Food Paradise or Hell: A New Documentary Sparks Debate

A seven-part documentary on China’s food culture, “A Bite of China” (which translated literally means “China on the Tip of the Tongue”) premiered on the main channel of China Central Television (CCTV-1) on May 14, 2012 and became an instant sensation. The series gives a panoramic introduction to China’s rich culinary traditions and wide regional varieties by showcasing unique ingredients, famous dishes, and special food processing techniques, as well as local custom and sceneries.


The combination of food porn and nostalgia was potent. Within forty-eight hours after the premiere of its first episode, the series became the most discussed topic in China. Many twentysomething Chinese (the “post-90 generation,” so named because they were born after 1990) who would normally rather die than be caught watching CCTV readily admitted on Sina Weibo that for a week they were glued to the TV, drooling over the episodes.

宋有菜_0551: Watching this documentary is definitely not an enjoyable process. It is visually beautiful, with great narration and impeccable content arrangement. But the crux of the problem is that there is nothing you can do but to drool while all of these mouth-watering images are only showing on screen. And you would agree that watching this documentary is a mistake.

路上的鸟: All kinds of memories and feelings of homesickness emerged after watching it. Though the foods are extremely tempting, what nearly broke me was this line from the narration: “It doesn’t really matter what you eat, nothing compares with staying with one’s family.” How I miss my home! I miss all the lively chaos, my parents and my little brother, and the warm feeling that fills up our kitchen. This documentary is a torturing device for people who are away from home, without mercy!

Aside from being saliva-enticing and tear-jerking, netizens also noticed the documentary’s extraordinary ability to stir up national pride through exoticizing Chinese food culture.

袋鼠爱树袋熊:In terms of promoting patriotism, “A Bit of China” is much more effective than the Red Songs campaign.

商业评论网: Compared with China’s national image promotion video shown in Times Square, New York, “A Bite of China” is much more successful. It uses taste buds to summon people’s cultural identity, smartly and sufficiently demonstrates the soft power of China.

But the idealized version of China as a “food paradise” quickly turned into a call for a reality check. After watching the series, many Weibo users reflected on the cost of urbanization and the environmental toll of China's economic miracle.

围城边上的一棵树: As we sigh about the lack of creativity in today’s China, “A Bite of China” makes me deeply admire how creative our ancestors were. We have so much fantastic cuisine and yet KFC and McDonalds are so popular in China. We are in need of marketing talents. With so many of the young generation rushing to the roaring cities, a lot of food delicacies would turn into memories. With the worsening environmental condition, many ingredients would go extinct. We’ve already squandered too much . . .

Moreover, the overly sentimental tone of the narration also backfired, causing netizens to speculate that the series is intended to diverge media attention from China’s lingering food safety crisis.

花夭花夭: I think this documentary is just so-so, with the typical CCTV tone and style. After watching it, I don’t know what to think. There was no sense of time and the now. It seems to be a random collection of fragments of tradition, put together with a schmaltzy and contrived narration—the director’s motivation might be sincere, but unavoidably we have to suspect that it is a product of the “CCTV conspiracy”—are they aiming to shift the public's attention away from food safety issues?

Popular Weibo user 假装在纽约 mockingly adopted the narrator’s tone and commented on the chain of recent food safety scandals in China: “The second episode of ‘A Bite of China’: here comes the winter. In the Southeast of our country, people in Nanjing are using copper sulfate to keep chives fresh. In the meantime, on the North China Plain, people in Fucheng, Hebei province, are busy turning old leather shoes into gelatin capsules. In the nearby city Shijiazhuang, people are using Sudan I Red Dye to make red-yolk duck eggs. People in Shandong like to add formaldehyde to their cabbage; whereas people in Liaoning prefer to add sodium nitrite to their bean sprouts. Nationwide, the delicious recycled cooking oil is popular across our vast land.”

Even more biting and sarcastic comments were to be found among China’s Twitter community, who must evade the Great Firewall to access the banned site.

@wangpei: After finishing the last episode of “A Bite of China”, I noticed that aside from footage shot in Tibet, the water seemed to be muddy and the sky appeared to be gray everywhere throughout the whole series. This not only confirms the credibility of the PM2.5 data collected by the U.S. Embassy, but also proves the words of an expert from a recent water crisis report on Caixin media, “Rivers in Northern China are all dry, rivers in Southern China are all polluted.” Welcome to China, on the tip of a knife blade.

@hnjhj: As Chinese society is getting wealthy and people no longer need to worry about feeding themselves, many started to breed some wild thoughts. Some have even lost their mind and begun to care about the so-called “issues of freedom and democracy.” The relevant department threw out “A Bite of China” right on time, so people can get back on track, shift their focus of life back to eating, and thus return to being truly Chinese.