Life Is Elsewhere: The Economy of Food and Sex in Chinese Web Romance

Professor Jin Feng (Grinnell College)

Session 9.3: Romancing Chinese Worlds

Abstract: It is stated in the Confucian classic The Book of Rites: “Food and sex are the primary desires of human beings.” However, little can be taken for granted about what food and sex mean in any particular context. Anthropologist Jack Goody sees the cooking of food by the woman “as the reciprocal of the coital acts of the man,” while Chinese author Lu Wenfu characterizes a female chef’s marriage to a male gourmet as following the economic principle of bartering culinary skills for financial security.

Chinese Web romance creates a new form of narrative economy: cooking for a better life. In most time-travel romances, modern men or women travel backward in history. But protagonists in food-oriented romances in the last decade usually travel from premodern in to modern societies or from contemporary to future universes. Equipped with up-to-date technologies ranging from holographic games to VR webcast, they apparently represent a “futurist” outlook.

However, women or female-gendered characters continue to serve as food preparers. Even when they become master chefs revered by students and consumers, they play the main nurturer in the family, workplace, or community. Further, these “forward”-looking works show similar insecurities rooted in contemporary life. Authors unanimously portray the future as a utilitarian, military power deplete of beauty, pleasure, and gourmet food. Many reveal anxieties about food safety and security, though disguised as “doomsday fantasies” or tales of magic tools for food production.
Most tellingly, they deploy culinary arts developed through magic or technologies to compensate deficiencies in romance, family, and career in a previous life.

Food-focused works thus follow the same trajectory as other Chinese Web romances by turning discontent about current situations into redemptive tales in alternative times and spaces. Ultimately, food functions as socio-cultural and sexual-romantic currency that propels the time-traveling protagonist into a better life elsewhere.


Food, sex and gender in Chinese web romance

Food and sex:

Life is elsewhere:

  • Most popular web genre for men is fantasy
  • Most popular web genre for women is romance
  • Food romance: Focus on using food as central plot device
  • Food novel in Chinese – usually have a chef
  • A lot of Chinese online fan fiction / slash use food as a plot device
  • Time travel, gender twist, fantasy within the food novel subgenre

Backward gaze:

  • Unlike standard time travel (to the future, or from past to present), these are from present to past
  • Ephasise Chinese cultural traditions, especially culinary heritages
  • Embrace conventional gender norms
  • Ambivalence for future: food dystopia
  • Food as socio-cultural rather than sexual-romantic currency
  • Woman may become chefs and have successful professional lives, but they are still the nurturer or caregiver in the relationship
  • In slash, one of the males is female gendered, and stays at home, is caregiver while the other is male gendered and is the provider


  • Sometimes not central to plot
  • Food used more as social cultural rather than sexual device
  • Idealised past that never existed
  • Idealised past is nostalgia for time

Hong Kong tv show in 2001

  • Time travel
  • Stud travel
  • Lots of adventures, acquired women
  • Time travel romance became popular in China after this

Many of these stories have roots in food security / safety concerns from mainland China

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