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Anderson, "Betel nut chewing culture: The social and symbolic life of an Indigenous commodity in Taiwan and Hainan," 2007

USC dissertation in Cultural Anthropology.
August 21, 2009

Christian Alan Anderson, Ph.D

Abstract (Summary)

Betel nut chewing is a social practice that articulates boundaries. The history of betel nut chewing in Southern China indexes the ways in which non-Han minorities were sinicized, demonstrating how betel nut chewing culture was appropriated by Han nobles, and variously incorporated into Han cultural expressions in the southern region.

In Taiwan betel nut chewing marks boundaries between groups in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender. The stigmatization of betel nut in Taiwan is explained by political, economic, and historical factors related to the Japanese colonial prohibition and subsequent KMT neglect of a newly revitalized betel nut industry. Ethnic, gender and socioeconomic status was articulated by a re-introduced and fully commoditized practice of betel nut chewing, divorced from its former social significance, which continued only among Indigenous groups of the southeastern coast and in Orchid Island ( Lanyu ). Marketing strategies involving "betel nut beauties" developed in the betel nut retailing business, since almost all betel nut chewers were men. Perspectives within the betel nut industry reveal the economic incentives that contributed to this "shadow economy." The symbolic nature of betel nut among the "Indigenous betel nut chewing cultures" of southeastern Taiwan articulates themes of cultural prosperity and wealth. Tourism development is based on cultivating Indigenous cultural capital.

In Hainan betel nut chewing marks boundaries between local islanders and outsiders. The Utsat, a Muslim Austronesian-language speaking people, and Li language-speaking peoples in urban and rural villages provide non-Han "minority" perspectives within Hainan. Interethnic relations among Han, Utsat and Li are marked by salient cultural differences, though all share a common betel nut chewing culture. The use of betel nut in Utsat, Li, and Hainanese weddings show continued social and symbolic significance. Betel nut production and retailing remains integrated in the traditional economy. Modern tourism development restricts betel nut chewing, but local betel nut chewers respond to limitations by further embodying the habit.

A comparative analysis of betel nut chewing cultures in Taiwan and Hainan reveals that internal boundaries are marked in Taiwan, and outsider/insider status is marked in Hainan. Analysis of the symbolic nature of betel nut and the process of chewing is found to relate to gendered complementary practice at its root, and extends to various expressions of betel nut in its social and ritual forms. The "choice" to chew or not arises from the socially constructed nature of chewing "appetites," and shows how modern habits and traditional rituals of betel nut chewing cultures coexist and interrelate with each other differently in Taiwan and Hainan.

Advisor: Hoskins, Janet