Eating and absorbing a technological tradition

Sometimes cultural objects—homespun cloth in Independence-era India, the predominance (in spite of pressure to import cheaper international varities) of locally-grown rice in postwar Japan—take their most profound meanings not so much from the object itself as from the technology (actual or implied) that is used to produce the object.

When a modern Japanese family sits round the supper table eathing their bowls of Japanese-grown rice, they are not simply indulging a gastronomic preference for short-grain and slightly sticky Japonica rice over long-grain Indica rice from Thailand. They are eating and absorbing a tradition—in the sense of an invented and reinvented past. While the television beside the dining table pours out a stream of images of the here-and-now, of an urbanized, capitalist, and thoroughly internationalized Japan, each mouthful of rice offers communion with eternal and untainted Japanese values, with a rural world of simplicity and purity, inhabited by peasants tending tiny green farms in harmony with nature and ruled over by the emperor, descendant of the Sun Goddess, who plants and harvests rice himself each year in a special sacred plot. Simple peasant rice farmers are as marginal in contemporary Japan as hand-spinners are in India, but the small rice farm, like the swadeshi [homespun-style cloth] industry, lives on as a powerful symbol.

from Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China, by Francesca Bray (University of California Press, 1997)

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