience of the Orient. On the other hand, the conventionality of the rhetorical gesture seemed to subvert the very materiality invoked by the listing of edible things. This tension between words and things that the literary text itself was foregrounding, even interrogating, was what drove my interest. I think there is a scholarly tendency to see imperial commodities in literature as opaque archives that must be illuminated by the present-day critic, whose job it is to investigate the histories of production, distribution, and consumption of such commodities. But I found the representation of edible things in long eighteenth-century literature a lot more self-reflexive than hitherto acknowledged, and I began to wonder why, and to what end.  

2) How did you come to select tea and opium as the major foci for your book?

In the British context, tea and opium are arguably the two ingestible foreign commodities that underwent the most dramatic cultural transformation, so they foreground the kind of tension between the symbolic and the material that I am particularly interested in. Tea was the “China liquor” whose cultural taint British commentators worried about during the eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century, it had become an icon of English national identity. Opium exhibited an inverse trajectory: while it was never domesticated, Thomas De Quincey could in the 1820s still paint a conceivable portrait of an English opium-eater, but as the century wore on, the drug was increasingly marked “Chinese” even though large amounts were produced in British India. There have of course been major studies on the material and literary circulations of each of these two commodities, but my book focuses on their symbolic entanglement and argues that the two need to be considered as a dialectical pair. Understood in relation to each other, the symbolic fluidities of tea and opium provide a paradigmatic framework for understanding how the consumption and reception of exotic edibles more broadly nurtured a self-reflexive Orientalism that was central to the formation of British imperial identity. 

3) Which tropes are most common in self-reflexive literary engagements with exotic ingestants, and what’s your favourite atypical example from your book?

Many of the scenes of ingestion I examine in the book equate edible things with inscriptions, stories, dreams, spells, fantasies, and other forms of meaning making. Literary treatments of tea, for instance, frequently entail discussions of gossip around the tea-table. In Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World, “Bear’s claws” and “Birds nests” refer to specific dishes while also functioning as metaphors for exotic reading materials. In Walter Scott’s The Talisman, the eponymous “talisman” – defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as an occult object that derives magical power from the characters with which it is engraved – is used to name the opiate administered by Saladin. In each of these instances, the material effects of the edible thing are inseparable from the discursive apparatus that diagnoses or otherwise makes sense of those effects. One notable exception is Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, where Flora Finching’s imaginations of China are sharply contrasted with her hearty appetite. The novel makes a point of underscoring the gap between the material and the symbolic and suggests that imperial propaganda works by passing one off as the other. In my book, I explain what the atypical example of Little Dorrit tells us about the shift in British imaginations of the Orient (and of China more specifically). 

4) Your chapters trace a ‘historical narrative of Britain’s ongoing creation of imperial selfhood’.  What would you identify as the most crucial turning points in this narrative?

Historians have pointed to the crucial role that exotic commodities played in driving the eighteenth-century consumer revolution. My book argues that the intersection between literary Orientalism and exotic consumerism during this time created, among British writers, a self-reflexive engagement with the Orient that was central to the formation of Britain’s imperial identity. The two Opium Wars, beginning in 1839 and ending in 1860, marked a shift away from such self-reflexive engagements toward a more uncritical, xenophobic othering of the East that was further consolidated by mid-century exhibitions such as the 1851 Great Exhibition. Alongside the decline of such self-reflexivity, I noticed in British Orientalist texts a concomitant replacement of the ingestion trope with one of vision, which I connect to the emergence of the “Barbarian eye” as a salient figure in public discourse during the Opium Wars.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m continuing to think about the relationship between empire and culture, but have started developing these interests within the fields of media and contemporary popular culture. My current project focuses on South Korean popular culture, particularly what its global ascendency means for the creation of hybrid cultural identities. Recently, for Post45 Contemporaries, I edited a cluster of essays on the phenomenon of the Korean Wave and its implications for the development of a global cultural studies. I also have an article forthcoming with the International Journal of Communication that looks at Squid Game and Netflix in order to consider how alternative structures of feeling in South Korean television challenge American narrative ideologies. These inquiries form part of a broader book project on the cultural and transcultural logics of South Korean television and film genres.