Climate and China’s Dynastic Cycles

November 6th, 2016


Climate and China’s Dynastic Cycles


  1. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside




With climate change very much in the news, historians have sought correlations between climate change and the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties.

This contrasts with traditional explanations by Chinese historians of those eras, who explain rise and fall as the result of human decisions and actions.  Resolving these two reasonable, but inevitably partial, explanations requires looking at the ways people respond to large-scale stressors.  Climate change is indeed one source of problems that rulers and masses must consider—along with wars, diseases, population changes, and other large-scale phenomena.  Climate change does not “cause” dynastic change, but it does force people to respond in ways that may produce dynastic change.


Climate change is much in the news these days.  Given the exaggeration and polarization of debate, it is no surprise to find that the role of climate change in Chinese history has come in for its share of debate (on environment in imperial times, management, see Anderson 2014a; Elvin 2004, but Elvin considerably too harsh on the traditional system; Marks 1998, 2009, 2012; Menzies 1994).

Climate change significant enough to make major differences in human affairs is now well understood.  Climate after the last Ice Age quickly became warmer than today, up to a very few degrees C, and stayed very warm from about 7000 BCE to about 3000.  For instance, in the loess plateau around 4200-3600 BCE, conditions were more than 1 degree C warmer than now, and precipitation comparable to current conditions in nearby mountains (Sun et al. 2016).  Warm climates make China wetter, because they not only make the monsoon more powerful, but they shift northward the intertropical convergence zone, meaning that the monsoon starts closer to China.  The same move takes it farther from tropical Asia, and thus is associated with droughts in southeast Asia.  China derives almost all its rain from the summer monsoon, though the cold, dry winter monsoon can pick up enough moisture over China to bring drizzling, chilling rain to the south.  Warmer weather dries up central Asia and brings warmer and thus more drying conditions to Tibet, but only western Xinjiang and the highlands of Tibet are much affected by this.

Following the cooling after 3000 BCE, conditions were rather like today, until a very sharp drying trend hit central Asia in 1500-500 BCE.  It does not seem to have affected China greatly.  (What follows is synthesized from Brooke 2014; Kidder et al. 2016; Lin et al. 2016; Wei et al. 2015; Yin et al. 2016; D. Zhang et al. 2007; P. Zhang et al. 2008; Y. Zhang et al. 2016; Zhao et al. 2016)  Then a pleasant, warm, moist period, known in the west as the Roman optimum, helped both the Roman Republic and Roman Empire and the Chinese Empire between 200 BCE and 200 CE.  This gave way to cooler conditions, and then a sharp cold and dry period from 550 to 650.  This modified to conditions much like today’s, or a bit more warm and wet, in Tang.  A weak monsoon 910-930 seems to have occurred (P. Zhang et al. 2008).  In 950 to 1300 came the Medieval Warm Period, also known as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly.  It brought warmer and wetter conditions to China, but with sharp fluctuations, especially in the 11th and 12th centuries, when sudden returns to more average (i.e. colder) conditions hit China hard.  The early 12th century seems to have been especially cool.  After 1300, the Little Ice Age slowly came on, producing extremely cold, dry conditions, especially at certain times in the 1400s, 1600s, and 1700s.  This was followed by a slow warming after 1800 or 1850, which gave way after 1900 to more steady warming as human-released greenhouse gases added themselves to natural warming and eventually took over the major warming role.  (Human-caused global warming appears clearly only about 1850.  Alleged human-caused warming by rice agriculture in dynastic times is not credible.  Among other things, the allegers forgot that the rice largely replaced marshes and wetlands that already released methane.)

Otherwise, minor to substantial fluctuations in the record appear, but are largely in the category of “weather” rather than “climate.”  Also, the magnitude of these climate changes should not be overestimated; a few degrees C was the greatest amplitude.

The major confounder in studying the effect of climate change on dynastic cycling is the well-known fact that China exacerbated or even created its own problems.  Walter Mallory’s classic study China: Land of Famine (1926) stressed the role of deforestation, erosion, badly managed river dykes, wetlands drainage, and other environmental ills on China’s horrific history of droughts and floods.  Recent studies have gone on to confirm this (Elvin 2004; Marks 2012).  Shiba Yoshinobu has made this point, most recently for the Song Dynasty (McDermott and Yoshinobu 2015), which engaged in massive deforestation for iron smelting, ceramics making, and printing (pines were burned for ink), with the result that enormous and uncontrollable floods devastated the country and threatened the dynasty.  Like so many modern disasters in China and elsewhere (Muir-Wood 2016), these were not acts of God but acts of man; they do not show that dynasties fell because of climate change, they show that the environment was stressed and dynasties fell because of human mismanagement.


The dynasties in question are as follows:

Xia Dynasty (assumed equivalent to the Erlitou culture on the middle Yellow River): ca. 2000-ca. 1500 BCE.

Shang Dynasty: ca. 1500-ca. 1050 BCE.

Zhou Dynasty:  ca. 1050-250 BCE, the last 500 years being a time of disunion when the Zhou had control over only a tiny area; the rest of China was divided into “warring states.”

Qin Dynasty:  221-207 BCE.

Han Dynasty:  206 BCE-220 CE, with a break 9-23 CE when an affine of the royal family briefly took over after a series of child-emperors, to be overthrown in a countercoup by the Han dynasts; major rebellion ca. 180.

Time of disunion: 220-581.

Sui Dynasty: 581-618.

Tang Dynasty: 620-907.  Once again, the fall of Tang saw several weak or child emperors.  Very important rebellions in 754 and 880 almost brought down the dynasty, forcing major changes in government.

Time of disunion: 907-960.

Song Dynasty: 960-1279, interrupted by loss of the entire north, including the capital, in 1127, with capture of the Emperor; the dynasty had to re-form in the south.  It collapsed, again under very young boys, and after savage factional fighting and corrupt ministers, in the 1270s.

Liao Dynasty:  Began ca. 960 in far north, took over most of north China after 1000, fell 1126.

Jin Dynasty:  Conquered Liao in 1126, took the rest of north China from Song in 1127, fell to Mongols in 1234.

Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire): 1279-1368.  Last few emperors accused of alcoholism.

Ming Dynasty: 1368-1644.  Major corruption and imperial failure at the end.

Qing Dynasty: 1644-1911, with major near-fatal rebellion 1844; once again with child-emperors at the helm toward the end.


All the longer dynasties suffered from coups, countercoups, major rebellions, and the like, as well as constant palace intrigues and jockeying between candidates for royal succession.

This brings us to other destabilizing factors besides climate.  A dynasty is subject to several well-known problems.  First is foreign invasion.  China was so much the biggest power in the east that it rarely had to worry about that, but the medieval period saw the rise of powers—Liao, Jin, and above all the Mongols—that overwhelmed China.  This was partly due to climate, as will appear.  Second is bad luck in imperial demography.  Often an emperor died childless, or left a young child as the only heir.  Child emperors had to have regents—often mothers or grandmothers, sometimes an uncle or high court official.  The results were usually poor and often disastrous.  Other problems with palace politics included extremely powerful but corrupt officials, irresponsible or downright deranged emperors, and overly powerful generals who thought they could do a better job of running the empire.  A weak emperor following an unpopular one was a particularly fatal combination, directly responsible for the falls of Qin and Sui.

Over all this play the great cycles of resilience theory, Ibn Khaldun’s theory, and Peter Turchin’s work.  These all postulate a rising phase when a population or system grows and increases its power (the r phase of resilience theory), a high (K) phase when it consolidates control and may have a golden age, a downward (omega) phase when it loses coherence and falls apart, and a down (alpha) phase when it is depopulated, ruinous, but regrouping for the next rise.  Resilience theory does not suggest a time frame, since it is meant to apply to everything from bacteria to whales.  Ibn Khaldun (1958) saw the cycle in human dynasties playing over three or four generations, about 100 years.  Turchin (Turchin and Zefedov 2006) saw longer cycles of up[ to 200-300 years: the time frame of Chinese dynasties.  Ibn Khaldun’s theory predicts major crises; coups or rebellions that shook the dynasty profoundly happened about every 60 years within the great dynasties (Han through Qing).

The dynasties, even the short-lived ones, conform to Ibn Khaldun’s classic scenario.  A charismatic military leader, not only bold and intrepid but charismatic and generous enough to inspire genuine loyalty and affection (‘asabiyah in Ibn Khaldun’s Arabic), becomes what the Chinese call the High or Great Emperor, founding the dynasty.  He is followed by a brilliant age—often started or marked by coup and coutercoup—when the dynasty is powerful, expanding, and rich.  The economy grows through conquest, settlement of abandoned or thinly populated lands, rising production, and positive feedback loops—the more economic activity, the more production, the more crafts and trade, the more innovation and intensification.  Then follows a period in which the land is filled up and heavily populated but innovation is stalling, leading to Malthusian squeeze.  Often, previous economic activity is now demanding that costs be paid.  Deforestation and erosion lead to devastating floods.  Levees and dykes have confined the rivers too much, so they aggrade their beds with silt.  The floods make them burst their beds and drown the area, inevitably densely populated because of the ease of river access.  Overcultivation makes every dry summer a drought.  Taxes keep rising, or at best stay steady, but there is now no economic growth, so the taxes bite hard.  Discontent leads to banditry.  Neighbor states start raiding.  All this forces more and more military buildup, but there is now no conquest to provide more land and loot.  The resulting feedback loops of increasing environmental damage, increasing military spending, and increasing tax bite lead to, or at least are associated with, corruption, factional fighting, and paralysis in the high levels of government.  Collapse is by now inevitable.  What Tristram Kidder et al. say of the Han Dynasty is perfectly typical of all: the collapse of a dynasty occurs when “the disjunction between rules and resources reaches a threshold so stark that agents at all social levels stood to gain more by challenging the status quo than they did by conforming to it” (Kidder et al. 2016:86).

It is astonishing to see how perfectly the Chinese dynasties recapitulate this formula.  The Chinese knew it, too.  By the Han Dynasty they already recognized the cyclic nature of dynasties, the necessary charisma of the founder, and the inevitable degeneration of governance at the end.  Not having a worldwide perspective, they naturally saw it in terms of the morality of the individual actors, but they recognized that floods, droughts, invasions, and other catastrophes exacerbated the problems.

Our next step is to correlate climate change with dynastic events.  The prediction (mine and that of Yin et al. 2016) is that better times—warmer and wetter, with stronger monsoons—will predate or accompany the rise of dynasties, while worse times—colder and drier—will predate their fall.

The Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties are too poorly known and dated for meaningful correlations.

The rise of Qin and Han accompanies the Roman Republic/Empire Optimum.  The interregnum of 9-23 CE followed some bad years that may partially explain it (Kidder et al. 2016).  The fall of Han tracks the beginning of the end of the Roman Optimum.  This fits our prediction well.  But then the spectacular rise and Sui and Tang, and the beginning of Tang’s glory days, coincide with a sharp deterioration in climate.  Yet, not only did China rise, but the conquest by the founders of Sui and Tang came from the hardest-hit area, the northwest edge of China where it fringes into Central Asia.  The fall of Tang accompanies drought and heat associated with the very uneven beginning of the Medieval Warm Period.

The rise of Song is somewhat associated with a more strong and reliable monsoon.  The Liao, Jin, and Yuan (Mongol) Dynasties rose during the Medieval Warm Period, which made it far easier for these originally nomadic, horse-riding peoples to increase their herds and manpower, increase their food supply, and conquer outward.  There is now no question that this took place in the Mongol case (Anderson 2014b).  But the reduction of Song and its eventual fall took place in relatively cool times, which should have weakened the northern regimes in relation to Song.

However, Song was facing another problem: the devastation caused by centuries of deforestation and overgrazing.  This is a classic point, often made, and more recently extended and elaborated by Ling Zhang (2016) in a brilliant recent study drawing on earlier work by George Cressey (1955), Robert Hartwell, and others.  She focuses on the Yellow River and its steadily rising ability to produce devastating floods.  The rise of iron smelting, printing, and other industries created a huge demand for fuel, thus causing massive deforestation, even on slopes too steep to farm and therefore very susceptible to erosion.

This reminds us of the obvious fact—notably stressed by Jared Diamond in Collapse (2011)—that people create their fates and landscapes.  Climate does not act on a blank, empty world.  It acts on a world people have built, for better or worse.

Yuan took power when the Medieval Warm Period was still in its favor, but it declined as that good age gave way.  The succeeding Ming Dynasty had a horrible situation to face: running the empire during a period of unprecedented cold and dry conditions.  It succeeded astonishingly well, not losing power for centuries.  Even worse cold and drought probably hastened its fall (Brooke 2014; Parker 2013), but we are left needing to explain the long run of Ming.

Then comes the strangest thing of all.  Ming was conquered not by a powerful regime, not by internal unrest, but by the tiny Manchu state—a state that was based in China’s frigid and snowy northeast, an area that sufferend inconceivable miseries from the exacerbation of the Little Ice Age in the early 1600s.  Outside of traditional ascriptions of success to the personalities of the early Qing emperors, there is no way to explain this.  In fact, we have many writings by the Kangxi Emperor, the real architect of Qing power, and he was exactly the type of leader calculated to maximize ‘asabiyah—a brilliant, driving, single-minded man, able to be generous to allies and utterly ruthless to enemies (Spence 1974).

Similarly, the decline and fall of Qing took place during a period of steadily ameliorating climate, though it must be admitted that this warming trend both produced more floods (the monsoon strengthened) and more droughts (heat exacerbated dry weather when that occurred).

Several recent groups have attempted to synthesize these data.  Recent books by John Brooke (2014) and Geoffrey Parker (2013) marginally discuss China, largely its hard times.  These authors write as if climate directly caused events—people were mere machines, programmed to do what climate told them.  This greatly underestimates human agency.

Yin et al (2016) looked at imperial China from Qin on through Qing.  They find that social rise was associated with warming (which normally meant wetting too) 57% of the time, and decline with cooling and drying 66.6%.  (The very few warm-dry and cool-wet periods did not correlate with anything in particular, but they were exceedingly rare and short.)  This is not compelling; the first is not statistically much better than chance.  We shall have to look for other explanations here.  They gathered 1586 data points from the standard histories of China (saving me a lot of work), and parceled out even such things as particularly dynamic reign periods when China expanded its power, e.g. under Han Wu Di (140-87 BCE), who conquered neighboring areas during a relatively warm period.  They miss the fact that the warm period should have, and in fact did, benefit his enemies as much as it benefited him, forcing him to fight hard and spend the empire’s wealth.  (They also find that records of good and bad times are particularly good for Han, bad for the Tang-Song interregnum and the Song Dynasty—fitting the history of war and conquest in the latter cases.)  They find that China was peaceful 68.4% of the time, turbulent otherwise.

Chen Qiang, on the other hand, thinks drought and cold did it.  Cold was associated with more wars—a claim that does not explain the violent Medieval Warm Period or the long, peaceful Ming Dynasty.  He finds that the main correlates were age of dynasty (older ones were weaker; that is true of nomad regimes too) and drought.  This does not check with the warlike but pleasantly warm period from 220 to 581, though it does coincide with the rise of Sui and Tang.  It does not work for the Mongols.  It works for the Manchus, in that they came in during a cold dry period, but the people of the Manchu state were largely settled agriculturalists and not nomadic (in spite of frequent mistaken claims).  Warfare shows correlation with cold periods (Zhang et al. 2007).  Shortly after the start of cold periods came the falls of Northern Song, Southern Song, Yuan, and Ming, as well as the Taiping rebellions.  Early Ming was still warm—the Little Ice Age became serious in the 1400s and then made the 1600s one of the worst periods in China’s history, with (resulting?) war and chaos.

Wei et al (2015) find that climate events are related to dynastic cycles.  They provide a careful, methodologically interesting assessment of troubles, with a very full bibliography.  They use Holling’s resilience cycle.  They find a fair correlation of moist warm periods with good times, and vice versa, but note the obvious Ming exception.  They do find a major crash in post-1420 Ming, though with a fairly quick recovery.  They, like Kidder et al, focus on the Xin Dynasty interregnum in the Han Dynasty, this attaching more importance to it than do most historians.

Another approach is to look at local regions, which often had quite different climate histories from the rest of China.  Harry Lee and his colleagues looked at dry and drought-prone northwest China (Lee and Zhang 2010; Lee et al. 2015, 2016).  They found that wild fluctuations in rainfall characterized the Little Ice Age, with many droughts, but that the famously peaceful period of the middle Qing Dynasty from 1700 to 1820 saw a lack of famines and a rise in population, because of successful land management and the coming of New World crops (Lee et al. 2016).  In far northwestern China, westerlies and north winds dominated, totally decoupling that region from the rest of China and making its climate countercyclic (Y. Zhang et al. 2016).

In northeastern China, it was the Medieval Warm Period that was problematic, causing many floods, often alternating with horrific droughts in wild swings (Lee et al. 2015; L. Zhang 2016).  Ling Zhang (2016) has written a brilliant, major work about the consequences:  progressive breakdown in management of the Yellow River and other water sources and wetlands.  Her work interestingly fits with Peter Turchin’s findings on cycles; during the disintegration cycle of Northern Song, politics got more and more polarized and acerbic, and one result was failure to come up with coherent, consistent policies for the Yellow River. As Turchin says, “During the disintegrative phases…it is very difficult to generate the cooperative action needed to win a major war” (Turchin 2016:106).  That was true of Song’s war with the conquest dynasties, and it was also true of Song’s war with the Yellow River.

One could, of course, come up with contrived post-hoc explanations for the perverse rises of Sui, Tang, and Qing, and the perverse weakness of Song, but I fear there is no way to save climatic change as a really necessary or always-important driving variable.  Warming certainly helped the Mongols, at first, and cooling hurt them later.  Warming almost certainly helped Qin and Han initially and cooling hurt Han later.  Cooling days contributed to the woes of Song and Ming.  On the other hand, the rise of Sui and Tang, the rise and long continuance of Ming, and the whole course of Qing go directly contrary to predictions.  Thus we can conclude with Kidder et al. (2016) and Wei et al. (2015) that climate can help or harm, but does not make or break.  Charismatic leaders, well-trained armies, and plain luck are the direct incident causes of dynastic rises.  Weak leaders, child-emperors, rampant corruption, unstoppable invasions, and factional fighting are direct incident causes of dynastic fall.

So here we have several theories of dynastic rise and fall.  The Chinese saw the Mandate of Heaven—either actual heavenly decisions, or their incarnations in floods and droughts, or the result of factional fighting, dynastic politics, bad luck (childless emperors or child emperors or mad emperors), and the like.  Cycle theorists see a general trend toward rise and fall, or a more specific one driven by shifting loyalties—from the dynastic head to one’s own group or faction or to one’s own self.  Marxian and other economic and political-economic structural determinists had their own theories (not considered here for reasons of space).  Now climate change has added itself to the mix.  No doubt all these theories have their value.

In fact, climate acts indirectly.  It is one cause—along with human idiocy and incompetence, among other things—of floods, droughts, and other catastrophes.  These catastrophes put major stresses on the dynastic government.  A strong, upwardly moving government can directly address these matters with relief measures and remedies.  Also, it commands the loyalty and support of the people.  The weaker and more incompetent the government, the less it can directly address problems, and the less it can get the broad masses to help.  Weakness and incompetence of government, in turn, depends on the emperor personally, his family, his ministers, and the rest of the high elites.  If the emperor is a boy in the care of a corrupt chief minister, the empire is in trouble.  If the appalling infant mortality rates of the time leave the emperor childless, as often happened, intra-elite feuding over the succession is sure to occur, and sure to weaken the dynasty. China grew steadily more autocratic over time, which meant the emperor’s person was more a factor as time went on.

I might add a comparison with the Maya at this point.  Maya civilization grew and achieved greatness in the rather optimal climate between 500 BCE and 500 CE,  It survived with a hitch—a noticeable pause—the cold, dry period from 550 to 650.  It then collapsed in the Medieval Warm Period, which brought massive and long-lasting droughts to the area.  These droughts not only devastated agriculture, they even removed drinking water; much of the Yucatan Peninsula and Maya Lowlands is without surface water.  People had to store water, dig wells, or find caves with permanent sources.  These all proved inadequate in drought times (Gill 2000).  Also, hotter weather led to more plant diseases, and probably more human diseases as well.

Warfare was also a factor.  Some areas had already been devastated by war, and collapsed before the droughts (Demarest 2004).  Not all the Maya world collapsed, only the central portions; the northern Yucatan Peninsula and the southern highlands continued to be urbanized and civilized, while cities, literacy, and high culture disappeared in the central lowlands.  The claim that the Maya collapsed because of sheer ecological folly (Diamond 2005) and the counterclaim that they did not collapse at all (McAnany and Gallareta N. 2010) do not bear close investigation.

Mayaland would have recovered with the return of cooler, moister weather in the 1300s, but by then the trade routes had shifted to the coast.  This is certainly one reason, possibly the only really important reason, why the central lowlands never recovered.  Trade, contact, and communication had focused around the geographical center of the lowland world.  After that center collapsed, trade shifted to the coasts, and stayed there, carried by canoes.

In this case, we cannot see the micropolitics—we have no way of knowing what went on in the cities, or what people said and thought as agriculture became increasingly unsuccessful.

Many other New World societies collapsed or suffered sharp setbacks during the Medieval Warm Period, which seems to have been dry very widely.  It devastated the Four Corners, hit the Mississippi Valley, ruined much of the Andes, and generally caused woe.  One major reason was maize.  Maize is exceedingly susceptible to drought and heat.  This contrasts rather dramatically with China’s grains: millets and rice love heat, while millets, wheat and barley can handle very appreciable drought.  China was thus relatively buffered, and could produce higher populations.

Causation is a complex topic, but simple principles underlies much of it.  First, all events have multiple causes.  Second, these can be big, broad, and indirect, or very specific and immediate; the big, broad causes can act only through specific, immediate ones.  In human affairs, big, broad causes act through individual decisions added up into collective decisions.  The special cases of northwest China in the long 18th century and northeast China in the star-crossed decline of Northern Song show how different adaptations can be.  In the one case, horrible weather was mitigated by political-economic action, and people flourished.  In the other, good but fluctuating weather led to nothing but problems, because of political-economic chaos.

From this I extract a core principle for diachronic social studies:  large-scale forces act indirectly, through people.  Direct causes of social events are personal decisions, and the resulting actions.  These do not always play out as the actors intend.  All manner of constraints prevent people from doing what they want. Government and economic necessity restrict behavior, or, more often, discourage people from trying.  Sheer chance, faction fighting, and amoral individual actions that mess the system can all intervene.  But, in the end, it is human decisions and actions that make cultures and societies.  Individual actions play out in interpersonal space, which generates both short-term and long-term social structures or interaction dynamics that add up to systems that take on a life of their own.  (I am using—and here briefly summarizing—Anthony Giddens’ “structuration”; Giddens 1984, which is fairly Weberian; see also Bourdieu 1977, 1990; Latour 2005.  The basic insight is that people do things—climate doesn’t, culture doesn’t, society doesn’t—but people do things in response to climate, culture and society.)  Climate and weather are simply some of the things those individuals and systems have to take into account.

In terms of cultural evolution, we may say that people’s most basic needs and wants are genetically enough “given” to pass as a biological substrate.  From them grow desires and intentions, which lead to actions, variously constrained.  We often find that people react in comparable ways to comparable stimuli.  We often, however, find they do not—they may react in violently conflicting ways, as the Song officials did to the environmental problems of the Medieval Warm Period.  Just as biological evolution often takes very unexpected ways to adapt, so do human societies.



This post was delivered as a paper at the California Sociological Association, annual meeting, Riverside, CA, Nov. 5, 2016.  Thanks to Christopher Chase-Dunn and Hiroko Inoue for advice and help.



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Developing Mexican Food: Globalization Early On

October 24th, 2016

Developing Mexican Food:

Globalization Early On

E. N. Anderson

University of California, Riverside



Mexican food today is extremely diverse, and has a complicated background.  My view is that of a Mayanist who has worked in southeast Mexico and traveled widely in the country.  Already long before Columbus, Native American foodways were spreading widely; the Maya were powerfully influenced by South American foods from chocolate to manioc.  The Spanish Colonial period brought not only Spanish foods but also Arab and African foodways, all diverse in themselves.  Modern influences have not been less complex.  This all tests current theories of “culture” and “appropriation,” and makes a world-systems approach to anthropology more useful and predictive.  Some comparative notes on folk music are added to show the extent of cultural borrowings, since they track foodways closely.



My work in Mexico has largely been with the Yucatec Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, but I have traveled all over Mexico, visiting every state and major region.  I am a food anthropologist, so I have sampled everything from ant pupae at a fine upscale restaurant in Guanajuato to wasp larvae on a remote rainforest back road in Quintana Roo.  In two years of living and traveling in Mexico, spread over 40 years of my life, the only bad meals I recall were in United States-type restaurants.

Much of what follows is sourced from K’oben, forthcoming book by Amber O’Connor and myself (2017; see also Anderson 2010).  Much is from, or in, Jeffrey Pilcher’s classic Que vivan los tamales! (1998), which is by far the best, most thorough, and most authoritative work in English on Mexican food.  There are other good histories in Spanish.

The incredible richness and variety of Mexican folk culture never ceases to amaze me, and food is not the least of its manifestations.  Mexican culture today is a product of many Native American cultures interacting with Spanish culture.  It is much more than that, however.  Three things are not often appreciated about Mexican culture.  First, Mexican Indigenous cultures were extremely varied and were constantly influencing each other.  Second, Spain in the 1500s and 1600s was itself a region of cultural mixing.  Third, Spain was by no means the only Old World country that influenced Mexico.  Mexico has had very substantial immigration from Africa, Ireland, Lebanon, Syria, Philippines, China, France, Germany, and elsewhere, to say nothing of the United States and most parts of Latin America.  All these areas contributed to foodways.

The Native American heritage is the really basic one.  Mexico still depends on the classic maize, beans, chiles, and squash.  The commonest species of these are all Mexican domesticates.  Maize (Zeo mays) was domesticated about 7000 years ago in the Balsas River drainage; geneticists have run it down to an origin in the wild teosinte grass of middle elevations in that drainage area.  At least three species of beans were domesticated in central Mexico; these are frijol beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), teparies (P. acutifolius), and scarlet runner beans (P. coccineus).  The tepary bean is famously drought-resistant and has been used in drought-prone parts of Africa as well as Mexico.  The fourth common species, the lima bean (P. lunatus), was certainly domesticated in Peru, but a different form, the sieva bean, may have been independently domesticated in Mexico.  The sieva bean is now rare and little known, but my Maya friends in Quintana Roo grow several delicious varieties that seriously need saving and propagating.

Squash also come in many species.  Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) were domesticated in Mexico and probably independently in what is now the southern United States.  Winter sqush (C. maxima, C. moschata), chayote (Sechium edule) and spaghetti squash (C. ficifolia) also occur; C. maxima is probably South American, but got to Mexico early.  With bottle gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris), of uncertain origin, these gave Mexican Indigenous people plenty of choices.  I should point out that the tender leaves, vine tips, and flowers of the squash are also eaten and are incredibly good as well as vitamin-rich.

Chiles also come in multiple forms.  The common, ordinary varieties of chile, from which the non-hot bell pepper was recently developed, is Capsicum annuum and is native to Mexico.  It is a small annual plant.  The Tabasco chile (C. frutescens), by contrast, is a large perennial bush.  It is known by its Maya name of maax in southern Mexico, including Tabasco.  The habanero (C. chinense), as its name shows, came from Cuba to Mexico; it is originally South American. Yet another species, the most flavorful and meaty of all and one of the hottest, is the rocoto or manzano (C. pubescens), another South American.  It somehow got from Peru to Oaxaca and around there, probably after the Spanish conquest.  There are other species of chile in South America.  It is highly interesting that so many species were separately domesticated in different areas.  The reason is not just their delightful warmth; they are also highly antibiotic and antifungal.  They may have been domesticated for medicine or for use in preserving food—chile powder or crushed chile is a good preservative.

With these four species, you can live a happy life.  Maize provides basic calories, beans provide good protein, squash and chiles provide vitamins, and chiles in particular provide incredible quantities of vitamin C and the B complex.  One problem is that maize contains phytic acid, which bonds with mineral nutrients and with niacin (vitamin B3) making them unavailable to digestion.  So the Mexican people learned very early to process maize with limewater—not from limes, but CaO made by burning calcium carbonate—thus producing nixtamal.  The lime neutralizes the phytic acid.  The limewater processing was probably originally used to tenderize the maize, but then seen to help nutrition (Katz et al. 1974). The maize needs tenderizing in the first place because soft kernels get eaten by bruchid weevils.  So weevils cause civilization: they made people select for hard corn, but then the people had to tenderize it, which made it nutritionally adequate to support cities.

These many species were only the beginning.  Mexican Indigenous people domesticated so many plants that it would take me much of this hour just to read off the names.  One triumph was the avocado, a fantastic source of oil, protein and vitamins that grows like a weed in central Mexican mountain conditions.  The poverty diet of the central Mexican people at the time of Spanish conquest was noted as tortillas and guacamole, then made of just avocado, chile, and salt.  This is a perfect diet—it has all the essentials—and I think it’s the tastiest poverty diet I ever found.  (It beats the European equivalent of stale bread and water.)  Among the hundreds of other species are amaranth, chia sage, and millets.  Amaranth, chia, and chenopod species provided seed crops that were much more nutritious than maize.  They grow easily and were essential staples to many Indigenous groups.  In addition, chocolate, sweet potatoes, and manioc came up very early from South America.  There are proto-Maya words for them—at least the last two—which means the Maya had them 5000 years ago.

Domestic animals were few.  The dog came over the Bering Straits with the humans.  It was eaten by some groups.  The turkey was domesticated in Mexico.  The muscovy duck (Cairinia moschata), native from Mexico south but domesticated in Peru, seems to have come up fairly early.  Why Mexico never domesticated mountain sheep remains a mystery.  Javalis (known in English as peccaries) are locally tamed and farmed on a small scale, but they compete with humans for food—unlike pigs, they can’t eat garbage; they have to have maize and other quality fare.  So they were not domesticated, which is sad, because they are delightful pets (at least as smart as dogs) as well as very good eating.  If I were young I’d go domesticate them.

All this was only the beginning.  The Indigenous people developed great cuisines from the many domesticated and wild foods they had.  Early Maya paintings show vast amounts of tamales, evidently baked in earth ovens, as they still often are in Mayaland.  Also shown are fish, deer, and many other animal foods.  Chocolate was an elite drink; the Maya may very well be the people who developed it as a tasty drink by learning how to ferment the seeds.  The unfermented pulp and ground seeds are very pleasant, but fermenting is necessary to bring out the actual chocolate flavor.  It is fitting that our word “cacao” is taken straight from Maya.  Around many Classic Maya cups is written a line of Maya hieroglyphics.  When I was a student, we learned that the Maya were deeply religious, and this line must have been a powerful spell or sacred prayer.  Well, we can now read Maya writing, and that line turned out to mean “This is so-and-so’s chocolate cup.”  So much for romance.

The Aztecs and other central Mexican Indigenous people spoke Nahuatl, a beautiful and expressive language.  It is not related to Maya, but is related to the Indigenous languages of southern California.  Many of our familiar food words today are “Nahuatlismos”:  Chile, tamale, chocolate, tomato, chayote, achiote, camote (sweet potato), chia, jicama, and more.  In Nahuatl, there was a three-part division of the major foods:  tamalli (tamales), tlaxcalli (tortillas), and taballi (food to eat with the tortillas, such as beans and guacamole).  Other Indigenous languages of the Mexican realm gave us abalone (California Costanoan), and many more.

The Aztecs loved good food.  One story says it all.  Fray Diego Duran compiled a history in the mid-16th century, based on Azec accounts.  They told him of a war with a city named Coyoacan, which means “coyote place.”  The Aztecs besieged it but it would not yield, and had fierce warriors.  So the Aztec monarch said: “’Let the guards take ducks, waterfowl, fish, and other creatures from the lagoon that cannot be obtained in Coyoacan.  Let them be…cooked or toasted in such a way that their rich odor and the smoke that rises from these delicacies will penetrate the city….  Old men and old women will become feeble and die of longing for the food they cannot have.’  The king’s orders were carried out: they prepared many loaves of ezcahuitli, a type of small red worm….together with ducks, fish, and frogs….” They cooked these upwind of Coyoacan, and the scent drove the people there to distraction.  They made a desperate sally, were defeated, and their city was taken (Duran 1994:92).

Other sources tell of equally mouthwatering dishes made from acociles (crustaceans), axolotls (salamanders; the name literally means “water monsters”), and other aquatic foods.  The Aztecs grew all sorts of fruit, from all over Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, and had large botanical gardens (Duran 1994:205).  Duran also tells of Motecuhzoma (“Montezuma” to moderns) feasting on game, fish, chocolate, and so on, including flesh from human sacrifices, and then ending the feast with hallucinogenic mushrooms, which put them “out of their minds and…in a worse state than if they had drunk a great quantity of wine” (Duran 1994;407; take note and stick to wine and forget those Psilocybe mushrooms).  Bernardino de Sahagun and other early chroniclers also describe Aztec food.  Sahagun describes merchants feasting on turkey, dog, tomatoes, chiles, chocolate, and occasionally human sacrifices (Sahagun 1979:48, 67, 75).  However, it is clear that very little human flesh was eaten; it was not a significant protein source.  Sahagun also went into detail on all the incredible variety of foods available in markets and elite kitchens (1979:69) and on varieties of maize, beans, and other crops (1963:279-290; see also Sahagun 1959, 1961).   They all agree that it was an incredibly rich, varied diet, even for the relatively poor.  Some of the dishes described by Sahagun are “turkey with a sauce of small chilis, tomatoes, and ground squash seeds” (patzcalmolli, what we would now in Nahuatl call mole pipian); “white fish with yellow chili…newt with yellow chili…winged ants with savory herbs; locusts with chia; maguey grubs with a sauce of small chilis…a sauce of unripened plums with white fish….tamales stuffed with amaranth greens…small tuna cactus fruit with fish eggs…” and on for many pages (Sahagun 1979:37-38).  A major aspect Indigenous Mexican cuisine is the use of insects and other invertebrates.  Over 300 kinds of insects are eaten (Ramos-Elorduy 1991, 1998; Ramos Elorduy and Pino Moreno 1989).

Drinks, besides water, consisted largely of atoles of various sorts.  Atole (Nahuatl atolli) is finely ground seed meal beaten up in water.  It was usually made from maize, but also from beans, fruit, and so on.  Pinole (pinolli) was another seed meal drink, often made from wild seeds.  Atole could be flavored with chocolate, chile, honey, and other substances (Sahagun 1961:93).  It is still common.  Pozole (pozolli) was, in those days, probably just nixtamal beaten up in water, as it still is in Maya Mexico.  That wonderful pozole you get in restaurants now, with pork and hominy and chiles and more, is probably a recent invention from west Mexico, especially Jalisco.

It is said that a true civilization has to have its alcohol, and Mexico had various types of maize beers, as well as honey mead and combinations of the two.  Central Mexico had pulque, the fermented sap of the flower stalks of agaves (Agave spp. which are not cacti).  There is some chance that they had learned to distill alcohol.  Very simple stills are found in remote areas of west Mexico.  Some Mexican ethnobotanist friends of mine argue that the stills go back to pre-Columbian times.  However, they resemble Philippine stills, and most of us think they probably came over on the Manila galleon in the early days.  Sailors early learned in the Philippines to make these simple stills, and probably brought the technology with them.  Mezcal is distilled not from pulque, but from the juice extracted by slow-cooking the flowering stem bases of agave and related plants, and then fermenting and distilling that.  Tequila is mezcal made from the blue agave (Agave tequilana), originally from the Tequila area of Jalisco, but now widely planted, to the annoyance of residents of the actual Tequila area.  Incidentally, a word of warning:  Don’t try to drive in the town of Tequila.  The old, steep, cobblestone streets are filled with drivers who have been sampling pretty freely at the many distilleries in town.

Other parts of Mexico had their own Indigenous foods.  Heavy seafood dependence along the coast of the Gulf of California lives on in Sinaloa’s incomparable seafood cuisine.  Similar pre-Columbian traditions give us excellent seafood in Campeche and Veracruz.  In northeast Mexico, the Teenek Maya—called Huastec by the Nahuatl—baked very large tamales (as some Yucatec Maya do).  These Huasteca tamales were known as zacahuil, and still exist.  In this age of Guinness records, towns vie to produce ever larger ones, and some now weigh a hundred pounds.  They are one of the few dishes in the world to be immortalized in folksong; every traditional Huastecan singer can perform “Zacahuil,” often in the wonderful folk style of the region, influenced by Scots-Irish fiddling styles learned from nearby Texas.

A final Native American influence came from the Antilles, but it appeared mostly with the Spanish.  Outside of habanero peppers, the Spanish introduced few if any foods from the Antilles, but they brought several words from the Arawak language there: maize for corn, yuca for manioc, and a few others.  Our word “barbecue” comes from Arawak barbacoa, the frame on which meat was smoked for preserving it.  Hammock, tobacco, and cigar are also Arawak.

The Spanish were amazed at the productive maize fields.  They had read in the Bible about grain that returned a hundredfold on seed; they had never seen such a thing—Spanish wheat in the middle ages returned about three or four for one.  So when they saw maize literally returning a hundredfold, they were duly impressed.  Their diet back home had often been limited to bread, olives, wine, and cheese; now they could have game, fish, vegetables, spices, everything.  They soon began bringing the best New World foods back home.

Merchants in Spain tried hard to keep wheat, almonds, olives, wine, and other specialties from being produced in Mexico.  Wheat soon got away from them, since it grows extremely well in northern Mexico and in the Bajío (the high, beautiful center of Mexico).  In northwest Mexico, the Indigenous people either died out or mounted heroic resistance to the Spanish.  The Seri and Yaqui resistance movements against genocide stand as some of the most amazingly heroic stories in the entire history of humanity.  Maize was thus hard to get, so wheat became the staple.  In these areas the wheat tortilla—which, unlike the maize one, requires shortening—became staple food.

Olives, grapes, and almonds were hard to grow in central and south Mexico, and remained Spanish monopolies for a long time.  The main contribution of the Old World, in most of Mexico, was domestic livestock.  This proved a very mixed blessing.  It provided cheap and abundant meat and cheese, but the flocks multiplied, overran Indigenous cultivation, ate crops, caused horrific erosion, led to massive deforestation, and generally ruined much of the landscape, causing untold misery and environmental damage that is still getting worse all the time (Melville 1997; Painter and Durham 1995).  Those who deplore Native America’s lack of domestic livestock (e.g. Diamond 1997) need to explain why enormously reducing the food production and potential of Mexico is somehow a good thing.

Bread and domestic-animal meat soon became core parts of the Mexican diet, and grapes in the dried form of raisins became rather common.  Olives, almonds, capers, wine, and so on remained luxuries for the Spanish rich.  However, the real excitement came when converted Jews and Muslims were sent to Mexico.  The Spanish spent 800 years fighitng the Moors—Muslims of Arab and Berber ancestry—for control of Spain.  (“Moor” and “Morocco” both derive from Arabic maghrib, “sunset” or “far west,” because the area in question is the farthest west of the Arab lands.)  The Moors had developed an exceedingly elaborate and sophisticated cuisine.  They had also introduced oranges, sugar, dates, rice, and many other foods to Spain (Watson 2008).  The Romans had begun introducing spices, but the Moors really popularized them, especially the Arabic signature mix of cumin, coriander, black pepper, and (often) cinnamon.  Sesame seeds are also a Moorish item.  Also Moorish are the limes that are now so totally basic to Mexican food, and the bitter oranges that partially replace limes in Yucatan.

The Spanish finally conquered the last Moorish stronghold in 1492.  Yes, the date is significant, because it was the loot from conquest that financed Columbus, and the luxury of having finished the Reconquista that made possible a new conquest on a far larger scale.  But after the conquest the conquered Muslims and Jews persisted in rebelling, since they were subject to appalling oppression, brutality, and exploitation.  They were forced to become nominally Christian, but many held out in secret.  Those that would not convert were killed or forced to flee, finding refuge in Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey.  Even conversos were not trusted, and vast numbers of them were sent to Mexico to get rid of them.  Here they were often sent to the more isolated areas, at first Puebla (it was isolated then!) and later New Mexico, where Moorish culture persisted until very recently.  Some years ago I noted a classic Mesopotamian Arab recipe in a traditional New Mexican cookbook by Cleofas Jaramillo (1981).  Gary Nabhan, an authority on these connections, found that the Jaramillo family did indeed have a Moorish converso background (Nabhan 2014).  As so often, foodways are mirrored in musical styles; New Mexico is a living museum of Moorish songs, even today after many centuries.  Older Hispanic singing styles are pure Moorish, and all the Hispanic traditions of the southwest are at least somewhat influenced, however indirectly, by that part of the heritage (see Robb 1980, but writing in the mid-20th century Robb did not realize the extent of Moorish influence in New Mexico, which was established largely in the 1980-2010 period).

One product of this was classic Puebla cooking.  The famous mole poblano is the perfect fusion of Aztec and Moorish haute cuisine.  It is basically a Moorish chicken dish fused with an Aztec turkey dish.  From the Moorish side we get the spices, sesame seeds, onions, and basic overall technique.  From the Aztec side we get the chocolate, tomato, and chile.  Stuffed chiles and stuffed squash simply classic Moorish stuffed vegetable dishes that use Mexican instead of Near Eastern vegetables.  They have gone home to Spain; you find them especially in Estremadura, the source of a large percentage of the original conquistadores and settlers.  Countless other Mexican dishes, including essentially all the ways of cooking lamb and mutton, are Moorish.

Another interesting Moorish dish is migas, basically stale bread soaked in broth, the tharid of Arab cuisine.  This is commoner in Spain than in Mexico, but it has found a home in Tepito, a rough working-class area of Mexico City.  The people there took to making cheap migas by salvaging bones from butchers and restaurants and cooking them into stock, then making migas with stale bread and tortillas.  With the inevitable Mexican (and especially Chilango) pride in making do, this got idealized as a marker of the tough, resourceful Tepitan, and thus called “vita-migas,” from vitaminas, Spanish for “vitamins” (Hernández 2009; he cites a wonderful Tepito saying that cannot be repeated in polite company but is all the better a life guide for that).

Another important derivative of Spanish and Moorish culture fusing with Native American culture was the belief that certain foods are heating to the body while others are cooling and still others are neutral.  Heating foods include high-calorie and spicy ones; cooling foods are low-calorie, often green vegetables, and tend to seem cool to the touch; neutral foods are basic starch staples.  This idea comes largely from ancient Greek medicine, but was developed largely by the Arab and Persian doctors in the early medieval period.  In Mexico it fused with similar Indigenous ideas.  One interesting and still locally important Indigenous idea is that wild areas, being cooler and moister than the hot sunny villages and fields, are cooling to the body and to foods produced there, while people and foods in the hot, dusty villages become hot.  Either way, chiles, strong alcohol, and fried foods are heating; green vegetables are cooling; tortillas and rice are neutral.  Many of you have encountered this belief.  It is fossilized in the English language in the term “to catch a cold.”  Within my lifetime, Americans almost all believed that colds came from experiencing cooling foods or from getting a chill or from similar cooling influences, not from catching a virus.  This is only one of many Mexican and New World beliefs that come from fusion of Spanish and Indigenous worldviews (or ontologies, as anthropologists say).

The Spanish favorite animal was the pig.  This stems from Celtic and Roman traditions.  The pig also found a happy home in Puebla, to the point where I heard there a bit of lousy poetry:  “Cuatro cosas come el Poblano:  Cerdo, cochinito, puerco, y marrano.”  “Pueblans eat four things: hog, pig, pork and boar.”  Notably exaggerated, but too good to leave out of this talk.

Anyway, the Spanish became the world’s master sausage makers (along with the Portuguese and Italians), and they introduced a pretty full range of it to the New World, where it thrives best in rather dry highland areas like Mexico City and the Altos de Chiapas.

Another influence at this time was African.  The Spanish imported an all too large number of enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and its coasts and shores, because the Native Americans died out from disease and overwork.  The entire Antilles were virtually depopulated within 50 years.  The biggest reasons included smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever, to which the Africans had some resistance.  The dreadful toll of disease hit Mexico more slowly and with less horrific effect, but by 1700 the Indigenous population had been reduced 90 to 95%, locally to 100%, and replaced in large party by people of African origin.   Unlike the situation in the United States and in Brazil, Africans did not enormously influence the actual dishes, but they introduced a range of foods: black-eyed peas, yams, okra, African rice, watermelons, and many more.  They made important foods out of the Native American peanut and sweet potato (both South American but introduced to Mexico before Columbus), which resemble African indigenous foods.  The most African-influenced regions are the area around Veracruz and the Costa Chica of Guerrero, both of which preserve highly African-influenced musical styles, including the amazing Jarocho music of Veracruz.  (“Jarocho,” originally a “racial” term for mixed African-Indigenous-Spanish locals, has become a general term of pride for Veracruzanos.)  Both areas preserve some minor but interesting African foodways, including a fondness for fried foods.             Meanwhile, the Manila Galleon kept Mexico in constant touch with the Philippines.  The galleon ran every year, going east on the trade winds in the tropics, then coming back on the westerlies, taking something like a great circle route through the north Pacific.  It coasted California on this run, and occasionally paused briefly.  It ran to Acapulco, which thus was influenced by Filipino culture.  Everything from distilling (see above) to the local names of some dishes (including black beans mixed with rice) came thus to Acapulco.  Chinese immigrants occasionally appeared.

Thus by the 18th century, Mexican food was, quite literally, a total melting pot.  Moving away from food a minute, we can learn from the story of Santiago de Murcia.  He was a musician to the Queen of Spain at the start of the 1700s, playing French and Spanish guitar music, but she died, and the new queen liked only Italian music.  So Santiago went to Mexico to seek his fortune, and there became fascinated with the local folk music, setting down many Native American and African dances (O’Dette 1998).  The African dances included the world’s first recorded cumbias (or “cumbas’)—predating the 1990s cumbia boom by 250 years.  All these were getting more and more Spanish-influenced, and vice versa.  Spain and Mexico were musical melting pots as well as literal ones.

The 19th century brought yet more influences.  The French arrived and briefly conquered Mexico before being expelled again (part of the process being the actually inconclusive battle celebrated on Cinco de Mayo—not a holiday in Mexico, which is much more concerned with its actual independence day, Sept. 16).  Even before French rule, the prestige of French food had influenced Mexico.  With French rule, it took the urban areas by storm, and the elites consumed little else for years.  French bread influenced the Mexican bolillo and other wheat flour items.  French cakes and pastries, French ways with meat and fish, French menus, and French table manners were general (Pilcher 1998).  Meanwhile, other European influences accumulated; beer, more German and United States-style than French or Spanish, slowly replaced pulque and other home brews as the alcoholic drink of choice, and now Mexico is one of the world’s major brewers and consumers of that beverage.  Otherwise, heavy German and Irish immigration in the 19th century has had surprisingly little obvious influence, but it certainly colors Mexican food and consumption habits.

After the French were expelled, but mostly in the 20th century, Indigenous Mexican food slowly came back into style.  However, in the meantime, another huge influence had appeared.  Chinese immigrants flooded into Mexico in the late 19th century, brought in as cheap labor on railroads, in mines, in new agribusiness plantations, and so on.  They formed local Chinatowns, where typical foods of the poorer rural parts of coastal Guangdong Province were found: chop suey, chow mein, egg fuyong, noodle soups, white rice, soy sauce, pickled vegetables, preserved eggs and fish, Chinese sausage, and stir-fried dishes using small bits of boneless chicken or pork stir-fried with vegetables cut into small cubes.  My generation remembers this well from California Chinatowns as well as from Chinatowns in Mexicali, Mexico City, and elsewhere.  The Chinatown in Mexicali, now about gone, was a fascinating time machine when I was young; you could visit it and go back to the early 1900s.  The Chinese had been brought in as laborers on the new fields created with large-scale irrigation, or had come as tradespeople and urban workers, and had remained fairly conservative in foods and other ways.  Chinese food is now widespread in Mexico, and has slowly diversified, so one can now find Sichuan food and other non-Cantonese specialties in the bigger cities.  One Chinese introduction that has become widely known in ordinary Mexican society are the little salted plums or apricots called saladitos in Mexican Spanish.

A bigger influence was a renewed burst of Arab food borrowing.  This was due to the sudden tide of repression that swept the previously tolerant Turkish Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The empire was dying, and looking for ways to shore up power; also, German advisors counseled more firm and culturally homogenizing policies.  The results included savage repression and local massacres of Christian Arabs and full-scale genocide of Armenians.  Today we think of Arabs as Muslims, but in 1900 about 10% were Christian, with a huge concentration in Syria (then including Lebanon) and Palestine.  Thousands of them fled to Latin America, especially if they were Catholic—whether Roman rite or Syrian rite.  They introduced the foods of their home region.  Possibly the most widely known now is the semita (Arabic simit), a ring-shaped bread covered with sesame seeds.  It is widely sold in Mexico as a street vendor snack.  Another food that caught on was kibi, ground meat and bulgur wheat combined in a pointed-ended meatball and fried.  These have now become a “traditional Maya” food, having spread from the Merida city market area.  A new boom in stuffed vegetables was also apparent.  Baklava, raw onions, Greek-type salads, and other foods became known.  Perhaps most interesting was the new form of tacos al pastor.  Previously probably just made with meat hung up to roast over a fire (the carne al pastor of old-time cookbooks), this now became the Greek- and Turkish-style gyro:  meat is sliced, marinated, and impaled on a vertical spit; bits are shaved off from the turning mass of meat and wrapped in a soft tortilla.  Many cities had Arab restaurants.  Merida used to have a range of incredibly wonderful Lebanese-style restaurants, ranging from very cheap to very expensive and luxurious, but I think only one is left now.  Gary Nabhan, who is Lebanese-American, has been increasingly involved in documenting Arab foods in New World folk traditions (Nabhan 2014).  Another huge influence came from the Arab immigrants starting supermarkets.  The two major Mexican supermarket chains, Chedraui and San Francisco de Asís, were both started by Christian Arab immigrants from the old Turkish Empire.  Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, is also descended from Arab immigrants.

Smaller groups of immigrants had more local influence.  The extent to which Mexico is a melting pot, like the United States, is not always appreciated.  Huge numbers of Irish and large numbers of Germans went to Mexico in the 19th century.  The Irish left little trace, but the Germans included many Mennonites, from the German-Dutch border country, speaking a different language somewhere between German and Dutch.  They set up farming colonies in remote areas, and often live by selling cheese, including a high-fat white cheese that has come to be known as menonita.  Another fascinating group was made up of mascogos, descended from escaped African-American enslaved persons from Texas, who maintained a strikingly traditional lifestyle in remote parts of north Mexico well into the 20th century, combining Mexican rural foods with African and African-American foods like soski bread and tetapun, a Mexicanized spelling of ‘tater pone—sweet potato pie (del Moral and Siller 2000).  More generally, southern US cooking influenced other parts of Mexico.  Yucatan state, especially Merida, is fond of strictly southern-US-style pecan pies and cheese pies, called pie de nuez and pie de queso respectively; this leads to some puns, since pai is Maya for “skunk.”


As of 1900, and even 1950, village Mexico was still Indigenous as far as foodways went.  Maize, beans, squash and chiles remained the staples.  Tortillas, tamales, tacos, moles, and other pre—Colombian dishes were the norm.  Pulque and tepache or tiswin (homemade beers) were the alcoholic drinks.  All sorts of domestic and wild greens were eaten, under the old Nahuatl name of quelites (Nahuatl quilitl).  Most of them are very healthful, and they have been studied in detail by ethnobotanists recently.  An interesting case is verdolagas (purslane in English; Portulaca oleracea).  It is a domesticated crop with selected varieties in central Mexico, an enthusiastically consumed weed in the rest of Mexico, and a mere weed—pulled out when seen—in the United States.  Several other crops show this pattern of being appreciated in Mexico but ignored elsewhere.  Mexican culture is much more appreciative of the plant world than are many others.  A large percentage of our favorite domestic flowers were domesticated by Indigenous Mexicans, from marigolds and dahlias to zinnias and cosmos.

Many foodways are extremely health-promoting; many foods have medicinal values, and many herbal medicines have come from Mexico.  The most dramatic finding was the birth control pill, which was developed from wild yams used in local medicine.  The story of how the pill was developed, and how Mexico lost out on the financial bonanza, has been told in a superb book, Jungle Laboratories by Gabriela Soto Laveaga (2010).  Since then, Mexico has been very careful about letting anyone patent its plant medicines—far too careful, from a humanitarian point of view, since it will not allow much research.


My own experiences with Mexican food have been largely in Maya lands of southeastern Mexico.  I have done food ethnography in Yucatan and Quintana Roo, and fairly extensively in Tabasco, Campeche, and Chiapas.  They are culturally very different indeed from the Nahuatl-dominated center.  Tortillas are now basic, but they are a fairly recent introduction, probably becoming staple food within the last few centuries.  Before that, the Maya ate tamales, pit-roasted meats, and large maize breads baked in the pit oven (pib).  Also baked in the pit oven are whole pigs, cochinita pibil.  Many soups and stews were made.  They also ate manioc, sweet potatoes, and other root crops.  They eat an enormous range of tropical fruits and vegetables.  I piublished a long article on my work (Anderson 2010) and self-published a book of recipes (Anderson 2008, recipes available online at under the title “Mayaland Cuisine”), and I am currently finishing up a book with food ethnographer Amber O’Connor on Maya foodways (O’Connor and Anderson 2017).

Maya food also includes a range of ceremonial dishes for the many ceremonies to worship and thank spirits and gods for rain, harvests, game, and other blessings.  These would traditionally be based on the sacred maize, and include squash seed meal.  Humans were made of maize by the gods, and then animated by blood that the gods shed to give life to the maze dough.  The squash seed meal symbolizes the blood (at least to some traditional ritualists).  Turkey was the traditional meat; chicken is now used.  One set of stews made of turkey and maize (with vegtetables and chiles) is colored according to the four directions.  North is considered to associated with white, and the stew is colored with white maize flour.  South is yellow, colored with yellow maize and with a little achiote.  East is red, colored with more achiote.  West is black, and is colored with burned chiles.  The chiles are toasted black and then ground.  The center is green, the color of vegetation and life, symbolized on the traditional altars by green leaves rather than food.  Homemade cigarettes of native tobacco are also offered to the deities.  Many deities have been equated with Catholic saints, and in particular the all-important Maize God was early equated with Jesus.

Maya food was probably always influenced from central Mexico, but after the Spanish conquest there was more influence, including Nahuatl dishes like chilmole and pipian as well as tortillas.  Later, the usual Caribbean and Arab influences found their way in.


The 20th and 21st centuries have seen the floodgates open, in so far as they were not open already.  Most obvious has been the spectacular increase in Italian restaurants, especially since about 1960.  Pizza joints, spaghetti houses, sub sandwich spots, and more upscale Italian restaurants are now as common in Mexico as in the US.  The quality of food at these places is generally very low, I am sorry to say, but they provide cheap, quick, easy-to-eat meals for hurried working-class and middle-class people.

The United States has inevitably had an enormous influence, much of it highly negative from the point of view of health and food quality.   Mass production of low-nutrient breads and snack foods came early, and has only increased over the years.  Soft drinks are the most universal borrowing.  Coca-cola® is so universal that the Mexican idiom for utter remoteness is “where even the Coca truck doesn’t go.”  United States food companies have bought many Mexican ones.  United States soybeans, maize, and other bulk crops flood the market. NAFTA ensured that protected, heavily subsidized US agribusiness could flood the Mexican markets; less subsidized, the Mexican producers cannot compete.  This has ruined many dairy, maize, and bean farms.  More recently, United States chains, from McDonald’s to Pizza Hut, have become universal; even US pseudo-Mexican-food chains like Taco Bell are widespread, especially in tourist areas.

Not all the influence is bad (though finding the exceptions takes searching).  United States innovations in agricultural production have been largely beneficial to farmers, though with important recent problems.  US investment, especially in agricultural research and development, has often been valuable and sometimes decisive.  US culinary trends have spilled over into Mexico, leading to renewed interest in traditional, regional, and folk dishes and ingredients, and renewed interest in freshness and quality of ingredients.  Returning migrants to el norte, as well as tourists and other visitors, have made sure that any new styles in New York or Los Angeles or other centers are quickly tried out in Mexico

Meanwhile, not only has Mexican food continued to be popular in the United States, but also Mexicans have become the backbone of the US restaurant industry.  Fans of Anthony Bourdain will know that even in New York the kitchen staffs of fancy French restaurants are heavily immigrant Mexican (see e.g. Bourdain 2000).   There is a Chinese type of noodle that is stretched by swinging it out like a skipping rope, which really develops the gluten and makes a very chewy noodle.  The technique is incredibly difficult to master, but I have seen it done in Los Angeles by a Mexican cook.  Zacatecas in particular is the source for a slarge percentage of Los Angeles’ greatest chefs.

A food event worth major attention is the development of high-yield varieties of wheat and other grains at CIMMYT, the international research center in Texcoco, now celebrating its 50th birthday.  This center was set up by the Mexican government and Rockefeller Foundation, later getting help from various governments and foundations during the 1960s, when food shortages were common and world famine loomed.  Crash programs of research at CIMMYT and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines produced high-yield, easy-to-grow grains that saved the world.  Other centers dealing with other crops have arisen since.  The resulting “Green Revolution” has had a bad reputation with scholars, because it tended to encourage overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, but that need not happen.  Recent varieties use much less chemical input.  About the only downside, really, is that the new wheats don’t taste as good as the old ones.  We used to stock up on bolillos when we went to Mexico, back when I was young, because the wheat (and therefore the bolillos) was so much better tasting than wheat in the US.  No longer.  It would be easy to breed back the taste into modern wheats, but no one seems to care.

CIMMYT did not make dramatic breakthroughs with maize, for the very good reason that the Mexican people had bred such incredibly tough, diverse, and high-yielding maizes that there was little they could do.  (I have this on direct authority from former CIMMYT personnel I have interviewed, notably Edgar Niederhouser, to whom thanks.)  In any case, the great success of CIMMYT was the high-yield, short-straw wheats developed by Norman Borlaug and his team; he won the Nobel Prize for this.  These wheats have the additional advantage of growing well in Mexico’s hot climate, unlike most high-yield wheats.  They totally revolutionized wheat-raising not only in Mexico, but in India and Pakistan.  Borlaug, in his Nobel Prize speech in 1970, warned that he and his colleagues had only bought the world some time to get population growth under control:  “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.” (Nobel Peace Prize speech, as quoted by Jeffrey D. Sachs, 2009, “Transgressing Planetary Boundaries,” Scientific American, Dec., p. 36.)

Alas, the world did not listen, and now is food-short again.  Worse, agricultural research has been run down and often left to pesticide companies (Pardey 2016).  The traditional, hardy, disease-resistant varieties and species of crops and animals are rapidly going extinct, though CIMMYT and other centers are desperately trying to save at least the seeds.  Recent GMO crops and other highly disruptive influences are coming into Mexico.  Mexico has banned GMO maize, but it has come via returning migrants to the US, and is now not uncommon.  This presents a huge danger to traditional varieties.  They could be genetically swamped by hybridization.  Some hybrids of wild and local maize with GMO varieties have turned up, but fortunately farmers have become more careful, and this is no longer being reported (information from my colleagues and students, especially Norman Ellstrand).  GMO’s also require more (and more, and more) chemical and mechanical inputs, thus getting increasingly out of range of local less affluent farmers, who are driven off the farm.  The ironic result of these new, very inferior “improved” crops is rural decline and the abandonment of millions of acres that were fertile and productive until recently. Once abaindoned, they do not even return to wilderness.  In fact, they often erode away, leaving a moonscape.  Or they become cattle range, increasing erosion and biological degradation as well as rural inequality.

Fortunately, Mexican farmers are tough and independent people, and this process of rural decline has not progressed so far as it has in many areas of the world.  Many parts of Mexico, including Quintana Roo where I do research, are strongholds of independent small farming by local families.  These and other traditional Indigenous farmers are very skill-intensive, and we really need to document the skills and knowledge before they are lost to modernization.

Even so, Mexico’s curse since the Spanish introduced giant estates has been huge-scale farms, either cattle ranches or agribusinesses, with landless laborers reduced to starvation wages and horrible living conditions.  This plantation-style agriculture came to Spain with the Romans.  It was later imposed by the Spanish on the Moors.  Then the Spanish from heavily Moorish parts of Spain used the same institutions to reduce the Indigenous population to serfdom.  This large-scale, landlord-dominated type of agriculture is increasingly a curse to rural Mexico, and now many of the plantations are owned by giant international agribusiness firms.  Dvera Saxton here can tell you more about it; she is one of the leading experts on this problem.

Today, unless there is a new effort comparable to CIMMYT’s, but dedicated to saving small farms and traditional varieties and to farming without deadly chemicals, you will probably all live to see mass starvation worldwide. 

All too predictably, another main event of the 21st century has been the swamping of Mexico by fast-food chains and giant food corporations.  Most are US-based, of course.  Even the iconic Bimbo bakery company has been taken over.

The result of this is horribly predictable.  Besides cutting the pleasure of eating, it has the more tangible and measurable effect of sending diabetes and other diet-related disease rates to unprecedented heights.  Native Americans are particularly susceptible genetically to diabetes and metabolic syndrome (see e.g. SIGMA Type 2 Diabetes Consortium 2014), but anyone would succumb to the mix of bleached white flour, refined white sugar, and soybean oil that is now the standard diet in much of Mexico.  Sugar in commercial soft drinks is now actually the main source of calories for Mexican children.  Worldwide, diabetes rates are soaring, and 422 million people now have this condition (Sonnenburg and Bāckhed 2016).

Traditional diets are protective.  In Mexico, nopales (cactus pads from Platyopuntia spp.) are known to reduce blood sugar and inflammation and alleviate diabetes, and buds of Cecropia spp. appear to, also.  Many other folk remedies are used, with varying effectiveness.  Certainly several Maya people I know have sent their diabetes into remission by using traditional remedies.  Diet is the best cure, though.  Refined carbohydrates, especially sugar, are notorious risk factotrs, but so is soybean oil, because the body quickly converts much of it into prostaglandins, which are inflammatory.  Obesity also causes diabetes directly, through inflammatory mechanisms.  It would be hard to imagine a better diet than the traditional Mexican one of whole grains, wild greens, seed atoles, nopales, avocados, fruit, beans, vegetables, and some lean meat and fish.  Unfortunately, contemporary supply chains and food marketing venues are set up to maximize the marketing of comida chatarra—“junk food.”  It would be perfectly easy to develop supply and marketing chains that would do the opposite; all it would take is going back to the old open markets, still flourishing in many areas.  (Don’t miss the one in Oaxaca.  It’s worth a special trip to the city.)


Mexican food may be especially complex and diverse in its origins, but it is fairly typical of food systems worldwide.  No food system developed without massive borrowing from others.  Borrowing goes on all the time.  No food system remains static for more than a generation or two.  Foods fall out of favor, come in from outside, get modified, get substituted.  Fads rise and decline.  The idea of stable, long-continued folkways is nonsense.  Mexico has had some astonishingly long-running food traditions, notably the ever-wonderful tortilla and its frequent accompaniment of boiled beans and chile sauce.  However, little else remains unchanged.

Even after 150 years of cultural anthropology, many people believe that “cultures” and “ethnicities” are steel-walled spheres that are completely independent of each other and do not affect each other except through aggression.  No.  Culture and ethnicity are abstract concepts that cover a realty of constantly shifting, changing practices.  People constantly borrow, negotiate and renegotiate (Bourdieu 1977), and decide to change.

This puts in a rather ironic light the recent protests against “white men,” meaning Anglo-American yanquis, cooking Mexican food.  I occuasionally have nightmares of trying to sort out the mess if we carried this principle to its logical conclusion.  Only Nahuatl speakers would be allowed to make tortillas.  Only Maya would be allowed to make chocolate.  And so on….

There is a huge difference between normal cultural borrowing and actual offensive appropriation.  If cultural appropriation is deliberately insulting (like stereotypic caricatures) or is outright ripoff for profit, it is as bad as any other insult or ripoff.  If it is done more creditable reasons, it’s not only normal, it’s inevitable and necessary.  Think if Norman Borlaug had refused to share those wheat varieties—as, in fact, modern seed companies do refuse to share theirs, insisting on purchase at very high profit rates.  Instead, the wheat was made freely available worldwide, saving tens of millions of lives.  Mexico today has thousands of species and varieties of useful plants and animals.  They could revolutionize farming worldwide.  We need to be able to get them into circulation and feed the world.  But abuse by giant firms and outdated, poorly formulated patent laws make this impossible at the present time.  Reform is seriously needed.

When Western medical researchers were looking for quinine in the forests of the Amazon Basin, they explained they needed it as a cure for malaria, a disease from the Old World.  One local assistant commented:  “God put the fever in Europe and the quinine in America in order to teadch us the solidarty that should prevail among all the peoples of the earth.”  (Quoted Whitaker 1954:58).  Whether God did it or it happened naturally, the point is made.  We all need each other’s knowledge.  We all need each other’s foods and foodways.  We all need each other.






This article is based on a talk given at California State University-Fresno, Oct. 19, 2016.  Thanks to Jen Banh and Dvera Saxton for initially seeking me out to give this talk.  Thanks to my coworkers in Mexico, especially Felix Medina Tzuc and Aurora Dzib Xihum de Cen, as well as colleagues and students too numerous to mention.


Anderson, E. N.  2008.  Mayaland Cuisine: The Food of Maya Mexico.  Self-published.

—  2010.  “Food and Feasting in the Zona Maya of Quintana Roo.”  In John Staller and Michael Carrasco (eds.), Pre-Columbian Foodways:  Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica.  New York:  Springer.  Pp. 441-465.


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Duran, Fray Diego.  1994.  The History of the Indies of New Spain.  Tr. Doris Heyden [Spanish orig. ca. 1570].  Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press.


Hernández, Alfonso.  2009.  “The Vita-migas of Tepito.”  Tr. Laura Roush.  Ethnology 47:89-93.


Jaramillo, Cleofas M.  1981.  The Genuine New Mexico Tasty Recipes.  Orig. 1942.  Santa Fe: Ancient City Press.


Katz, S. H.; M. L. Hediger; L. A. Valleroy.  1974.  “Traditional Maize Processing Techniques in the New World.”  Sci 148:765-773.

Melville, Elinor G. K.  1997.  A Plague of Sheep:  Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.


Nabhan, Gary.  2014.  Cumin, Camels and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey.  Berkeley: University of California Press.


O’Connor, Amber, and E. N. Anderson.  2017.  K’oben.  Lanahm, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.


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Painter, Michael, and William Durham (eds.).  1995.  The Social Causes of Environmental Destruction in Latin America.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan.

Pilcher, Jeffrey.  1998.  Que vivan los tamales!  Food and the Making of Mexican Identity.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.


Ramos-Elorduy, Julieta.  1998.  Creepy Dcrawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects.  Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.


Ramos Elorduy de Conconi, Julieta.  1991.  Los insectos como fuente de proteínas en el futuro.  Mexico: Limusa.


Ramos Elorduy de Conconi, Julieta, and José Manuel Pino Moreno.  1989.  Los insectos comestibles en el Mexico antiguo.  Mexico: AGT Editor.


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Mayaland Cuisine: Campeche, Chiapas and Tabasco

October 10th, 2016



Recados, sauces, and minor snacks and market foods in Campeche are generally the same as in Yucatan, so refer to recipes in the previous chapter.





Black Rice Soup (a “dry soup”)


1/2 lb. rice

1 oz. lard or vegetable oil

2 garlic cloves

1 onion

2 quarts stock from cooking black beans (one could use the liquid from a few cans of black beans)

2 serrano chiles or other good green chiles

4 epazote leaves or a small branch of epazote

Salt to taste


Soak the rice; drain; fry in the lard or oil.  Add the garlic, onion and chiles (chopped), the bean stock, the epazote and the salt.  Cook over a very low flame.

Alternative method (not traditional but good): fry the onion and garlic first, then add the rice.  This requires more lard or oil.

This can be made with seafood—crab meat, shrimp, squid—in which case one can leave out the black bean liquid.

Compare the similar recipe in the Yucatan chapter.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001a:24)



Bricklayer’s Dogfish (cazón de albañil)


1 roast dogfish

3 sprigs epazote


4 tomatoes

1 onion

2 xkatik chiles

Oil for frying


Boil the dogfish with the epazote.  Bone and shred.  Fry up the shreds with the vegetables (chopped).  Add the stock in which the dogfish was cooked–enough to make a sauce rather than a soup.

I admit I included this dish only because the name is irresistible.  Still, it’s great if you use a more palatable fish.  Actually, it is a version of a common Caribbean dish using salt cod (presoaked and washed to remove the salt), and I recommend cod—salted or not—for it.



Campeche Caviare


Roes from one esmedregal, a large mackerel-like fish with very good, large roe sacs

1 tbsp. oregano

8 garlic cloves, mashed

1/2 tsp. ground pepper

Salt to taste

2 onions

1 head of garlic

4 large tomatoes

1/2 cup olive oil


Boil the roes with some oregano, garlic and salt.  Chill.  Peel the membrane off the roes.  Roast the onion, garlic head, and tomatoes, blend them, and fry them in the olive oil.  Season.  Add the roes and boil 15-20 minutes.

Fish roes are widely used in mixed seafood dishes in eastern Mexico.



Fried Flaked Dogfish

If you are not into the cult of cazón, try this with any firm white-fleshed fish, such as cod.  It is then really excellent.


2 lb. fresh dogfish, in pieces

1 tbsp. salt

1/2 green onion



1 lb. tomatoes

1 chile habanero

1/2 regular onion



Cook the dogfish in water to cover, with the salt, green onion and epazote.

Bone and skin the dogfish.  Rinse and break up into small pieces.  Season with the lime, and with more salt and epazote.

Roast the tomatoes, chile and onion.  Blend up.  Fry this salsa in oil.

Add the dogfish to the salsa and fry till this sauce thickens.



Dogfish Bread (pan de cazón)

This universal Campeche delicacy is even more an acquired taste than its main ingredient.  I present a recipe purely for ethnographic interest.


2 lb. roasted dogfish

1 tbsp. salt

Epazote to taste

½ -1 lb. lard

1/2 onion

2 lb. tomatoes

About 1 cup refried black beans (boil the beans; mash; fry in lard)


4 habaneros

½ c bitter orange or lime juice


Wash and cut up the dogfish.  Boil with salt for thirty minutes, adding some epazote.  Remove skin and bones and fry.

Stir-fry the onion and the rest of the epazote, chopped, in lard.  Add the tomatoes, cut up, and the pieces of dogfish.

Cover and cook for fifteen minutes.  Retire from the flame.  Break up the fish into flakes and mix all ingredients thoroughly.

Heat the tortillas and the beans.  Moisten the tortillas in the dogfish sauce.  Cover with a layer of beans.  Cover this with the dogfish mix.  Then add another layer (tortilla, beans, sauce).  Keep building, by layers, as much as desired.  (About six layers is typical.)  Serve with the salsa.

Make habanero salsa:  chop up the habaneros, preferably with some onion or garlic, and marinate in the citrus juice.

Variants abound, but the basic model above is pretty standard.

This is more or less the national dish of Campeche.  If it is made (as it usually is) with the dogfish that has been sitting in the marketplace for a while, outsiders may find it reminiscent of school-cafeteria tuna casserole.



Esmedregal in Orange Juice

Esmedregal is a term for various large fish with firm white flesh.  Anything from albacore to red snapper works well for this one.


2 lb. esmedregal fillets, or other firm, juicy, white-fleshed fish

Parsley, 1 bunch

Garlic, 2-3 cloves

Oregano, about 1 tsp dried

Cumin seeds

Black pepper


1 cup bitter orange juice

1 cup olive oil

1/2 white onion

1 sweet chile

1 lb. tomatoes, sliced

1 hot chile

Juice of two sweet oranges


Cut the fish in small pieces.  Wash in water with a bit of lime juice added.

Blend the herbs and spices into a paste with the bitter orange juice (see substitutions in introduction).  Marinate the fish in half of this, for an hour or so.

Fry lightly.

Separately fry the vegetables, cut up.  Add the fish.  Cook, adding the rest of the herb paste, and finally the sweet orange juice.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001a:36)



Fish casserole


2 lb. white, firm-fleshed fish

Juice of 2 limes

1/2 cup oil

1 onion, in thin slices

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1/4 lb. bell pepper, chopped

1 lb. tomato, blended

2 peppercorns, crushed

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1/2 tbsp. fresh oregano (dried oregano can be substituted, in which case use less, about 1 tsp.)

1 tbsp. parsley, chopped

1 tsp. nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste


Wash the fish, cut in medium-sized pieces, and marinate in the lime juice for 15 minutes.  Heat the oil.  Fry in it the onion and garlic.  Then add the bell pepper, blended tomato, pepper, cumin seeds, oregano, nutmeg, parsley and salt.  When this has cooked a short time, add the fish and cook till done.



Fish Makum

A classic favorite, also very popular in Yucatan.

Cherry Hamman explains:  “The words mak, ‘to close’ and kum ‘cooking pot,’ explain the title of this ancient hearthrite.”  (Hamman 1998:251; her recipe is for a meat makum, also an excellent dish).


6 garlic cloves

2 roasted onions

1/2 tbsp. cumin seeds

1/2 tsp. or more of oregano

1 tbsp. achiote paste

5 cloves

8 black peppercorns

1/2 cup vinegar

1/2 cup oil

Juice of 2 limes

Salt to taste

Oil for oiling the dish

1 banana leaf

2 lb. fish fillets (snapper, pompano or the like)

3 tomatoes, sliced

4 whole güero chiles (medium-sized, hot, yellow chiles) or comparable chiles

1 red bell pepper or 1-2 fresh red chiles, roasted, peeled and sliced


Blend the garlic, one of the onions, and the cumin seeds, oregano, achiotes, cloves, and peppercorns.  Mix with the vinegar, some oil, and the salt and lime juice.  Alternatively, you can just use a cube of red recado dissolved in lime or bitter orange juice.

Oil a casserole dish and line with the banana leaf.  Put on some of the sauce (above), then the fish, then the rest of the sauce, well rubbed onto all the fish.

Decorate with the tomatoes and the other onion, sliced; the whole chiles; and the strips of bell peppers or chiles.

Bend the banana leaf around to cover all.  Bake, or cook over slow fire, till done.

Parsley or cilantro for garnish is allowed.

Serve with white rice and black beans.

Variant: Nutmeg (pinch) and bay leaves are sometimes added.  More tomatoes can be used.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001a:34 on the basis of a good deal of field experience)



Pampano in Escabeche

Pampano is a medium-sized, roundish fish with firm white flesh and a very delicate flavor.  Red snapper would work (but the real thing is better). I  can even imagine doing this dish with trout.


1 grilled or fried pampano

1 large onion

1 carrot

1 jalapeno pepper

2 bay leaves

1 tsp. cumin seeds

Few black peppercorns

1/2 cup vinegar

Salt and other spices to taste



Chop and fry the onion.  Add the other vegetables and spices.  Cook briefly (a few minutes).  Pour this sauce over the pampano.



Pampano in Green Sauce

The medieval Arab-Andalusian green sauce appears yet again.  This is a particularly good form of it.


2 lb. pampano fillets


1 bunch parsley

1 bunch cilantro

1 green chile (xkatik preferable)

Black pepper

Oregano to taste (about 1 tsp.)

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds


Vinegar to taste (a small amount)

6 cloves garlic

Lard for frying

1 small onion

2 tomatoes

2 mild yellow chiles


Wash the fish and rub with lime.

Blend the parsley, cilantro, green chile, oregano, pepper, cumin seeds, salt, vinegar and garlic.

Marinate the fish in this sauce.

Fry all in lard (or oil).  One way to do this is to put the fish in, then cover with the sauce.  Another way is to fry the sauce first, then put the fish in (this works only with quite thin fish, or fillets).

Then add the onion and tomatoes, chopped, and the chiles, chopped or whole.  When all has fried somewhat, add water and cook till sauce is thick.

Variants:  One can dispense with either the parsley or the cilantro, or even the green chile, and use instead hojasanta leaves, or tomatillos (green husk-tomatoes).  In fact, any combination of green, flavorful herbs is good.



Pampano Pohchuk


1 pampano, ca. 1 lb.

1 tbsp. achiote paste

1/2 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. oregano

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

24 garlic cloves

2 tbsp. olive oil



Oil, for frying

1 lb. cooked small shrimp

1 lb. chopped octopus

3 garlic cloves

2 chopped tomatoes

2 laurel leaves

Salt and pepper

Banana leaves


Wash the fish and marinate for two hours in a marinade of the achiote, pepper, oregano, cumin seeds, garlic and olive oil (plus enough water to make a thin paste).

For the stuffing, stir-fry the onion, chopped.  Add the shrimp and octopus.  Then add the rest and boil briefly.

Stuff the fish with this.  Wrap all in banana leaves, put in a casserole dish and bake in a moderate oven for 25 minutes.

The stuffing can be varied according to what is available; stuffing without any seafood at all is not unknown.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001a:33



Panuchos, Campeche style


2 lb. masa

4 oz. flour

Salt to taste

1 lb. cooked black beans

1 lb. fried dogfish (see above in introduction to section)

1 onion, quartered

2 bitter oranges

Habanero chile, to taste


Mix the masa, flour and salt with enough water to make a dough.  Make small tortillas (two for each panucho).  For a panucho, cover one tortilla with beans, one with shark meat, put them together (beans and fish inside), and seal around the edges.  Fry (either deep fat or in a bit of oil in skillet).

Chop the onion and habanero and mix into the juice of the bitter oranges.  Eat as topping for the panuchos.



Seafood Rice


1 onion

1 garlic clove

1 tomato

1 lb. rice

2 bay leaves

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

Mixed seafood: shrimps, clams or other shellfish, cut-up octopus, and bits of fish

Fish stock

2 oz. peas


Salt and pepper to taste


Chop the onion and garlic.  Fry in a bit of oil.  Add the tomato, chopped.  Add the rice and herbs.  Fry till rice begins to stick.  Add the seafood.  Then add enough fish stock to cover all to a depth of 1/2 to 3/4″.  Add peas and cook.

Chopped peppers can be added too.  In fact, almost anything can be added.  This dish naturally calls for improvisation and substitution.  You can use any odd bits of seafood available.  Important is to achieve a contrast of textures, such as that produced by fish, clams, and octopus bits.



Seafood Salad


Shrimp, conch, octopus, bits of fish, shredded carrot, chopped onion, cilantro, sliced cucumber, sliced tomato, sliced avocado, salt, and pepper, in lime juice.


Basically a glorified fish cocktail.  As with the foregoing, the critical thing is to achieve a contrast of textures as well as tastes.



Snook in Mole Sauce

The snook is a large silver fish of warm Caribbean and Atlantic waters.  It has white flesh and a unique, rich taste that can become addictive.  A snook cooked this way is truly unique and unsurpassed, but, lacking a snook, you can use any white-fleshed fish.  Relatively firm, oily ones work best.


1 snook, ca. 3 lb.


4 tbsp. lard

8 ancho chiles (dried)

2 cups water

1/2 lb. cooked potatoes, cut up

Sprig of epazote


Clean the fish.  Rub with lard.  Roast on a grill.

Soak the chiles to rehydrate them.  Then blend and fry in lard.  Add salt to taste.

Add in the water, the fish (cut in pieces), and the potatoes and epazote.  Cook till flavors blend.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001a:37)








Pork Loin with Black-eyed Peas

A rather striking recipe with a distinctly Cuban flavor.  I suspect Campeche’s long, close trade connections with Cuba are behind this dish somewhere.


2 garlic cloves

10 black peppercorns

1 onion

1 tbsp. achiote seeds

1/2 lb. tomato, chopped

10 sprigs epazote

1 1/2 lb. pork loin, cut in small pieces

1 quart water

Salt to taste

3/4 lb. black-eyed peas

2 lb. masa

1 habanero chile, green (unripe)

1/3 lb. lard, melted

1 banana leaf


Grind the spices.  Miix with the tomato, epazote and meat.  Make a soup with the water and salt, and cook till meat is done.  Cook the peas separately.

Mix the chile (cut up) and the lard into the masa.  Add the meat stew and the beans.  Cook till it forms a solid paste.  Grease a baking dish and line with banana leaf.  Add in the paste and bake at 350o till golden.



Tamales, Campeche feast style


4 lb. masa

4 quarts water

Salt to taste

3/4 lb. lard

3 sprigs of epazote

10 banana leaves



1 lb. jowl of pork (or other relatively firm, meaty cut)

1 1/2 lb. pork loin

1 chicken

Salt to taste

8 cloves garlic, roasted

10 black peppercorns

1/4 tsp. cumin seeds

1 tsp. achiote seeds

1 quart broth

1 1/2 lb. tomato, chopped

6 leaves or sprigs of epazote, chopped


Mix the masa with water.  Add salt, lard and epazote (chopped).  Simmer, stirring constantly, till thick.  Turn off flame and let stand 15 minutes.

Cook the meats in the stock, cut into small pieces, and add salt and garlic.  Grind the peppercorns, cumin seeds and achiote seeds.  Add to the stock.  Mix in the chopped meat and boil again till reduced.  Add the tomato and epazote.  Retire from the flame when cooked fairly dry.

Toast lightly the banana leaves and cut in quarters.  (Of course, you can always use foil, kitchen paper, or corn husks.)  Cover with a layer of masa dough.  Put on a chunk of stuffing and roll up.  Steam for half an hour.




Black Rice Soup (a “dry soup”)


1/2 lb. rice

1 oz. lard or vegetable oil

2 garlic cloves

1 onion

2 quarts stock from cooking black beans (one could use the liquid from a few cans of black beans)

2 serrano chiles

4 epazote leaves

Salt to taste


Soak the rice; drain; fry in the lard or oil.  Add the garlic, onion and chiles (chopped), the bean stock, the epazote and the salt.  Cook over a very low flame.

Alternative method: fry the onion and garlic first, then add the rice.  This requires more lard or oil.

This can be made with seafood—crab meat, shrimp, squid—in which case one can leave out the black bean liquid.  Chopped tomatoes, various herbs, and other vegetation can all be used.

Compare the similar recipe in the Yucatan chapter.



Campeche Salad


1/2 lb. chickpeas, cooked

1/2 lb. green beans

3 carrots

2 turnips

3 potatoes

2 tomatoes, chopped

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste


Boil the carrots and turnips.  Boil the potatoes separately.  Do not overcook–they should be firm.  Cool.  Chop and mix with the tomato and seasonings.

A very standard restaurant dish, and thus subject to infinite variation.  It is possible to add cooked rice to this.  It is also possible to add almost anything else interesting; corn kernels are particularly welcome.  The creative cook will want to experiment with herbs, chiles, and even flaked fish (this salad often accompanies fish, and there seems no reason not to add some fish in).



Vegetables in Marinade



1 cauliflower

1/2 lb. green beans

4 summer squash

4 carrots

1 red onion

4 small potatoes

Jalapeno chile (optional)

2 tbsp. olive oil



Oregano, salt, and pepper to taste


Cut up the vegetables.  Blanch them by putting in boiling water, turning it off and leaving for 15 minutes (i.e., till the vegetables soften a bit but do not actually cook).  Wash them and put in vinegar to cover.  Add in the other ingredients and marinate at least 12 hours.

The herbs would typically be powdered thyme, marjoram and perhaps others.  One can easily use fresh herbs instead.  Be creative.  The irrepressible will no doubt want to add a habanero.

Cooked sea foods, especially shellfish and octopus, can be added.




Preserved ciricotes

The ciricote is the small fruit of a tree (Cordia sebestina) also noted for its incredibly beautiful wood.  The value of the wood leads to cutting many a ciricote tree, and the fruit is correspondingly rare.  Tough and even woody, like small quinces, ciricotes have to be cooked.


4 lb. ciricotes

Juice of 4 limes

1 lb. sugar

2 quarts water

3 fig leaves


Cook the ciricotes.  If tough, use some baking soda–or, to be really traditional, ashes–to tenderize and sweeten.

When the ciricotes are cool, peel and put in water and lime juice.  Wash, soak and drain.

Make a syrup with the sugar, water and a bit more lime juice. Add the ciricotes and fig leaves, and boil half an hour.  Bottle.

Campeche is famous for its fruit preserves and liqueurs.  This recipe will have to stand for all of them.  The recipe is standard, except for the fig leaves, which are used only when their tenderizing and thickening action is desirable, as with the tough ciricote.

Ciricote wood is yellow and brown, with a richly figured grain.  There is a great future for this tree.  If the better varieties were propagated, they could produce fruit until the tree was mature; the tree could then be harvested for its wood.






An important plant in Chiapas is chipilín (Crotalaria longirostrata), an alfalfa-like plant grown for its edible, mild-flavored leaves.  Alfalfa sprouts make a reasonable (though not terribly close) substitute.  One could even use pea tendrils (available at Asian markets).  These are similar in texture and flavor, though not looking much like chipilín, and are in fact often used in Chiapas.

Arrayán leaves are called for in several recipes; the arrayan is a bush endemic to the area.  The name means “myrtle” in Spanish, but the Chiapas arrayan is not much like a Spanish myrtle.  Bay leaves make a good substitute.  Another useful flavoring herb is avocado leaf.  I have seen a kettle of chile and beef simmering with a whole branch of avocado leaves thrust in. Mexican mountain avocado leaves have a wonderful spicy taste.  Closely related to bay leaves, they have a similar flavor and culinary use, but must be used fresh rather than dried–hence their absence from markets.  In the United States, most California avocados have spicy-flavored leaves, but Florida and Gulf Coast avocadoes are derived from Caribbean ancestry with virtually tasteless leaves.  If you don’t live near a Californian or Mexican avocado orchard, use bay leaves.  Conversely, if you do have access to such avocado leaves, try them in the following recipes.






Green Corn Tamales


20 ears of green corn

1 1/2 lb. sugar

1 lb. butter

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt


Shuck the ears, but be careful not to damage the shucks.  Grind the corn.  Beat in the other ingredients.  Wash the corn shucks, trim off the tips, and make tamales–two tablespoons of mix per leaf of shuck.  Steam for 45 minutes.

The corn in question would be regular eating corn: firmer and less sweet than United States sweet corn.  If using sweet corn, cut down the sugar considerably, and the butter somewhat.




Green Corn Tamales, II


18 ears of sweet corn

1/2 lb. cream (get Mexican-style sour cream if you can find it)

8 eggs

1/2 lb. butter

Sugar to taste


Mexican white cheese

Salt to taste


Make as above.

A common variant saves you from so much cholesterol: leave out the eggs and butter, cut down on the cinnamon, and use fairly soft cheese.  This produces, basically, a cheese tamale.

Both forms are common market fare, and excellent.




Rice Tamales


2 lb. rice

1 lb. butter

1 lb. sugar

1 quart water

2 tsp. baking powder

Corn leaves


Cook the rice.  Dry it out and grind it.  Beat the butter until creaemy.  Beat in the rice powder and baking powder.  When it is thoroughly beaten up, add a bit of warm water, and then beat in the sugar.  Meanwhile, soak the corn leaves to soften.

Put two or three tablespoonfuls of mixture on each corn leaf, wrap, and steam 3/4 hour.



Tamales with Saffron


4 lb. masa

2 lb. lard

2 lb. chicken meat, shredded

1 tsp. pepper

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

15 highland Chiapas chiles (or less, or even more, to taste)

2 pieces of French bread, toasted (optional)

6 garlic cloves, chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 lb. tomatoes, chopped very fine

20 saffron threads

1/2 tsp. ground clove

Almonds, plums and/or pimento strips (optional)

Salt to taste

Banana leaves


Grind all the spices (together with the toasted bread, if wanted).  Fry the onion and garlic in a few ounces of the lard; take out and discard if you want.  In the oil, fry the tomatoes, then add the spices and cook down to a sauce.  Add in the chicken.  Some sugar can be added if desired.

Mix the masa with the rest of the lard.  Add the salt.  Anoint the leaves with this.  If wanted, add to each tamale an almond, a plum, and/or a pimento strip.  Then add the sauce and cook as usual.



Tamales with Hojasanta (hojasanta is generally called “mumu” or “momo” in Chiapas)


2 lb. masa

1 lb. lard

1 lb. beans, cooked, mashed and fried

20 small highland chiles–seeded, fried and ground

2 tbsp. dried shrimps, ground

2 tbsp. ground squash seeds (sikil)

30 hojasanta leaves

6 bunches of maize leaves

Salt to taste


Mix the masa with the lard and salt.  Mix the beans, shrimp, squash seed meal and chiles.  Soak the corn leaves.  Make tamales on the hojasanta leaves, wrap up, and wrap these in turn in the corn leaves.  Steam half an hour.

A variant recipe uses far more squash seeds–two cups.  This makes a much richer tamale.  Suit yourself.



Vegetable Tamales


4 lb. masa

2 chicken breasts, shredded

3 carrots

3 summer squash

2 lb. tomatoes

1/2 cup chickpeas (cooked)

1 onion

2 garlic cloves

1 tsp. pepper

2 tsp. baking powder

2 lb. lard

Salt to taste

Corn leaves


Mix the lard, baking powder and salt with the masa.  Fr the garlic and onion, cut up, then add the other vegetables, all chopped finely.  Then add the meat and spices.  Then make and cook tamales in the usual way, steaming for an hour.








Bread Soup

A thoroughly Spanish recipe, but too popular in Chiapas to leave out.


6 sweet rolls (any kind of Chiapan-style sweet bread: rolls with a little sugar and shortening)

4 French rolls

2 carrots

Handful of green beans

6 baby summer squash

2 hard-boiled eggs

1/4 cup cooked chickpeas

1/2 onion

2 tomatoes

1 sprig thyme

sprig oregano

4 tbsp. lard

2 quarts chicken stock

2 plantains, sliced (and fried if you want)

3 oz. raisins

3 tbsp. sugar

A few threads of saffron, and/or a cinnamon stick

A few peppercorns

Salt to taste


Cut the breads into small slices and toast.  Cut up and cook the vegetables separately.  Grease a saucepan.  Alternate slices of bread with cooked vegetables; scatter in the herbs and raisins.  The last layer should be bread, with slices of egg on top to decorate.  Then pour on the stock and cook just enough to make the whole dish piping hot.

The stock should be just enough to cover the bread and be more or less absorbed by it.  This is one of those “soups” in which the spoon will often stand up by itself.  It is interesting in that it is the only soup I know from south Mexico that resembles the migas (crumbled bread) dry-soups so extremely common and important in southern Spain.  These migas are yet another class of dishes with a Moorish heritage; they are related to the tharid of Arabic cooking.

Variants exist with other spicing; with parsley, mint, or epazote; with wine; with different vegetable mixes; etc.  Creativity is the watchword.



Chipilín Soup

What would Chiapas do without chipilín?  It’s a vital source of vitamins and minerals in the diet.  A simpler form (without the dumplings) of this superb soup is particularly popular–more or less a daily food.


2 quarts water

1 green or maturing onion with stem

1 green chile such as xkatik

Grains from two ears of sweet corn

1 large bunch young, tender chipilín

1 lb. masa

3 oz. lard

1/2 lb. fresh Mexican white cheese, crumbled

2 avocadoes

2 limes


Cut up the vegetables and put in the water.

Mix the masa, lard, and salt.

Make dumplings of this, stuffed with the cheese.  Add to the soup.  Boil all, quickly.

Serve with slices of avocado, more cheese, and lime wedges.



Cream of Chipilín Soup

A basic soup in south Mexico.  Many great minds have expended noble energies in creating variants, some of which are listed below.


2 cups chipilín leaves

1 tbsp. butter

4 very young, tender summer squash

Grains from 4 ears of sweet corn

1/2 cup cream

1/2 quart boiled milk

1 small onion, cut in quarters

Salt and pepper to taste


Start the soup by cooking the leaves in water.

Meanwhile, fry in butter the onion (chopped).  Take out when golden.  Put the cut-up summer squash and fresh corn into the oil and fry quickly.

Add in the milk, pepper and salt.  Cook a minute or less.

Turn off the flame, and add the cream, stirring constantly.

The really traditional, indigenous form of this soup leaves out the butter and milk.  Fry the onion in oil or lard.  Use corn meal, or toasted corn meal (atole), instead of milk.  In this case, mix the corn meal into the water first. Then add the leaves, and proceed otherwise as above.  Add some white cheese, crumbled or in chunks.

Variant:  The fresh corn is left out when not in season.

Variant (upscale):  To the basic soup, add maize dumplings.  Cook.  Near the end, add white Mexican cheese squares.  Serve with a dollop of Mexican sour cream poured in.  Variant of the variant:  put the cheese in the dumplings—i.e., make a half-inch-thick ball of corn meal with a bit of cheese in the center.

Variant, or closely related soup (“squashvine soup”):  Add the tender tips of squash vines–butternut squash is a good pick for this.  The tendrils at the end, plus the very smallest leaves (under an inch wide), are used.  Reduce the chipilín accordingly, or eliminate it altogether and just use squashvine tips.  Good, garden-fresh, tender squashvine tips are among the most delightful of all vegetables.



Covered Rice

A “soup” although the rice absorbs all the liquid.  Such dishes are sopas secas, “dry soups,” in Spanish.  This is not oxymoronic; no one expects sopas to be soups in the English sense.

This is a rather elaborate restaurant dish.


1/2 lb. rice

1 chicken breast, shredded

4 eggs: two raw, two hardboiled

2 large chorizos, sliced and fried

1 onion

1 tomato

3 large summer squash

33 carrots

1 can chickpeas

1 tbsp. flour

1/2 stick butter

3 oz. sugar

1 1/2 oz. capers




Oil or lard

Salt and pepper to taste


Like Chinese fried rice, this dish is better with leftover rice–cook the rice well in advance.

Cook the rice with the saffron and, by preference, some of the raisins, almonds and capers.  Chop the vegetables and cook briefly with salt.  Take out and fry with the chicken.  Butter a casserole dish.  Layer rice with almonds, raisins, capers, slices of hard-boiled egg, and chorizo slices.  Then top with the vegetables and chicken, then a last layer of rice.

Separately, beat the whites of the other two eggs till they form peaks.  Add the yolks, flour and sugar.  Cover the casserole with this and bake till all is thoroughly heated.

Naturally, simpler variants or relatives exist, grading downward into rice refried with vegetables and whatever bits of meat are available.



Dried Shrimp Soup

In contrast to the preceding, this is a typical household recipe.


2 lb. large dried shrimp

4 chilpotle chiles

3 guijillo chiles

1 1/2 lb. tomatoes


2 carrots (optional)

2 potatoes (optional)

2 garlic cloves

Salt to taste



Soak the shrimps in hot water, shell, and clean.  Boil the shells for stock; strain.  Add the shrimp to this–a total of 1 1/2 quarts water–with the chiles (seeded), garlic and onions.

Roast the tomatoes and grind.  Add to the soup, along with vegetables as desired.

Variant:  add a small can of pimento strips and grind these with the tomatoes.



Flower and Shoot Soup


2/3 lb. squash flowers

1/3 lb. tender tips of squash vines

2 ears sweet corn

2 large summer squash

1 tomato

1 serrano chile

1 quart water

Oil or lard

Salt and pepper to taste


Cut the grains off the corn ears.  Separately, blend the tomato with the chile and fry the paste.  Add the water, then the squash (cut up in thin slices), then the rest of the ingredients.  Cook till vegetables just begin to soften.

It would be hard to imagine a more refreshing summer soup.  For an even lower-calorie variant, don’t fry the tomato.

Young pea tendrils are also popular in Chiapas, and are even better than squash vine-tips.  They should be stir-fried or steamed.



Green Rice (another and particularly good “dry soup”)


1 cup rice

4 poblano chiles

2 cooked eggs

1 piece (size according to taste) of onion

1 sprig of parsley, and/or any other green herbs, such as cilantro or chipilín

1/3 lb. lard or oil

2 cups milk

2 cups water

2 garlic cloves

Salt to taste


Wash the rice and dry in the sun.  Seed the chiles.  Toast them and wrap in plastic or towel, then peel them.  Grind them in the milk.  In the lard, fry the rice.  When it begins to color, add the onion and garlic, chopped.  When these are transparent, add water, parsley, and salt; cover and boil.  When it begins to boil, turn down flame to a very low simmer.  Add the milk-chile mix toward the end and simmer till it is absorbed.  Decorate with slices of cooked eggs.

A more folk variant leaves out the milk and eggs.



Juliana Soup


2 quarts chicken stock

1 chayote

3 summer squash

2 carrots

3 potatoes

Slice of cabbage, or few leaves of kale

1/2 cup cooked chickpeas

1 threads saffron (optional)

6 French rolls, sliced

Oil, if wanted

Salt to taste


Chop the vegetables finely and put to boil.  Fry or toast the bread slices and put in bowl.  Serve the soup over these.

A local version of standard French or Spanish vegetable soup.  Kale and mustard greens are at least as typical of Chiapas as cabbage; try it with them.  Naturally, this is another dish of a basically “open city” sort, and any seasonal vegetable can be used.



Shuti Soup

“Shuti” is an Indian name for large river snails, popular in Chiapas.  This soup is included mainly for ethnographic interest, but it would be good with more or less any seafood.



1/2 lb. tomato

2 quarts water

1 onion

1 hojasanta leaf

l/2 lb. toasted squash seeds

2 ancho chiles, seeded and soaked


Quickly cook and trim the snail.  Cook all for 15 minutes.”

(translated from Conaculta Oceano 2000a:17)



Soup to Raise the Dead (Caldo Levanta-muertos)


1 tongue (veal or beef; whole tongue, untrimmed)

1 brain (ditto)

1 oxtail

1 chicken

3 large tomatoes

1 large onion

1 head garlic

1 large sprig thyme

1 large sprig oregano


Small highland chiles

Salt to taste



Boil and skin the tongue.  Cook the brains briefly with salt.  Cut up the chicken and boil.  Separately, fry the achiote, then add in the tomato, onion, garlic, thyme and oregano (the vegetables being chopped).  Add these into the pot with the brains; then add the meat, cut up.  Cook till done.  Fry the chiles and blend; add at the last minute.

This may or may not raise the dead, but at the worst it will do as well as anything else for the purpose.  It is the sort of thing people love to recommend for a cold or a hangover; I think this is the source of the name.



Squash-flower Soup


1/2 cup cream

1/2 lb. squash flowers (trimmed of stems)

8 summer squash

4 poblano chiles

2 sweet corn ears

1 tbsp. chopped onion

1 tbsp. epazote, cut up

1 quart boiled bilk

1/2 stick butter

Salt to taste


Fry the onion in the butter.  Cut the flowers into 3-4 pieces each and add.  Seed, roast and peel the chiles; cut up and add.  Then add the grains from the corn ears; then the squash, cut up.  Stir-fry all.  Season and cover.  Boil for a few minutes, then add the milk and the epazote and simmer briefly.  Finally add the cream.



Sweet Corn Soup


8 cobs sweet corn

3 tomatoes

1 1/2 oz. butter

1 onion

1/2 tsp. pepper

Salt to taste



Cut the corn off the cobs.  Blend up some of the grains and add to some water.  Blend up the tomato and fry in the butter with the rest of the corn, the pepper and the onion (chopped).  Combine all and cook very briefly.



Tapachula Soup

Tapachula, the market city of far southeast Chiapas, has its own cuisine.


1 lb. squash flowers

2 tbsp. lard

1 onion

Grains from 2 ears sweet corn

2 quarts milk

2 oz. butter

2 tbsp. flour

1/2 cup cream

2 summer squash

3 tbsp. flour

2 eggs

Salt and pepper to taste


Wash the flowers and remove stems.  Cut up and fry in lard.  Separately fry the onion (cut up).  Add the corn.  Add half the milk and combine all the above.

Blend all.  Add the rest of the milk.

Fry the flour in butter.  Mix in some milk (i.e., make a standard white sauce).  Season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, separately, cook the squash; cut up; fry quickly.  Then dip these slices in a flour-egg batter and deep-fry.

Put the cream in a soup tureen.  Pour in the soup.  Add the fried squash and serve immediately.



Tortilla Soup

A Chiapan variant of a universal Mexican staple.


1/2 cup cream

18 tortillas, toasted and cut into wedges

2 oz. grated Mexican white cheese

1 tomato

1 small chile (fresh, or, if dried, seeded and soaked)

3 cups chicken stock

Sprig of mint

2 garlic cloves

Pinch of black pepper

Salt to taste


Peel the tomato (after immersing in boiling water for a minute to make this possible) and blend up with the chile and garlic.  Combine this with the other ingredients and bring to boil.

Here, too, anything and everything goes.  Leaving out the cream; adding some of the chicken meat; using other herbs; adding more vegetables–No two soups need be alike.








2 lb. meat (pork or lamb, preferably)

4 ancho chiles

2 garlic cloves

1/2 tsp. pepper

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 bay leaves

2 arrayán leaves (a local Chiapas plant, rather similar to bay, so just use more bay leaves if you are not near a Chiapas market)

1 tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. vinegar

1 oz. lard

Salt to taste


Seed the chiles and fry.  Blend up.  Separately, grind the garlic, thyme, and oregano.  Cut up the meat and fry it in the lard.  When it is half done, add the other ingredients and cook another 20 minutes.

Variants on this theme involve marinating beef or pork steaks in the recado and cooking them in a pan, etc.




Chiapas version of a classic Iberian dish.


2 lb. sheep tripe and/or assorted variety meats of sheep or goat

Piece of sheep’s liver

2 tomatoes or 1/3 lb. tomatillos

1 ancho chile

1 small French roll, toasted

1 sprig parsley

1/2 tsp. achiote

1/2 tsp. pepper

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon


Salt to taste


Wash the tripe and cool with salt.  Separately, blend the tomatoes, chile (soaked and seeded), toast, liver, pepper and cinamon.  Fry the achiote and then add in the blended vegetables.  Then add the tripes and parsley, all cut up.  Boil.



Chanfaina a la Chiapa de Corzo

Chiapa de Corzo is an old, tranquil market town in central Chiapas.


1 1/2 lb. beef variety meats: liver, heart, tripes, kidneys

1 tomato

1 onion

Sprig of thyme

2 cinnamon sticks

2 cloves

2 black peppercorns

1 tbsp. breadcrumbs

1/2 cup liver paste (homemade; cook and grind the liver)

2 tbsp. achiote


2 tbsp. vinegar

Salt to taste


Cook the beef parts in salted water.  Take out the meat; save the stock. Cut up the meat.

Chop the tomato and onion and fry in lard.  Add the cut-up meat and stir-fry.  Then add the stock from the meat.  Dissolve the ground liver and breadcrumbs in some of the stock.  Add the vinegar, achiote, and spices.   Combine all and cook ten minutes.



Chojen Salad

A common Highland Maya dish with a Maya name.


1/2 lb. cold roast beef

1 onion

2 tomatoes

3 bunches of radishes, cut up

Juice of 2 limes or bitter oranges

Green chiles

Salt to tasste


Cut up all ingredients finely.  Mix.

A standard variant uses a beef stomach, cooked, cooled, and cut up.  This may not be to the taste of all readers.  Like the Yucatan counterpart, this dish used to be made with deer meat.





1 lb. beef, cooked and cut up

1 lb. pork ribs, ditto

1 lb. pork back meat, ditto

1 lb. beef brisket, ditto

2 tomatoes

1 onion

1 garlic clove

1 bunch cilantro

11 tsp. achiote

Longaniza, sliced

3 chayotes

Handful of green beans

6 small potatoes

4 carrots, cut up

1 small cabbage, cut up in chunks

2 corn ears in chunks

1 quince, cut up and cored

3 small sour apples, whole

6 peaches (fairly hard ones)

1 plantain

6 summer squash


Salt to taste


Put in a large pot enough water.  Add salt, onion, garlic and tomato.  Separately, fry the achiote; throw out the seeds and add the oil to the pot.  Then add the meats and vegetables.  Simmer for about half and hour.



Cold Pork Leg

Another of the cold meat dishes so popular for lunch in Chiapas.


1 pork leg

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

2 bay leaves

2 arrayan leaves (or 2 more bay leaves)

2 limes


Salt to taste


Spice mix:

2 ancho chiles

1 tomato

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

2 bay leaves

2 arrayan (or bay) leaves

2 garlic cloves

1 tbsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. pepper


Salt to taste


Marinate the leg in the lime juice with water and salt for 3 hours.  Then take out of this liquid and boil in water to which the herbs are added.

Meanwhile, seed and fry the chiles.  Blend with the other ingredients (except the leaves).  Fry the resulting mix quickly, adding the whole leaves.

Cover the leg with this, bake half an hour, chill, and serve sliced.

Variant: Make more recado, slash the leg, and rub the extra recado into the slashes.  This is less authentic but spicier.



Grilled Ham


1 smoked ham (Virginia ham will do)

5 onions

4 heads garlic

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

6 laurel leaves

5 arrayan leaves

1/2 lb. brown sugar

1 large piece of pineapple

1 stalk of fennel (finocchio)

7 quarts or more of water


Boil the ham for two hours or more with all the ingredients except the sugar.  Cool and skin it.  Slice.  Sprinkle the slices with sugar and grill them.





Fiambres just means “cold cuts” in Spanish.


1 veal tongue

1 chicken

8 pig’s feet (that is, 8 feet, not the feet of 8 pigs)

1 lettuce head

6 tomatoes

6 onions

3 avocados

8 radishes

2 oranges

3 tbsp. vinegar

1/2 cup oil

Salt to taste


Boil the meats.  Make a salad with the lettuce (cut up), tomatoes (in strips), onions, oil and vinegar.  Cut up the meats and mix into the salad.  Garnish with radishes, orange slices and wedges of avocado.

It is good to make this in two parts: first mix the meat and dressing, then leave it to marinate for a few hours, then add the vegetables just before serving.

As the name suggests, you can really use any cold boiled meat for this.



Mixed Meats with Beans

Variant of the pork-and-beans dish (probably of Celtic ancestry) known everywhere in the Hispanic/Iberian world.


2 lb. black beans

6 oz. salted meat

6 oz. chicharron (fried pork rinds)

6 oz. longaniza sausage

6 oz. pork short ribs

1 onion

1 head garlic

Pickled serrano chiles

Salt to taste


Wash and soak beans.  Cook with garlic and onion.  After half and hour, take them off the fire and add in the meats.  Cook another half hour.  Add the chiles and cook ten minutes.

We recommend that the salt meat be soaked and drained first, and the sausage fried to get rid of excess oil.



Mole Chiapas Style

A local variant of the Mexican staple.


1/2 lb. mulato chiles (dried)

1/2 lb. ancho chiles (dried)


Chicken or turkey boiled with an onion; save the stock

1 plantain

3 oz. raisins

5 oz. sesame seeds, toasted

3 pieces of sweet bread, toasted or fried

1 tortilla, toasted or fried

1/4 onion, cut up and fried

2 lb. tomatoes, cut up and fried

Salt and pepper to taste


Seed and fry the chiles.  Soak in the stock.

Fry the onion, then the tomato.

Blend the chiles and stock; separately, the onion and tomato; then the other ingredients, all in the stock.

Cook till the mix thickens.  Pour over the fowl.

Variants: cinnamon and garlic can be added to good advantage.  Other spices are possible but less traditional.  (Chocolate is not used in Chiapas moles.)

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2000a:44)




Interesting for the indigenous name, from Zoque.


1 lb. pork chops

1 lb. pork loin meat

2 tbsp. lard

2 tomatoes

3 garlic cloves

Hot chile to taste

2 tbsp. achiote paste

Juice of 2 limes

3/4 cup masa

Salt to taste


Cut up the meat, removing bones.  Cook in a little water till getting done.  Then fry in lard.

Blend the tomato, garlic, chile and achiote.  Add to the meat.  Add the stock, beating in the masa and lime juice.  Cook briefly.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2000a:45




1/2 lb. beef

1/2 lb. pork leg

3 potatoes

1 tomato

1 chayote

2 carrots

2 ears of sweet corn

4 oz. string beans

1 quince

Large sprig of mint

1 lb. cabbage

1 tsp. achiote

3 garlic cloves

1 quart water


Salt to taste


Cut the meat up finely.  Chop the onion and garlic.  Fry in oil in the saucepan.  Add the tomato, finely chopped.  Then add the water, salt and achiote.  (If you use the grains, not the paste, fry separately and take the seds out.)  When it begins boiling, add the meat, then the quince, then the vegetables–the sweet corn last, toward the end.  Finally add the leaves from the mint, just before serving.



Pork and Sausage with Scarlet Runner Beans

Another variant on the pork-and-beans dish.  See above, Mixed Meats with Beans.


2 lb. scarlet runner beans (or any dried bean)

2 ancho chiles

1 slice of bread

1 tomato

2 chorizos

1/2 lb. short ribs of pork, cut up

1/2 lb. longaniza sausage

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

Salt to taste


Wash, soak and cook the beans till tender (if dry, they will take a couple of hours or more).  Seed and fry the chiles.  Grind the bread and fry it up with the cut-up sausages and meat.  Combine all and simmer.  Arrayán or bay leaves make a very good addition.

Pretty much the same thing is made with lentils, which take much less time to cook and thus can be cooked with the meat.



Pork Leg


1 bone-in pork leg (3 to 5 lb.)

1 onion

1 bunch parsley

2 chorizo sausages

2 garlic cloves

3 oz. ham

3 oz. butter

3 large tomatoes

Juice of 5 oranges

1 tsp. pepper

1 cup water

Salt to taste


Rub the leg with butter, salt and pepper, and the juice of the oranges.  Marinate in the orange juice overnight.

Bone the leg and stuff the resulting hollow:

Chop the ham, onion, parsley, chorizos and one tomato finely. Fry all.  Drain thoroughly and stuff into the pork leg.

Add the water and the other two tomatoes, blended up, to the marinade.  Bake the pork in this, basting occasionally.  Serve decorated with lettuce leaves and other garnishes.




Puchero with Chaya


2 lb. pork chops

1/4 lb. rice


6 peppercorns

Sprig of thyme

3 tomatoes

1 onion

3 garlic cloves

1 large bunch chaya leaves


Cook the chops in 2 quarts of water with the onion and one garlic clove.  Separately, roast and peel the tomatoes, and blend with another garlic clove.

Fry to color a strip on onion and the last garlic clove.  Add the rice, fry golden, and add in the tomatoes.  Add the spices.  Precook the chaya if it is tough.

Cook quickly, add 3/4 cup water, and then the pork and chaya.  Cook til rice is done.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2000a:28)




An indigenous dish, originally made with game.  Also known as “siguamonte.”  Any meat with bone in can be used.


2 lb. meat

1 tomato

1 onion

6 small potatoes

3 carrots

2 garlic cloves

1 tsp. achiote

1 sprig epazote

10 small highland chiles

2 tbsp. oil

Salt to taste


Cut up the meat and roast it.  Then cook in salted water for an hour if using  venison–otherwise, omit or reduce this step.  Fry the achiote; then, in the oil, the garlic, onion, and tomato, all chopped.  Add all to a baking dish with potatoes, carrots (cut up), chiles (toasted and ground), the epazote and the salt.  Cook 15-20 minutes.

Variants exist; any game can be used, and the vegetables can be adapted as you wish.



Stuffed Chiles


1 lb. pork

10 poblano chiles

2 small onions

5 tomatoes

1 carrot

2 summer squash

1 1/2 oz flour

Few raisins

4 eggs, separated

1 tsp. pepper

4 garlic cloves

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano


Salt to taste


Seed the chiles, fry, leave in a towel for a while, and peel.

Cook the meat with the garlic, onion and tomato.  Cool and cut up.  Fry the onion and tomato.  Cut up the other vegetables and add in, along with the meat, raisins and seasoning.

Cut up the rest of the tomatoes, onion, garlic and herbs.  Fry and blend.

Stuff the chiles; powder with flour.   Beat the whites of the eggs to peaks.  Add in the yolks and a tablespoon of flour.  Cover the chiles with this and fry in hot oil, then add the sauce and simmer.



Stuffed Onions


6 oz. cooked pork leg

3 large onions

2 oz. flour

3 tomatoes

3 eggs, separated

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

1/2 tsp. pepper

2 garlic cloves


Salt to taste


Cook the onions with salt for 15 minutes (or less).  Take out and carefully remove centers.  Chop these.

Cook the pork and chop finely.  Fry with the onion centers, one garlic clove (mashed) and one tomato (chopped).

Beat the egg whites to peaks. Add in the yolks and flour.  Cap the onions with this and fry them in a good deal of oil.  Set on paper towels to blot up excess oil.

Meanwhile, roast, peel, chop and fry the other tomatoes, with the other garlic clove and the herbs.  Blend all.

Put the stuffed onions into this sauce and simmer 10-15 minutes.



Stuffed Pork Loin

One of the most popular dishes, existing in countless variants.


1 pork loin

1/2 lb. ground pork

1/2 lb. ground beef

2 eggs

4 summer squash

1 strip of pineapple

4 carrots

1 oz. lard

2 lb. tomato

3 oranges

1 head of lettuce

2 tbsp. chopped parsley

3 pickled jalapeno chiles

3 garlic cloves

1 tsp. pepper

Salt to taste


Open out and flatten the loin.

Mix the salt, pepper, garlic (crushed), ground meat, orange juice and beaten eggs.  Cover the flattened loin with the ground meat.  Put on this slices of the vegetables; then roll up the loin in such a manner that every slice of the final roll will be slightly different. Tie it into a log shape, with the stuffing in the center.

Fry it, adding the tomato (roasted and blended), pepper, parsley, juice of one orange, and salt.  Cover and simmer for an hour.

Chill.  Serve cold, adorned with its sauce and with lettuce leaves and jalapenos.

Variants are mostly in regard to the vegetables used in the stuffing and the manner of their display.  For instance, they can be cut into long thin strips, such that they go all the way through the loin, making each slice the same.  Of course, various herbs and seasonings are used to create other variations.

Also, one can oven-roast the loin instead of frying and then simmering.  This isn’t quite as good, but may be necessary if the loin is very large.




A Chiapa de Corzo dish, traditional in festivals.


2 lb. tasajo

2 heaping tbsp. rice, soaked

1/4 cup achiote

1/3 lb. squash seeds, toasted and ground (sikil)

2 tomatoes

1/4 onion

4 oz. lard


Cook the meat a long time in a lot of water.

Then grind the rice with the achiote, in water, for a thick sauce.

Blend the tomato and onion.  Fry in lard.  Add the rice and achiote.  Then stir in the sikil, dissolved in stock.  Cook, stirring.

Serve as sauce on the meat.  (Or—untraditional—cut up the meat and finish cooking in the sauce.)


Tzotzil Radish Salad



Freshly made chicharrones (fried pork rinds) in 1″ squares

Cut up equal amounts of the above.

Season with chopped mint and parsley, and enough lime juice to thoroughly wet all.






Chicken in the Pot

A relatively Spanish-style dish.


1 chicken

4 potatoes

4 chayotes

1/2 cup olives, optional (very Spanish, but I prefer without)

3 tomatoes, cut up

1 onion, cut up

1/2 tsp. ground thyme

1/2 tsp. ground oregano

3 cloves

3 peppercorns

2 bay leaves

2 arrayan leaves (or two more bay leaves)

1 tbsp. ground cinnamon

1 pinch saffron

Salt to taste

1 Spanish canned pimento, cut up, or some pimento strips (optional)

1 cup cooked chickpeas (optional)

1 cup vinegar

1 cup white wine


Cut up the chicken.  Peel and slice the vegetables.  Combine all except the pimento and chickpeas.  Cover the pot and cook in the oven.  Adorn with the pimento and chickpeas at the end.

(Conaculta Oceano 2000a:40)



Chicken with Chorizo


1 chicken

4 chorizos

1 onion

2 garlic cloves

1/2 lb. potatoes

1 quart chicken stock


Salt to taste


Chop and fry the garlic and onion.  Add the chorizo meat (taken out of the skins).  Drain.  Fry well, then add the stock.

Cut the chicken into pieces.  Add to the stock with the potatoes and cook all.



Pressed Turkey

Otherwise known as “stuffed turkey.”  Another passionate favorite.


1 turkey (8-10 lb.)

3 lb. ground pork

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 tsp. pepper

1 small can of chopped pimento

3-4 oz. almonds, finely chopped

1/4 cup vinegar

1 cup sweet wine

1 green onion with stem, cut up

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

1 head of garlic

Salt to taste


Cook and bone the turkey.  Wash and rub with salt and pepper.

To the ground meat, add the other ingredients, except the herbs.  Mix well.  Stuff the turkey and sew it up.  Cook in a large pot with the herbs and salt.  Take out and press by wrapping it in a towel and leaving a heavy object on it; leave all night in the refrigerator to chill, thus weighted down.  Serve cold, sliced, with lettuce leaves and radish for garnish, and red sauce.



Rabbit a la Zihuamonte


1 rabbit

2 potatoes

5 cloves

2 green chiles

3 tbsp. oil

2 garlic cloves

1 onion

2 tomatoes

1 ancho chile

1/4 cup masa

Sprig of epazote

6 peppercorns


Cut up the rabbit.  Bake till golden.  Then put in a pot with water.  Add the potatoes, cloves and green chiles.

Cut up and fry the garlic and onion.  When colored, add the tomato and the rabbit.  Fry separately the dried chiles (seeded and ground).  Add some of the stock, thickened with the masa.  Stir.  Add the epazote and peppercorns.  Then add to the rabbit.

This dish is perfectly good made with chicken.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2000a:38)






If you are totally compulsive, here’s how to smoke meat Chiapas style: Build a box about 5′ square with a grill at the bottom.  Suspend hams and sausages within.  Put hot charcoal on the grill and cover with damp sawdust of pine and/or oak.  Leave till the meats take on the color of old gold.  This is a minimalist description.  I haven’t tried it.  Only someone who knows the tricks of the trade should make the attempt.  Naturally, the charcutiers have more elaborate equipment.





4 lb. pork leg

6 ancho chiles

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

2 tsp. pepper

1 head of garlic, peeled and mashed

Small cup vinegar

Salt to taste (a good deal is necessary)

Sausage skins


Grind the meat fine.  Seed and soak the chiles; blend and add.   Add the herbs and garlic, all ground, and the salt and vinegar.  Stuff the sausage skins thoroughly, making sure there are no air pockets or loosely filled places.  Dry or smoke the sausages.

As usual, you can just fry up the mix instead of making sausages with it.





4 lb. pork

3 heads garlic

2 tbsp. pepper

2 large tomatoes

Salt to taste (a good deal is necessary)

Sausage skins


Separate lean and fat pieces of pork.  Chop up.  Peel and mash the garlic; chop the tomatoes fine.  Mix all and stuff the sausage skins, making sure they are thoroughly stuffed (no air pockets or loose places).  Dry or smoke.





2 quarts blood

1 large onion

2 tomatoes

1 piece of pork fat, ground

1/2 cut cooked rice

Fresh chile, to taste

Mint leaves

Salt to taste (a good deal is necessary)

Sausage skins


Heat the blood.  When thoroughly hot, add the other ingredients, all chopped fine or ground.  Stuff the sausage skins.  Boil the sausages half an hour.  Dry (best done in slow oven).  Even without drying, they will keep, refrigerated, for a long time.  Do not store unrefrigerated (even if dried).



Simple Paté


1/2 lb. liver

1/2 lb. pork

1/2 lb. beef

2 chicken breasts

1/2 cup milk

2 eggs

1 bread roll

4 oz. lard

Salt and pepper to taste


Cook and grind the meats.  Fry the bread in the butter and soak in the milk; grind up.  Beat the eggs.  Mix all the ingredients and put into a greased mold that can be fitted into a bain-marie arrangement (easily jury-rigged with a couple of nesting saucepans).  Cover and simmer till cooked solid.  Chill, unmold, and serve sliced.





Baked Chayote


Scoop out the meat of a cooked chayote.  Mash with sugar, cinnamon, allspice and raisins.  Return to own shell.



Chiles in Escabeche

The same basic recipe is wonderful for wild mushrooms and other vegetables.  For these others (and even for the chiles, if you prefer), leave out the ginger and perhaps the cloves and cinnamon, and add more aromatic herbs and leaves.


2 lb. serrano chiles

1 quart vinegar

1 onion, cut up

1 oz. salt

10 cloves

1 stick cinnamon

10 peppercorns

Sprig of thyme

Sprig of oregano

Small piece of ginger

5 garlic cloves

4 bay leaves

5 tbsp. olive oil, preferably extra virgin (though that is rare indeed in Chiapas)


Wash the chiles and pierce them with a fork.  Boil the vinegar with the spices, adding the chiles when the liquid begins to boil.  Cook till they are olive-colored.

Fry the onion, garlic and bay leaves in the oil.

Put this in a jar and add the chiles and vinegar.

If this is to be sealed and stored, sterilize as with any canned vegetables; but it’s a great deal easier to leave it in the refrigerator.  Covered, it keeps indefinitely.



Scarlet Runner Beans

“Botil” to the Tzotzil Maya, for whom these beans are an important food.  These are large, mottled beans with a distinctive flavor.  Ordinary beans or dried limas can be substituted.  Use large beans that cook up soft but not mushy.


1 lb. scarlet runner beans

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves

2 tbsp. flour

10 highland Chiapas chiles

5 tbsp. oil

Salt to taste


Wash the beans and soak overnight.  Cook for an hour.  Separately, fry the garlic and onion.  Separately (again), fry the chiles, adding the flour slowly.  Then combine all with the beans and simmer 15 minutes.

Any good dried chile will do.  The highland ones are small and hot, so adjust quantities (one really big New Mexico chile can equal to ten highland ones) and hotness.



Vegetables in Escabeche


1/2 lb. fresh chiles

1/2 lb. carrots

1/2 lb. summer squash

1/2 lb. onions

1 cauliflower

Sprig of thyme

Sprig oregano

4 bay leaves (or 2 bay leaves and 2 arrayan leaves)

1 quart vinegar

1 cup water

1 tbsp. sugar

5 tbsp. olive oil

15 black peppercorns

5 cloves garlic

Salt to taste


Cut the garlic and onion into strips and fry.  Cut up the other vegetables.  When the garlic and onion are fried golden, add the vinegar and herbs.  When this begins to boil, add the other vegetables.  Cook briefly; stop when vegetables are still firm.

This dish can be eaten as is, or kept to marinate.

Any mix of vegetables can be used.  Wild mushrooms are marinated the same way, and it is perfectly good for cultivated mushrooms as well.



White Beans

A nice vegetarian dish.


1 lb. white beans

1 ancho chile

1 small French bread roll

2 tomatoes

1 onion

3-5 serrano chiles, canned or fresh

1 small head of garlic

12 tsp. pepper

1/2 tsp. ground oregano

1/2 tsp. ground thyme

Oil and salt as needed


Wash beans and soak overnight.  Cook with the garlic and onion for 45 minutes.  Break up the bread and fry it with the chile (seeded and soaked), the onion and the tomato.  Add these to the beans, then add the spices.  Cook 15 minutes more.



Wild Mushrooms


2 lb. wild mushrooms

1/2 onion

2 lb. tomato

2 bell peppers

1 jalapeno chile, seeded

1 plantain, peeled and cut up


2 hojasanta leaves

Salt to taste


Wash the mushrooms and take off tough or spoiled parts.  Chop the ingredients.  Mix with lard and salt.

Lightly toast a banana leaf and lay the other ingredients on it.  Wrap all in a sheet of aluminum foil and steam 45 minutes.

The original recipe specified the local cusuche mushroom, but any flavorful mushroom does fine.  One can also leave out the plantain.

(based on Conaculta Oceano 2000a:49)





Fruit Cheese

Peaches, apples, quinces, guavas and other fruit are preserved thus.  See Guava Paste recipe in Yucatan section.


Cut up, peel, core or seed and bring to boil.

Put in a colander and leave overnight.

Weigh the pulp.  Mix in sugar, equal to 2/3 of the weight.  (Use the remaining juice, strained out, for making jelly–or just drink it.)

Cook down, stirring constantly, till it begins to separate from the sides of the pot.  (Do this is a Teflon pot with a wooden spoon, unless you want  a fearful mess.)  Turn out into a pan, plate or dish, and cool till solid.



Sandy Cookies a la Chiapas


1 lb. flour

3/4 lb. sugar

3/4 lb. butter

6 eggs

1/4 cup lime juice

1 tbsp. lime zest

11/4 cup milk

1/2 tbsp. baking soda


Cream the butter, mixing in the sugar and then the flour.  Beat in the eggs, one by one.  After this, add the lime juice and zest, and, finally, the baking soda dissolved in the milk.

Butter a cookie dish or a mold and bake till golden.  This recipe is for little cakes made in molds, but is fine for cookies.






The favorite local drink is raw rum, known as aguardiente (“burning water”) in Spanish, and in Highland Maya as pox, which means “medicine.”  (As in Yucatec, x is pronounced sh.)  It has the color and taste of water and the kick of a team of Chiapas mules.  Alcoholism is a problem, so some of the Maya communities have been shifting from pox to cola drinks for ceremonial occasions.  A myth has been duly elaborated that cola has magic powers.  This has led to a new political tension: competition between suppliers of rival cola brands.

One of the great delights of San Cristobal is the punch, locally pronounced bonche, sold piping hot around the cathedral in the evening.  It dispels the mountain cold.  It consists of fruit cooked in water with spices, with pox added to taste.   Bonche may be basically hot pox with a bit of fruit, or a whole lavish fruit cocktail with just a splash of hot pox, or anything in between.

A mescal is made around Comitan from the local agaves; it is something of an acquired taste, being reminiscent of soap.





1 quart aguardiente (vodka will do)

1 lb. sugar

1 oz. anise seeds

Heaping tbsp. fennel seeds

Ten drops of anise essence

1 tsp. nutmeg


Mix and leave three days (more if you want it stronger, but it gets bitter).  Strain and rebottle.

This makes a traditionally sweet, syrupy product.  There is no reason not to cut the sugar way down, to make it bearable to those with a less sweet tooth.


All of Chiapas’ many wonderful fruits are made into liqueurs by similar methods.  Take any fruit, macerate a bit if necessary, and steep in rum or vodka for a few days with a lot of sugar.



Bonche de Piña


1 pineapple

1/2 lb. sugar

1 stick cinnamon

1 piece ginger

10 allspice berries

2 1/2 quarts water


Mash the pineapple with water.  Add the other ingredients and cook.

Lace well with pox (or equivalent–any sort of rum is great).  Serve hot.

It is traditional to crumble up panque–pound-cake–into this, but the result is possibly a bit much for most non-Chiapans.



Bonche de Frutas

This is the fitting end of a Chiapan meal!  There is nothing like warming up with bonche on a cold, drizzly night in front of the Cathedral in San Cristobal.


As above, but instead of pineapple, use finely cut up fresh apple, guava, pear, and perhaps a peach; also prunes, raisins, and bits of sugarcane.

The fruits and spices vary a lot.  A cinnamon stick and some apple, guava and prunes are basic.



Chocolate with Egg


2 lb. cacao beans

2 lb. sugar

2 egg yolks

1 tbsp. ground cinnamon


Toast the beans on a comal till golden.  Take off the skins.  Grind in a metate with the sugar and cinnamon.  When finely ground, add the yolks, mix well, form into cakes and store.

If you aren’t cooking with a comal over an open fire, oven-roast the beans and grind them fine in a food processor (blenders don’t work for this).

Many people add finely ground almonds along with, or instead of, the yolks.



Sour atole

A Maya ritual drink.


2 lb. maize

1/2 lb. sugar

8 cloves

Cinnamon to taste



Soak maize in water for three days, enough to produce some souring.  Then drain, grind, and mix with 3 quarts water.  Add the spices and cook, stirring constantly, till the atole thickens.





This is the traditional chocolate drink of south Mexico.  It is my personal favorite way to absorb chocolate.


Mix toasted corn meal, chocolate, achiote paste, and chile powder or cinnamon, to taste, in water.  Drink hot or cold.

This can be sweetened with honey or sugar, but traditionalists (among whom I number myself) prefer it with only the sweetness of the toasted corn meal.  Usually, the chile is used in the unsweetened version, the cinnamon in the sweetened.


Local pozole (maize drink) is made with chocolate and is similar.  (Pozole in the southeast is usually just cornmeal and water–not a rich stew as it is in north and west Mexico.)








Pozol or “Chorote”

The staple food of much of Tabasco.  This recipe is given here for ethnographic interest, since few readers will be likely to prepare it.


2 lb. dried corn kernels

1/2 lb. cacao seeds, toasted and peeled


Cook the corn with lime (calcium oxide, not the citrus fruit) for a few minutes.  Try a grain to see if it peels easily by rubbing in the hands.  If not, continue cooking.  If so, take the corn and wash it several times, then return to flame and simmer.  This corn is known in most of Mexico as “nixtamal” (a Nahuatl word) but in Tabasco as “chegua.”

Grind the chegua.  Grind the chocolate very fine.  Add both to water.  Strain, using the strainer to beat the mix at the same time to make it foam up.  Cook, stirring constantly.  This can be flavored with achiote, vanilla, and the like.  Various tree flowers are used in Tabasco and neighboring regions.  In Tabasco and Chiapas there are flowers that create a marvelous foam when beaten with the chocolate.



Tostones de Platano


Boil plantains, mash, add some flour to hold together.  Let stand 20 minutes.  Flatten into potato-chip-thin cakes and deep-fry.

This makes a great appetizer, used like tortilla chips to spoon up dips.





A large corn cake.  Shape masa into a cake a foot across and a finger thick, and grill.  This is a staple food.






Chaya Dumpling Soup


1/2 lb. chaya leaves

2 oz. bacon

1 small onion

1 egg (or 2 egg whites, if watching cholesterol)

1 small bread rolls or 2 slices bread, soaked in milk or water

Grated cheese

1 tbsp tomato paste


Parsley, and other herbs as desired (thyme and oregano recommended)

Stock (chicken or meat)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups cooked rice


Chop the chaya and the onion.  Save some of the onion.  Fry the rest, with the chaya, till soft.

Grind up the bacon, bread, herbs, and the rest of the onion.  Mix with the egg, cheese, tomato paste and chaya-onion mix.  Season and form into balls.

Set the soup stock to boil.  Add the rice and chaya balls.  Warm up.  Or, even better to my taste, you can serve the soup over the rice.

Simpler, commoner variant:  just mix the chaya-onion mix with nixtamal or bread crumbs to make the dumplings.



Chipilín Tamales (simple folk form)


2 lb. masa

1 bunch chipilín

1/2 lb. lard


Banana leaves


Prepare the masa as in the other recipes.  Wash, chop and mix in the chipilín leaves.  Proceed as in other recipes, cooking the masa-chipilín mix first (stirring constantly), then making tamales and steaming them for an hour.



Chipilín Tamales (festive form)


1 lb. masa

1/2 lb. chipilín leaves

1/4 lb. lard

Banana leaves (or functional equivalent)

1 lb. pork

2 tomatoes

1 bunch chives

1 small onion


Cook the pork in a little water, chop, and fry with the tomato, chives and onions, finely chopped.

Take the pork stock, stir in the masa, chipilín leaves and lard, with salt to taste.  Cook over low heat.  When thick, stir in the fried ingredients.

Wrap pieces of this mixture in banana leaves.  Steam ca. 20 min.

Serve with tomato sauce.



Garfish Tacos


1 roast garfish (or 1-2 lb. cod, baked till not quite done)

1/2 lb. tomatoes

1/2 lb. onions

Lime or bitter orange, cilantro and tabasco chile to taste.



Flake the fish and fry with the chopped tomato and onion.  Frying here means stir-frying or sautéing, not battering and deep-frying as for the Baja California fish tacos that have recently become popular in the United States.

Make tacos, adding the other ingredients to taste.  (The above are the Tabasco traditional add-ins, but of course you can add whatever you find necessary in a fish taco.)



Garfish Tamales, I


1 small roast garfish (2 lb.; or substitute 2 pounds of cod or similar fish)

1 onion


1/2 lb. tomatoes

1 chile güero (a hot yellow fresh chile), or other hot chile, chopped

1 large sprig of epazote

Salt to taste

4 1/2 lb. masa

2 lb. lard

3 bunches of banana leaves (or substitute)

Oil for frying


To roast a gar in the true Tabasco manner, pass a stick through the mouth and out the cleaning slit, and roast over a fire.  Failing that, grill or bake.

Flake the fish.

Chop the onion; marinate in the vinegar.  Add the tomato, flaked fish, chile, and epazote sprig.  Season with salt and leave to marinate.

Mix the lard (melted) into the masa.  Add enough water to make a rather thin paste.

Cook this, stirring constantly, until a drop of it put on a banana leaf holds together and flows down the leaf.

Make small tamales: spread a tablespoon of masa on a leaf, add a tablespoon of the fish mix, roll up, tie or fold to seal.  (If lazy, make bigger tamales.)

Steam the tamales for an hour.



Garfish Tamales, II


1 medium-sized garfish

1 lb. tomatoes

2 bell peppers

2 green onions or bunches of chives

1/2 tsp. oregano

2 lb. masa

1/2 lb. lard

2 tbsp. achiote paste

Salt and pepper to taste

Leaves for wrapping

Tabasco chiles (if you can stand them; mild chiles if you can’t)


Roast the garfish over charcoal or wood fire.  Skin and bone it.  Chop up a tomato, a bell pepper, and some of the green onion or chives.  Mix the salt, pepper, 1 tbsp. achiote and oregano with this.  Fry all, then add the fish and fry till all is integrated.

Mix the masa with lard and the rest of the achiote, and some salt and soup stock, till it makes a soft, smooth paste.

Carefully add in the fish mixture.  Wrap.

Steam for about two hours.

Make a salsa by chopping together the rest of the tomato, onion, bell pepper, and green onion and the Tabasco chiles.



Pork mone

Mone is a type of steamed meatball.  This one is traditional in wakes for the dead in the area of Torno Largo.


1 lb. ground or well-chopped pork

1 large tomato

1 small onion

1 mild chile

2 hojasanta leaves

Banana leaf

Salt to taste

Lard and water for cooking


Cut up the vegetables and one hojasanta leaf.  Mix with the meat and a little lard.

Lay out the other hojasanta leaf on the banana leaf.  Spread the mixture on it, roll up, and tie.

Put in water and simmer for an hour and a half.

Serve with roasted plantains.

Variants can be made using beef, variety meats, etc.

(Several other mone recipes are in Conaculta Oceano 2001c:18.)



Tamales in the Pot


1 lb. pork chops

1 chicken

1 tortilla

3 chiles

3 cloves garlic

4 tomatoes

1 onion

8 or 9 leaves epazote

Oregano, cumin seeds and achiote to taste

3 lb. masa

1 lb. lard

1 bell pepper

6 Tabasco peppers

1/2 lb. pepitas (pumpkin seeds)



Cut the meat into 10 portions.  Boil, putting in the pork first, later the chicken, till almost done.

Brown the tortilla.  Seed and roast the chiles and soak in hot water.  Cut up the garlic, two tomatoes, and half an onion and fry them with the seasonings.  Add the tortilla and chiles and blend, using some of the broth.

Cook the meats a bit more in this soup.

Mix the masa with the rest of the broth, the lard, and some salt.  Cook, stirring constantly.

Roast and peel the bell pepper, roast the rest of the onion, toast the Tabasco peppers, and blend with the rest of the tomatoes, for a salsa.

Toast and grind the pepitas, i.e. make sikil.

Take ten small pots.  Put in each a banana leaf.  Add a bit of the masa.  Put on this the meat mixture.

Bake for 20 minutes.

To serve, turn out on a plate, remove the leaf, and cover with the sauce and ground seeds.






Cowboys’ Stew

This uses the dried and salted beef of Tabasco, which cowboys carry for rations while riding the range.  The hot, humid climate depletes the body’s salt in short order, hence the need for extremely salty food.


2 lb. tasajo (dried salt beef, like jerky but saltier and a bit moister)

2 plantains

1/4 small winter squash

10 chaya leaves

1 mild green chile

1/4 onion

1 tomato

Parsley, chives, salt to taste


Boil the meat till tender.

Add the plantain (peeled and cut up), the squash (in pieces) and the chaya leaves (separately, and in that order, letting them cook a bit before adding the next item).

Roast the chile, onion and tomato.  Peel.

When all is cooked, add the chile, onion, tomato, parsley and chives.  Cook very briefly.

Those not riding the Tabasco range will want to soak the salt out of the meat first–or just substitute fresh meat.



Fish Soup with Hojasanta, I


In rich fish stock, cook a chunk of snook belly meat with one hojasanta leaf.

Tomatoes and Tabasco parsley make good additions.



Fish Soup with Hojasanta, II

“Mojarra” can be used for this, but it’s better with belly meat or steak of snook.  Any good firm white-fleshed fish will do.


1 tomato

1 bell pepper

1 xkatik chile

3 lb. white fish (whole, or fillet with bone and skin)

4 tender hojasanta leaves

6 black peppercorns

Oregano, salt and oil to taste (the oil is optional)


Chop very fine, or blend, the tomato and peppers.  Fry for sofrito.  Add water, the fish and hojasanta leaves and the other ingredients.  Boil till fish is just done.



Fish Soup with Hojasanta, III

Ingredients as above, plus one more tomato and an onion


Chop and fry the tomatoes, onion and peppers.  Put with fish in 3 cups water.  Add the spices.  Cut up the leaves and add.


This is especially recommended as a truly incomparable and extremely simple dish.  Almost any fish will do; a mixture of seafood is wonderful.  This is a recipe in which hojasanta can be readily replaced by finocchio, in which case you have something similar to Italo-Californian cioppino.



Fish Stew


2 lb. whole fish

3 cloves garlic

1 laurel leaf

3 carrots

3 small summer squash, preferably Mexican gray sq uash

1 tomato

6 small potatoes

1 chayote

1 small head cabbage

1 medium-sized onion

1 bunch cilantro

4 or more chaya leaves

2 small ears sweet corn

Salt to taste



Fillet the fish.  Make a stock by cooking the heads and bones for 20 minutes in water, with salt to taste.  Strain.

Chop the garlic and fry in 2 tablespoons oil.  Mash the tomato (in a blender or the like) and add.

Add in the vegetables, cut into chunks except for the potatoes, which should be whole and unskinned.  Cook till getting soft.

Add the fish fillets; cook for ten more minutes.  Mix in the mashed garlic and tomato.

Serve with white rice.  On the side, serve chopped green chiles, cilantro and onion.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001c:22)



Garfish soup


l large garfish

1 bitter orange

2 plantains

1 tomato

1 onion

1 bell pepper

2 garlic cloves

Oregano, cilantro, achiote, salt and oil to taste


Scrub the fish with the bitter orange, squeezing the juice out as you do so.

Set the plantains (peeled and chunked) to boil.  When almost done, add the fish, the tomato (cut up and fried in the oil), and the other ingredients.  Simmer till fish is done.



Plantain Soup


3 plantains

1 tbsp. vinegar

1 tomato

1 bell pepper

2 green onions (scallions)

10 peppercorns

Lard or oil


Chicken stock

1 small ranch cheese (a fresh, white, rather dry and salty cheese.  Look for queso ranchero at a Hispanic market, or substitute feta)


Boil the plantains and mash.

Blend the vinegar, tomato, bell pepper, and onions, and fry.  Grind the peppercorns and add in.

Mix in the plantain and salt.  Fry the paste again.

Mix in a bit of chicken stock to make a thick creamy texture.

Cut up the cheese and top the soup with it.

Variant: By using a vegetable stock, this becomes one of the few really good vegetarian dishes in the Tabasco file.



Seafood Soup


1/2 lb. tomatoes

1 onion

1/2 head garlic

1/2 lb. snook

1/2 lb. crabs in shell

1/2 lb. raw shrimp

1/2 lb. clams

1 tsp. oregano

1 1/2 quarts water

2 bay leaves (or more)

5 tbsp. olive oil

5 white peppercorns

Few capers and green olives


Blend the tomato, onion and garlic. Fry in the oil.

Add the water and boil.

Add the sea food and seasonings.  Cook till done.

When cooked, add in the capers and olives.

Serve hot with quartered limes on the side.

(It would be possible to shell the shrimp and crab first and make a stock with the shells.)



Shrimp Soup


In stock made by boiling many shrimps and shrimp shells, etc., cook shrimp, bits of chile, summer squash, and herbs (parsley, Tabasco parsley, cilantro, others to taste).



Snook Stew


4 large steaks of snook

4 garlic cloves

Oil or lard as necessary

1 small onion

1 bell pepper

1 tomato

2 hardboiled eggs (optional)

2 leaves of Tabasco parsley

1 tbsp. vinegar

Croutons (made from 8 slices of bread, cut up, toasted; optional)

Salt and pepper to taste


Boil a quart and a half of water.  Add the fish; cook for five minutes, take it out, remove bones and skin.

Cut up, and fry, the garlic, onion, bell pepper, and tomato.

Add these to the water and boil.  Return the fish and seasonings to same and cook five more minutes.  Slice the eggs, add, cook five more minutes.  Serve with the croutons.



Soup for the Bridegroom


The Moors brought pilaf to Spain.  In Spanish it became known as a “sopa seca,” literally “dry soup.”  This is a Mexican development of the recipe.  The Moorish flavor–chicken with clove, cinnamon, pepper and so on–has been supplemented by characteristic Tabasco ingredients.


1 lb. rice

Breast meat, and (if you want) liver and gizzard, from 1 chicken

1 large tomato, cut up

1 bell pepper, cut up

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tbsp. cilantro, cut up

1 tbsp. Tabasco parsley, cut up fine

1 clove

10 peppercorns

1 stick cinnamon

1 sprig oregano (or 1 tsp.)

1 tbsp. achiote paste

1 tbsp. vinegar


Lard or oil

Salt to taste


Wash and soak the rice.

Boil the other ingredients and chop fine.

Fry all with the soaked (but uncooked) rice.  Add stock, to 1″ above the level of the rice mix.  Simmer till rice is done.








“Choco” dialect for “catfish.”


1 large catfish

1 lime

2 leaves of hojasanta

4 leaves chaya

3 shallots

1 tomato

3 Tabasco chiles

1 garlic clove


Leaves of banana or the like, to wrap


Clean the catfish.  Rub with salt and lime.  Put on the hojasanta leaves.  Chop finely the chaya.  Blend the garlic, shallots, tomato and chiles.  Wrap all in the hojasanta leaves, rub with some lard, and wrap in the banana leaves.  Bake in moderate oven (350-375o) for half an hour.





2 lb. freshly caught fish (raw)

4 limes

1 tbsp salt

2 tomatoes

1 onion

1/4 cup cilantro

1 Serrano chile

1 tbsp olive oil

10 olives

2 avocados, sliced


Cut up the fish.  Cover with the lime juice and salt and let stand in a cool place for 4 or 5 hours.  Chop the vegetables finely.  Mix them and the other ingredients.

Ceviche is, of course, a universal Mexican delicacy; this is a Tabasco variant.  Any fresh sea food can be used (the more the better–a contrast in textures is desirable).  However, be absolutely certain the sea food is really fresh and from uncontaminated water.  Pollution has rendered Mexican seafood very dangerous when raw.  Sadly, Tabasco is one of the worst-polluted areas.



Drunken Fish


1 tomato

2 Serrano chiles (remove seeds and membrane)

4 allspice berries, powdered

Oregano to taste

2 or more bay leaves

1 glass of sherry

3 tablespoons vinegar

1/2 stick butter

1 onion

3 garlic cloves

Salt to taste

1 large snook or other fish (whole or in steaks)


Blend the vegetables.  Add the wine, vinegar, bay leaves and spices, and a little butter.  Marinate the fish in this for half an hour.  Then add the rest of the butter, and the fish, and simmer (or bake) in a covered dish till sauce is mostly absorbed.



Fish in Adobo

Any firm but delicate white-fleshed fish is good for this.

“Adobo” is cognate with French “daube.”  It refers to a cooking process in which pieces of meat or fish are highly spiced and then simmered, or cooked in a casserole.


1 bream or similar fish, ca. 2-3 lb.

3 limes

1 onion

6 garlic cloves

10 cumin seeds

1 piece achiote (cube of paste or small bag of powder)

2 cloves

1/2 tsp oregano

8 peppercorns

2 oz. vinegar

1/2 cup oil


Clean the fish.  Slash diagonally.  Marinate for an hour in water with juice of one lime.  Then scrub the fish.  Blend the onion and garlic; add the achiote, and the spices, powdered.  Mix these with the oil and juice of the other 2 limes, and enough vinegar to make a paste.  Rub this over the fish.  Let stand one hour, then bake at 350o, basting with the sauce occasionally.



Fish in Hojasanta Leaves


2 lb. seabass or similar fish

1 tomato

2 (or more) laurel leaves

1 onion

1 bell pepper

2 tsp. oil

Parsley leaves

Cilantro leaves

Tabasco parsley leaves

Chipilín leaves

Hojasanta leaves

Pepper, oregano and salt to taste


Rub the fish with the pepper, oregano and salt.  Add the tomato, bell pepper, and onion, all cut into strips.  Add the chipilín, chopped, and the oil.

Wrap in the hojasanta leaves.  Wrap the whole bundle in foil.   Bake at 350o till done (20-30 min.).



Fish in Paper (a simpler variant of the above)


For six persons:

6 pieces fish

6 cloves garlic

6 leaves of hojasanta

Salt and pepper to taste

10 green chiles

1 further clove garlic

1 slice of onion


Crush the garlic and spread it on the fish.

Roast the chiles and blend with the garlic clove and onion slice.  Briefly fry the mix in a little oil.  Spread this too on the fish.

Wrap each fillet in an hojasanta leaf, wrap the result in aluminum foil (or cooking paper), and bake at 350o.


Fish with Tabasco Parsley


1 fish or fillet, ca. 2 lb.

1 lime


1 large bunch of Tabasco parsley

3 peppercorns

1 garlic clove

1 cinnamon stick

1 slice of breaad

Salt and pepper to taste

Water to cook


Wash the fish and rub with lime, salt and pepper.  Cook in moderate oven, covering with the Tabasco parsley, pepper, garlic, cinnamon and moistened bread, blended, and fried in a little oil.

This dish is perfectly good with ordinary parsley.  Indeed, it is similar to dishes of Spain and other parts of Mexico that use ordinary parsley.

(Conaculta Oceano 2001c:31


Garfish in Chirmol

If you can’t get a garfish–or maybe even if you can–you might try this with any other firm-fleshed fish, whole or filleted.


1 garfish of ca. 3 lb.

3 thin tortillas

4 garlic cloves

1 large tomato

5 shallots

3 dried chiles

1 piece achiote (small cake or cube, or a small bag of achiote powder)

5 allspice berries

1/2 lb. masa

1/4 cup lard or oil

1 bunch epazote

A little oregano



Wash and clean the fish.

Toast the chiles; remove seeds and membranes.  Toast and crush the tortillas.  Roast the tomato, onion and garlic.  Fry and mash these together.  Grind the chiles and spices, and mix in.  Simmer to thicken.  Add the fish and enough water to cover.  Thicken the soup with the masa, add the lard, epazote, and oregano, and cook.

(Conaculta Oceano 2001c:32)


Fish with Tabasco Parsley


1 fish or fillet, ca. 2 lb.

1 lime


1 large bunch of Tabasco parsley

3 peppercorns

1 garlic clove

1 cinnamon stick

1 slice bread, moistened

Salt and pepper to taste

Water to cook


Wash the fish and rub with lime, salt and pepper.  Cook in moderate oven, covering with the Tabasco parsley, pepper, garlic, cinnamon and moistened bread, blended, and fried in a little oil.

This dish is perfectly good with ordinary parsley.  Indeed, it is similar to dishes of Spain and other parts of Mexico that use ordinary parsley.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001c:31


Garfish in Chirmol

If you can’t get a garfish–or maybe even if you can–you might try this with any other firm-fleshed fish, whole or filleted.


1 garfish of ca. 3 lb.

3 thin tortillas

4 garlic cloves

1 large tomato

5 shallots

3 dried chiles

1 small cube achiote, or achiote powder made up into paste

1 tsp allspice

1/2 lb. masa

1/4 cup lard or oil

1 bunch epazote

A little oregano



Wash and clean the fish.

Toast the chiles; remove seeds and membranes.  Toast and crush the tortillas.  Roast the tomato, onion and garlic.  Fry and mash these together.  Grind the chiles and spices, and mix in.  Simmer to thicken.  Add the fish and enough water to cover.  Thicken the soup with the masa, add the lard, epazote, and oregano, and cook.



Garfish in green sauce


1 garfish, ca. 3 lb.–or any other fish; this will work for anything, and almost any firm white-fleshed fish is better than a garfish unless you are a loyal Tabasqueño.

This recipe is a much-transformed descendent of a medieval Hispano-Moorish delicacy (see Introduction).  One wonders what the refined gourmets of old Grenada or Cordova would have made of a garfish—a living fossil biologically, and looks and tastes like it.


4 oz. chipilín leaves

4 oz. chaya leaves

2 oz. Tabasco chile leaves

1 chile xkatik

1 onion

5 cloves garlic

4 tsp. lard or oil


1/2 lb. masa


Wash the gar and cut in pieces.

Blanch and blend the leaves.  Take a slice off the onion and one from the chile; reserve for a minute.  Blend the remainder of these two items with the leaves.  Put the blended vegetables in pot with the gar, add salt (and water if necessary), and cook over a fairly low fire.

Fry the slice of onion and the slice of bell pepper.  Add to the rest.

Stir in the masa.  Cook till the whole turns from green to yellow; this should indicate doneness.

Tabasco chile leaves are widely but uncommonly used as a vegetable in Mexico.  (I have also seen them as a vegetable in parts of East Asia.)



Garfish Roasted

Possibly not the world’s most sophisticated recipe, but one of the very commonest in use in Tabasco.


1 garfish

5 shallots or onions

20 Tabasco chiles


2 limes


Roast the gar over coals.  Make a salsa of the other ingredients.



Piguas roasted

Recall that piguas are giant crayfish-like prawns.


2 lb. piguas, peeled

Juice of bitter orange

Salt, tabasco chiles, garlic, pepper.


Blend the condiments.  Paint the piguas with it; leave half an hour.  Cook in a covered pan or casserole dish till they become dry and golden.



Piguas with Garlic

See note on piguas, above.


4 large piguas

10 garlic cloves

10 ground peppercorns

2 limes

Salt to taste


Shell the piguas.  Mix the other ingredients and marinate the piguas half an hour.  Proceed as in previous recipe.  Cook very quickly.

This should be intensely garlicky.

Any large prawn or langostino will do as substitute.



Shrimp in Escabeche


2 lb. fresh shrimp

1/2 cup olive oil

4 tomatillos or tomatoes

6 yellow chiles, chopped

1 large onion

10 black peppercorns

6 laurel leaves

6 allspice leaves (if you can’t find any, use some ground allspice)

1/2 tbsp oregano

1 cup vinegar

10 garlic cloves


Peel the shrimp.  Fry in a bit of oil.  Add the other ingredients (except the vinegar), the spices ground, the leaves and vegetables chopped fine or less so according to taste.  Fry a bit more, then add the vinegar and boil till seasoned (a very brief time).



Shrimp in Green Sauce

That medieval green sauce again.


2 lb. shrimps

30 chaya leaves

4 garlic cloves

1 small onion

1 lb. masa

1/2 lb. lard

Leaves of chipilín

Salt to taste


Shell and clean the shrimp.

Blend the vegetables and cook with the shrimp.

Meanwhile, mix the masa with water to make a paste.  Mix into the shrimp.  Then mix in the lard and salt.  Cook.



Snook Casserole


Large snook (6 lb.)

1 laurel leaves

1 lime


2 onions

10 allspice berries

2 cloves

2 tomatoes

6 tbsp olive oil

Parsley, 1 bunch, chopped

1 jalapeno chile, cut up

2 tbsp lard


Boil the fish briefly with one laurel leaf, half a lime, salt, onion, allspice and cloves.  Pour off and save the water.  Fry the fish in a little oil in the same dish.  In a separate pan, take 4 tsbp oil, a chopped onion, then add the tomato, roasted and mashed.  When fried, add chopped parsley and 2 tbsp of the fish broth.  Add the fish and chile.  Put in a pan greased with butter.  Breadcrumbs can be added on top.  Bake for 10 minutes.



Snook steaks


2 lb. snook steaks

2 limes

1 1/2 tomatoes

2 sweet red peppers or, better, mild and flavorful red chiles

1 onion


Olive oil

Bottled chile pepper sauce (Mexican or Caribbean) if you can stand it


Oil for frying


Season the steaks with lemon and salt.  Fry briefly in a little oil.

Slice the vegetables.  Fry in oil with chile sauce and ground allspice to taste.

Cover the steaks with this, wrap in aluminum foil and bake for 7 minutes.



Snook Stew


2 onions, sliced

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 cups tomato, blended

1 bunch parsley, chopped

1 bunch oregano

1 bunch marjoram

Salt and pepper

2 cups water

2 lb. snook


Blend the vegetables and herbs, and fry.  Add to the water.  When they have boiled five minutes, add the snook, cut in pieces.  Cover and simmer 15 minutes.





1 sole, ca. 1 lb

3 tomatoes

1 onion


2 habanero chiles

Juice of 2 bitter oranges



Clean the sole, rub with salt and pepper, and grill.  Make the other ingredients into a sauce by chopping finely and adding the salt and orange juice.



Stuffed Snook Fillet

Wrap a thin snook fillet around shrimp, octopus bits, parsley.  Cover with local white cheese, crumbled.  Mask with a sauce of onion, tomato and chile, chopped and fried.







Barbecued Ribs a la Tabasco


2 lb. pork rib slab

2 bitter oranges

Salt to taste

4 oz. black pepper

1 head garlic

1 onion

1 clove (or more)

1 pinch oregano (or more)


Marinate the slab in the juice of the oranges, and salt, for 8 hours.

Then mix in the other ingredients and marinate overnight.

Bake in oven till done.

Traditionally a dish of Jalapa, Tabasco, served with thick corn cakes of green corn.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001c:40)




Tabasco variant of a traditional Maya dish (Ts’anchak; see Yucatan section) made with deer when available.


2 lb. stewing beef or venison

2 oz. chives

2 oz. cilantro

2 oz. Tabasco parsley (or ordinary parsley)

1 small onion

1 bell pepper or mild chile

2 garlic cloves

3-5 whole allspice berries (or more to taste)


Cut the meat into cubes, for soup, and boil till meat is tender.  Chop the vegetables.  Add these and the seasonings to the soup and cook till just done.  Eat with relish of chopped cilantro, onion and hot chile marinated in lime juice.



Chile pepper stuffed with meat


1 lb. lean pork

2 garlic cloves

6 cloves

2 onions

2 oz. oil

15 black peppercorns, ground

1 stick cinnamon

3 tbsp vinegar

1/2 tsp sugar

2 oz. raisins

5 egg whites, beaten to meringue

Ca. 5 bell peppers to stuff

1 bell pepper or mild large chile

1 large tomato

1/2 tsp oregano

Small bit of achiote


Boil the meat with one of the garlic cloves and the 6 cloves.  Take out, saving the water.  Mince the meat fine.  Chop the other garlic clove, and one onion, very fine and fry.  Add in the meat.  Grind the spices and add, along with the vinegar and sugar.  Mix these and the raisins into the meat.

Roast, peel and seed the stuffing peppers.  Stuff them, roll in the egg white and a bit of flour, and fry.

Meanwhile, make a soup of the water by blending up some onion, bell pepper, tomato and oregano, frying, adding to the water, and seasoning to taste with achiote or the like.  If desired, add masa to thicken.

Pour this sauce over the peppers and finish cooking (very briefly; just warm them up together).

If you don’t want to fry these, you can treat these as they would be treated in the Near East: leave off the egg whites and bake these in a casserole dish.

(In this case, they are baked in the sauce.)  This is healthier and, to our taste, better.

This is originally a Near Eastern dish, made with Mediterranean vegetables.  The Spanish brought it to Mexico and adapted it to local ingredients.  Variants of it are found all over Mexico.





Meat (beef, pork, deer…), marinated in bitter orange juice, garlic and salt 2 hours

5 dried ancho chiles

2 tomatoes

1 onion

1 piece achiote

8 allspice kernels

10 black peppercorns

1 pinch oregano

5 toasted tortillas

6 tbsp lard

1 spring epazote

8 roasted garlic cloves


Briefly roast the meat over charcoal or flame.  Then add to water and boil.

Vein and seed the chiles.  Roast these, the tomato and the onion; peel.  Blend.  Fry these in the lard.  Grind up the other ingredients.  Add these and the boiling stock from the meat.  Add the epazote.  Simmer till somewhat thick.  Add the meat and serve.

The Tabasco version of a Maya classic.  No doubt some form of it—without the black pepper and garlic—was central to feasts in Palenque and Yaxchilan in their glory days.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001c:43)




“Choco lomo” is a “mestiza-Maya” name: choko means “hot” in Maya, while “lomo” is the Spanish for “loin roast.”  This is basically a Yucatan dish (see Yucatan section), but has spread all over southeast Mexico.


2 lb. beef, cut up

1 beef heart, cut up

1 beef brain

1 beef kidney, prepared (see below)

2 garlic cloves

1 purple onion

1 bell pepper

20 black peppercorns

1 tsp. oregano

2 tsp. vinegar

1 tomato


For salsa:

1 bunch radishes


White onion

Bitter orange juice (or lime juice or vinegar)


Prepare the kidney: soak overnight in refrigerator; discard water; cut up the kidney, trimming off and discarding all membranes and white fibrous parts.

Boil the meats with the garlic, onion (quartered), bell pepper, tomato, and peppercorns.  When meat is close to done, add the oregano and vinegar.

Add the brains toward the very end of the cooking process, and simmer a while.  (If cooked too long or on too hot a fire, they fall apart.)

For the salsa: cut the ingredients fine.  Add the juice.

Kidneys are hard to get and rarely prepared now, in Mexico or the United States.  This is a pity; they are very good if prepared correctly.



Green Sauce (for use on any boiled meat)



Chipilín (or alfalfa sprouts or pea tendrils)

Chile leaves

Tender hojasanta leaves

1 onion

2 tomatillos

1 bell pepper

2 garlic cloves


Masa to thicken


Use equal quantities of all the leaves–weight of each about equal to the weight of the onion.  Blend all the ingredients.  Add to the broth of whatever meat is being used.  Cook, stirring to prevent sticking and burning.  Cut up the meat and add, allowing it to boil once more.  Serve immediately, or it may lose the green color.

Tabasco or regular parsley can be added, or other green leaves that work well.

It is desirable to blanch the chipilin before blending up.





2 lb. beef

1 lb. pork

1 tomato

1 onion

l bell pepper

2 garlic cloves

2 eggs

4 leaves of Tabasco parsley

1 ball of masa (i.e. about half a cup)

1 piece of achiote (cube of paste, or small bag of powder)

1 tbsp viinegar

Salt and pepper to taste


Grind the meats (or just use ground meat from the store) and mix with the garlic, pepper, salt and vinegar.  Leave a while.  Meanwhile, blend the tomato, onion, bell pepper, garlic and salt.  Fry this in lard or oil.  Add a pint of water to form a broth.  Add the achiote and masa.  When boiling, mix two raw eggs with the meat mixture and forming the meatballs.  Add these to the broth, with the parsley leaves (whole, separate).  Boil about half an hour.



Planked Pork Leg


1 pork leg (fresh ham), ca. 6 lb.

1/2 lb. Spanish-style ham

1/4 lb. prunes, soaked and mashed

1/4 glass vinegar

1 pint red wine

1 tomato

1 onion

1 bell pepper

1/2 head garlic

10 black peppercorns

1 spring thyme (or a good deal of powdered thyme)

1 bay leaf

8 allspice berries, or 1 tsp allspice powder

Marjoram, salt, and cinnamon to taste


Remove fat from the leg.  Chop or blend up the other ingredients and rub into the leg, sticking it with a fork to allow the spices to penetrate.  Bake.  Then sprinkle with sugar and roast in a hot fire.

The original recipe called for sodium nitrate to preserve the pork in Tabasco’s tropical climate.  No need for that now.




Tabasco Stew


1 lb. stewing beef

1 lb. beef ribs

1 lb. soup bones

1/2 head of garlic

1 bunch fresh oregano

1 tomato

1 bell pepper

1 onion

1 bunch cilantro

2 ears of sweet corn

2 chayotes

2 macal tubers

1 manioc tuber

1 summer squash

2 plantains

6 chaya leaves



Cut the meat in pieces.  Put in plenty of water and boil.  Add salt and garlic.  Skim the broth.  When the meat is tender, chop and fry up the garlic, oregano, tomato, bell pepper and onion; peel and cut up the other vegetables; add all to the soup.  Cook till nearly done, then add the cilantro and simmer a bit longer.  Serve with white rice.

Macal is a Maya root crop similar to taro.  Potatoes are perfectly good in this in place of macal and manioc.



Tasajo with Chaya and Plantains


1 lb. tasajo (dried salted meat)

4 oz. chaya

2 plantains, peeled and chunked

3 tomatoes

1 bell pepper

1 small onion

1 bitter orange

Oil for frying



Soak the meat in several changes of water.  Then boil it till it softens.

Separately boil the chaya and plantains.

Cut the meat finely, as for hash, and fry till browning.  Add the tomato, pepper and onion, all finely cut up, and then the chaya and plantain, also finely cut up.

Add the juice of the bitter orange.  Cook a little longer.  (The earlier in the process you add the orange juice, the less orange flavor it retains but the more it adds sourness to the whole.  Thus, you can vary the final product to taste.)







Black-bellied Whistling-duck


2 ducks

2 garlic cloves, mashed

1 tomato

1 onion

1 Tabasco chile

10 peppercorns

1 cloves


Salt to taste

1 cube achiote

Juice of 1 bitter orange

3 tbsp lard


Boil the ducks with salt and garlic till they become slightly tender.

Chop the vegetables and grind the spices.  In a casserole dish, heat the achiote till it softens, then add the orange juice.  Add the lard, fry the other ingredients.  Add the ducks; cover and simmer till they are golden.

As noted above, use ordinary duckling for this.



Polish chicken

A festival dish in Tabasco.  The connection with Poland seems pure fantasy, though a tenuous connection via the cabbage and tomato sauce may be implied.


2 chicken breasts

A quarter of a cabbage head, chopped fine

1 garlic clove, chopped


3 tomatoes

2 peppercorns

2 cloves

1 (or more) laurel leaf

1 sprig of thyme, or 1 tsp ground or crushed thyme

1 small can of chipotle chiles

1/2 onion, sliced

Salt to taste

Tomato sauce–just blend up a tomato and spice it


Fry the chicken, cabbage and garlic until lightly browned.

Blend the tomato, spices, and chipotle.  Add to the chicken.  Add the onion, and salt to taste.  Cook dry, then add the tomato puree and cook till done.  Serve with tortilla chips.







Chaya Salad


2 lb. chaya

1/4 onion, sliced

Salt, pepper and lime to taste.


Boil and cut up the chaya.  Mix with the other ingredients.

One can add other vegetables, and/or herbs.



Chaya with Squash

Special recognition for a superior vegetarian dish.


1 lb. chaya

1 lb. Mexican summer squash

1 chopped onion

3 chopped tomatoes

1 cup sweet corn kernels

Salt, pepper and chile to taste


Cook the chaya and chop.  Cut up the squash.  Fry the chaya, squash, onion, tomato and corn for about 20 minutes or till well cooked.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2001c:48)



Chayote Stew


3 chayotes

1/2 onion

1 garlic clove

1 tomato

1 chile

Bunch of cilantro



Wash and peel the chayotes.  Cut in quarters.

Heat oil in a pan.  Add the onion, garlic and tomato.  Fry a while, then add the chayote.

Cover and cook till the chayote is done, then add the chopped chile and cilantro.



Chaya with Plantain


1 lb. pork rib roast or other cut, for boiling

Chaya to taste (1/2 to 1 lb.)

4 plantains

3 tomatoes

1/2 onion

Achiote to taste (1-2 tbsp. recommended)


Cook the pork.  When tender, add the chaya and plantain (cut up).

Cut up the onion and tomato and fry, adding in the achiote.  Then add to the meat and boil.

A rib slab is good for this dish in south Mexico, where pork is meaty and not always tender.  Americans will probably want to save the rib slab for barbecue and use a tougher, more boiling-oriented cut here.



Chayote Torta


10 chayotes

5 eggs

2 oz. raisins

2 tbsp. butter

1 cup lard (this can be cut down, or even left out, for a low-fat version)

2 cups sugar

Salt to taste


Boil, peel and mash the chayotes.

Mix the other ingredients into this paste.

Bake in a greased mold at 350o for about 20 minutes (until browning on top).

“Torta” is cognate with French “torte,” but the Spanish word means several quite different things: sandwiches, omelets, and baked egg dishes like the following.  These egg dishes are of Moorish origin (compare the Persian kuku dishes).



Guacamole a la Tabasco


2 avocados

4 hot chiles

Juice of 1 bitter orange or 2 limes

2 tbsp olive oil (optional)

1 onion, chopped fine

6 peppercorns, ground


Peel and slice the avocados.  Roast, peel, seed and mash the chiles.  Mix these with the bitter orange juice, and then mix in all the other ingredients.  Serve, garnished with raw onion rings and the like.







A version of the standard Mexican corn drink.  Various atoles and pozoles are the staple food of much of Tabasco.


1 lb. masa

3 pints milk, scalded

3 pints water

Pinch of cinnamon or anise

Sugar to taste


Dissolve the masa in the water.  Strain through a colander.  Add the milk and spices.  Simmer, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes.  If too thick, add water to dilute.

This can be made with chocolate also: dissolve one tablet of Tabasco chocolate in the atole as it cooks.

Variants can be made with cooked corn meal or sweet corn.





1/2 lb. masa

3 pints water

1/2 lb. brown sugar

4 oz. chocolate


Make as for atole.



Chaya and Plantain Upside-Down Cake


1 1/2 cups butter

2 1/2 cups sugar

2 plantains

8 pitted prunes

5 eggs

2 cups flour

3 tsp. baking powder

1 can evaporated milk


3 cups cooked and chopped chaya


In a cake mold, put 1/2 cup butter, 1 cup sugar, slices of plantain, and prunes.

Beat a cup of butter with the rest of the sugar, mixing in the eggs one by one.

Mix the flour and baking powder.  Mix this into the above.  While mixing it in, add slowly the milk (mix the vanilla into the milk) and the chaya.

Turn the mix into the mold.

Bake at 325o for 1 hour.  Let stand till cool.  Turn out onto a plate.

If worried about cholesterol, you can use half as much butter, and 7-8 egg whites (discarding the yolks).  Do not, however, use margarine or oil instead of butter.  It won’t work.



Chocolate Made at Home

This recipe is offered for interest.  It’s too much work for a result that is inevitably inferior to good commercial chocolate (unless you have industrial equipment).  It would almost be easier, and certainly more fun, to go to Tabasco and get chocolate there.  It is sold there in many forms, from raw seeds to pure bitter chocolate to the elaborate, spiced chocolate tablets described here.  I prefer the straight bitter chocolate.

This recipe is a standard way to make the chocolate tablets typical of Tabasco.  However, for real chocolate tablets, you have to ferment the beans, and that is an expert technical job out of the reach of the ordinary cook.  You can get raw beans in Central American markets and try this yourself, roasting the beans like almonds in an oven, till they are just brown.  Raw beans are hard to work with–the line between too raw and too burnt is a fine one, and only an expert can roast them properly.  Also, they have a different taste from processed chocolate.


2 lb. cacao beans (seeds of the cacao tree)

1 lb. English-style biscuits (similar to nonsalty crackers or not-very-sweet cookies)

4 oz. almonds

1 1/2 lb. sugar

4 oz. cinnamon sticks

5 egg yolks


Heat a griddle.  On this, heat the cinnamon and then pulverize it.  Then toast the cacao beans until browned.  Peel and grind up.  Soak the almonds in hot water, peel, and toast till golden.

Blend the yolks, almonds, sugar and biscuits.

Mix all the above and pass through mill again.

Form into the characteristic Mexican chocolate tablets: flat disks 2″ to 3″ across and about 1/8″ to 1/4″ thick.

Break up one of these and mix with hot water, for cocoa.



Cocoyol fruits

The hard, sour fruits of a local palm tree.  They are only marginally edible even after this treatment, but they were often the only fruit around; they crop in the worst droughts, and were a famine staple in the old days.  They remain popular.  This product is thus of solely local appeal, but is added for ethnographic interest.


50 cocoyoles

4 cones of raw sugar (i.e. about 2 lb.)


Wash the cocoyoles a long time.  Cook in water.  Add the sugar and cook down to a thick syrup.



Grapefruit Conserve


6 lb. grapefruit

3 or more lb. sugar


Grate the peel, separating the white inner part.  Remove, but save, the membranes, seeds, etc., saving the pulp and juice.  Mix these latter with the sugar.

Boil these.  Put the white peel, membranes and seeds in a cheesecloth bag and cook with the rest until the syrup starts to thicken.  Then take out this bag and squeeze the juice out of it, back into the pot.

Add the peel and cook 10 minutes.

Put into jars, seal and label.

If properly canned (check that the seal is tight) this will last three months.  Of course, you can store it in the refrigerator for quite a long time without an airtight seal.



Guava ears


2 lb. lemon guavas (guayavas)

2 lb. sugar

Juice of 3 limes

1-3 fig leaves


Cut the guavas in half and remove the seeds.  As this is done, put each guava half in the lime juice, to prevent browning and add flavor.

Meanwhile, prepare a syrup: boil a quart of water with the fig leaves.  (These make the syrup thicker and stickier, but can be dispensed with.)  Then add the sugar.

When this syrup thickens, add the guava halves.  Cook down till syrup is thick, stirring frequently.

(cf. Conaculta Oceano 2001c:52, which adds 4 cinnamon sticks)



Monkey Ears


Same recipe as above, but using small wild papayas instead of guavas, and panela (Mexican brown sugar) instead of white sugar.  The fig leaves provide an enzyme that tenderizes the papayas.  The cinnamon can be omitted.  This is a very characteristic Tabasco sweet.  The wild papayas are sharp and sour, counteracting the sweetness of the syrup.



Orange Cake


1 lb. cake flour

Grated peel (zest) from 1 orange

Zest of 1 lime

2 tsp baking powder

10 oz. butter

6 oz. sugar

4 eggs + 4 egg whites

1/4 tsp salt

6 oz orange juice

Orange marmelade

1 packet of confectioners powdered sugar


Mix the flour, zests and baking powder.

Separately, beat the butter and sugar until creamy.  Add in the whole eggs one by one.

Beat in the flour, salt, and orange juice, adding alternately, little by little.

Grease two cake molds and pour in the batter.  Bake 45 minutes at 350o.

Use the orange marmelade between the two layers.

Top with meringue of the beaten egg whites and powdered sugar (or any other frosting desired).





3 large tortillas, without salt

2 tablets of Tabasco chocolate

Cinamon stick


Small amount of achiote powder or dissolved paste (optional, but usual)

Sugar or chile powder to taste


Toast the tortillas in low heat until very crisp but not brown.  (Beware–they go from moist to burned with almost no intermediate stage.  Watch them like a hawk.  In South Mexico they are often just sun-dried.)  Then crush them with the chocolate and cinnamon.  Add to water and sweeten to taste.  This can be drunk as is, but is better cooked a minute and cooled.

An easier variant, universal in Chiapas and southwest Mexico, uses toasted corn meal.

The combination of chocolate and chile is traditional, and I much prefer chile powder to sugar in this recipe.  Tascalate is a very refreshing drink, and making it too sweet ruins it.





Mayaland Cuisine: Yucatan

October 10th, 2016




Dedicated to

Doña Elsi, Doña Zenaida, Doña Noemy

Doña Aurora, Doña Elide and Don Felix,

and all the other teachers



Table of Contents


Yucatan and Quintana Roo                               3


Campeche                                                       85


Chiapas                                                           97


Tabasco                                                           128





This work consists of the recipes lying behind the book K’oben by Amber O’Connor and E. N. Anderson (Rowman and Littlefield 2017).  Originally, the present work (Mayaland Cuisine) had a large component of regular text, introducing and explaining the Maya world and Maya food.  All that material was updated, fleshed out, and incorporated in K’oben.  The recipes, however, were very thinly represented, so here they all are together.  Enjoy!

Gene Anderson, Riverside, CA, 2016



Culinary Specifics

An important characteristic of Yucatecan cuisine is that onions and garlic often roasted.  The distinctive taste of thoroughly roasted and mashed onion or garlic is one of the real “signature flavors” of Yucatan.  Traditionally, they are roasted over an open flame till the skins begin to blacken and the inside begins to soften.  It should be soft enough to mash easily—no more than that.  In the kitchen, the broiler does the best job.  You can also bake them, or roast them in a covered frying pan.

The other recipe chapters of this book are arranged in a traditional cookbook fashion, but I have taken the liberty of arranging this chapter according to local thinking, since it makes the task of explaining everything a good deal easier.  I begin with basic maize staple foods.  Then follows a section for recados.  Then come relishes and salsas.  Then tamales and related foods.  Only then do I move on to the traditional soups, fish, flesh, fowl, desserts, and drinks.

Critical to Yucatecan food are recados (from Spanish recaudo, “collection”), called xak’, “mix,” in Maya.  These are homemade or bought in the market in bulk or in cubes.  These cubes are sometimes found in North American markets that have a Caribbean clientele, but should be avoided unless you know your spices well.  In the United States, cubes of recado and of achiote paste are sometimes adulterated or stale.  Thus, in the following recipes, when the recipe calls for a cube, use a cubic inch of homemade recado.

A special section of the following is devoted to recados.


One recipe needs to be here, as it is basic to tamales and much else that follows:


Maya Lard

Take fat cuts of pork.  Chop fine and fry over low heat, adding some water.  Stir to avoid sticking.  Or: cut into larger chunks and bake (adding water) in moderate oven till the drippings are rendered out and the meat is quite dry.  In either case, enough water must be added so that the meat juices do not cook out or dry up.  The goal is a mix of fat and meat juices, not just fat.





Bread of the Milpa


This is a ritual dish for the Food of the Milpa (janlikool) and Praying for Rain (ch’a’ chaak) ceremonies.  The number 13, the masa, and the sikil were all sacred to the ancient Maya.  The thirteen layers represent the thirteen layers of the cosmos.  These breads are sometimes marked with sacred designs in achiote-colored oil or stock, as well as with sikil.

The dish is included here for ethnographic interest.  The culinary interest is slight.


2 lb. masa

2 cups cooked beans (black-eyed peas or black beans) (optional)

6 oz. sikil


Banana leaves


Make thick tortillas of the masa.  Stack them with layers of sikil and beans in between, till they are seven tortillas high (13 layers in all).  Wrap in banana leaves and cook in pib.


Variant:  Piim waj

Maya for “thick corncake.”  Sometimes reduplicated (pimpim) or translated into Spanish as gordita.


Make a giant tortilla: 1 foot across and 1/4″ thick.  Wrap in leaves and bake in pib.  Or it can be cooked, unwrapped, on a griddle.

This is much better if the masa is mixed with lard, as for tamales, especially if you are cooking it on the stovetop.

It is even better if mixed with cooked beans (black-eyed peas are the traditional ones), including their liquid.  In this case it has to be wrapped and baked (in oven, about 350o, if no pib is at hand).  It is then eaten with Tomato or Chile Sauce.



Is Waj (“Corncake of New Maize”)


Market version:

Grind up new maize (cut from ears of sweet corn) and leave standing for a few days until very slightly sour.  Add salt and make into very thin tortillas.  Cook till crisp.

More sophisticated version:

1 cup white flour

1/2 cup lard

Kernels from 3 roasting ears, cut off close

1/4 tsp. baking soda



Grind kernels.  Mix with other ingredients.  Make into very thin tortillas and cook on griddle.

Kernels from really young, tender sweet corn are really too soft for this; one needs kernels with some substance.  The Maya eat young corn at the stage that in my youth was called “roasting ears”—the kernels still tender, but somewhat more starchy than the sweet-corn stage.  One can use tender sweet corn kernels, however, by reducing the quantity somewhat, so the resulting dough is firm enough to make good tortillas.

Variant: common is a sweet version, using sugar instead of salt.



Saka’ (Sak ja’, “white water”: Corn gruel)

The other staple food–along with waj.

The ancient saka’ is just corn meal or mashed new corn in water.  Today, the word usually means pozole:  Wash nixtamal kernels (available in Mexican markets).  Boil till they break open.  Drain.  Grind and form into a ball the size of a tennis ball.

Variant:  Fry or toast the nixtamalized kernels before grinding.

For consumption, the ball is dissolved in water, stock, or soup.  The simple rural method is to dissolve in water with salt and chile.

To approximate saka’: Cook a small amount of “Maseca” or other prepared Mexican corn meal in good stock, stirring constantly.

Similar preparations are made by processing the maize in slightly different ways.  Sikil can be mixed in and the resulting atole cooked.

Fancy pozole or atole: Grind fresh green corn.  Mix with sugar.  Coconut cream can be mixed in if desired.

Ground toasted corn kernels, made into a drink, are pinole.  (Pozole, pinole and atole are Nahuatl words; saka’ is the basic Maya word.)






These are the soul of Yucatecan cooking.  It is essential to make your own recados, unless you can get to a major public market in Yucatan.

To make a recado, grind all the ingredients very fine, and moisten with enough vinegar or bitter orange juice to make a solid paste, adding salt to taste.  Failing bitter orange juice, use lime juice or a mix of orange and grapefruit juice (do not use bottled bitter orange juice preparations).

In Yucatan, you can get a spice mix called xak’. (This just means “mix” in Maya, and is also used for the recados themselves.)  The pre-made spice mix typically involves a cinnamon stick, 1 tsp. cloves, 1 tsp. pepper, 2 tsp. oregano, 1/4 tsp. cumin, and 1 tsp. allspice.  (Naturally, these ingredients are variable.)  All these are ground fine.  Then all you have to do is add achiote paste and you have your recado.



Achiote Paste


Bring achiote seeds to boil, in water.  Drain and soak overnight in vinegar, bitter orange juice or lime juice.  Blend.  It takes a tough blender to make these hard seeds into a paste.  A stone mortar and pestle is preferable, but then the preparation takes a strong arm and a lot of pounding.



Black Recado


2 ancho chiles or other dark dried chiles

1 tsp. allspice

1/2 tsp. cumin

1 tbsp. black pepper

1 tbsp. achiote paste

2 garlic cloves

2 tsp. oregano

Citrus juice or vinegar


Roast the garlic cloves.  Seed and toast the chiles.  They should darken enough to make the recado quite dark.  Grind all.  In Yucatan the chiles are actually burned to a glossy black, but this kills the taste of the chiles.  It also has to be done outdoors, standing upwind, since the vapors of burning chile peppers are seriously dangerous to eyes.

Variant: the garlic is not always roasted.



Hot Recado


2 tbsp. dry chile

4 allspice berries

8 epazote leaves

1/2 tsp. black pepper

2 garlic cloves

1 tbsp. achiote

Vinegar or bitter orange or lime juice to make thick paste



Mole Recado


2 ancho chiles

3 pasilla chiles

1 tbsp. black pepper

1 small piece of cinnamon stick

3 cloves

Half tbsp. sesame seeds

3 garlic cloves

Bitter orange or lime juice to make thick paste



Recado for cold meat


3 allspice berries

1/2 tsp. black pepper

3 cloves

1 small piece of cinnamon stick

1 roasted head of garlic

Pinch of saffron (optional)

Ground dry chile to taste

Vinegar, bitter orange juice, or lime juice to make paste


Spread on the meat or mix in with it.



Red Recado

This is the standard–the Universal Seasoning of Yucatan.


1 tbsp. achiote paste (more in Quintana Roo, often 3 tbsp.)

1 tsp. (or more, to taste) black pepper

1 tsp. dry oregano leaves, crushed

1/4 – 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

2-4 cloves

1 small piece of cinnamon stick

3 garlic cloves, slowly roasted till soft

Bitter orange juice (or substitute) to make thick paste


Prepare as with above.  Variants:  Allspice is often added—about 4 berries.  Garlic can be unroasted.  Coriander seeds (very few) can be added, but are rare in Yucatan.  Naturally, everyone varies the amounts slightly.

A village recado would be heavier on the achiote, garlic, and oregano, which everyone grows in the yard, and much lighter on the expensive store-bought spices (cloves, cinnamon, cumin, pepper).



Roast Garlic Recado


20 large garlic cloves

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. cloves

2 tsp. oregano

Bitter orange or lime juice


Roast the garlic (broiling in oven, or over open flame).  Peel and mash. Grind the spices.  Mix with enough bitter orange juice or equivalent to make a paste.

Variant: use some unroasted garlic, and/or a roasted onion.



Steak Recado


1 tbsp. black pepper

3 garlic cloves

2 tsp. oregano

Vinegar (recommended for this one) or bitter orange juice or lime juice, to make thick paste


Some steak recados add allspice, cinnamon and cumin—very little of each, say about 1/4 tsp.



Spicy Recado


1 tbsp. pepper

1 small stick cinnamon

4 cloves

3 garlic cloves

1 tsp. oregano

1 pinch saffron

Bitter orange juice or lime juice, to make thick paste



Tamale Recado


1 tbsp. black pepper

3 allspice berries

5 epazote leaves

2 garlic cloves

1 tbsp. achiote

ground dry chile

Vinegar or bitter orange juice or lime juice to make thick paste



White Recado

Not called for in any of the following recipes, but great in soup or stew, especially with turkey.


1 tbsp. black pepper

3 garlic cloves

1 tsp. oregano

2 cloves

1 pinch cumin seeds

1 pinch saffron

1/4 tbsp. cilantro seeds

Coriander seeds (optional)

Vinegar (white vinegar is ideal here; citrus juice is not recommended for this one)





Basic relish to eat with Maya food:


1 bunch radishes

Few leaves cilantro

Chopped onion and/or garlic, to taste (optional)

1 fresh green chile or one habanero chile (if you can stand it–the taste is much better, but habaneros are almost unbearable to the uninitiated)

Salt and pepper to taste


Chop the radishes and other ingredients and marinate in bitter orange juice or lime juice.

Chopped tomatoes can be added.


Botanas (snacks to eat with drinks)

A typical selection might include:

onion, garlic and tomato stir-fried and then mixed with cilantro and sikil

Cucumbers, onions, cilantro, radishes, cut up, in vinegar

Boiled potato cubes with onion, cilantro, vinaigrette

Ceviche (raw fish and shellfish bits marinated in lime juice with cut-up chiles and tomatoes and onions, with salt and black pepper)



Ha’ Sikil P’ak (“Water, sikil and tomatoes”—a nice descriptive name)


2 tomatoes

1 red onion

Few sprigs cilantro

Juice of 1 bitter orange

1/2 cup sikil
Chile habanero to taste

Salt to taste


Roast and peel tomatoes.  Chop these with cilantro and onion.  Add the bitter orange juice.  Stir in the sikil, then the habanero.  This should be a thick paste.  Serve for dipping up with tortilla wedges.



Habanero Salsa


1 onion

5 garlic cloves

2 lb. tomatoes

1 habanero

1 tbsp. oil

1 pinch oregano

1 pinch salt


Chop all.  Fry the garlic and onions first, then the chile and finally the tomato, stirring constantly.  Add the oregano late in the process.



K’utbi Ik (Chile Sauce)


Seed and toast fresh chiles.  Wrap in cloth for a few minutes so skins steam loose, and then peel.  Blend or mash with similarly roasted tomato, and garlic or onion.  Herbs may be added.



K’utbi Ik, dry chile version


Toast and grind dry red chiles.  Roast garlic, green chiles, and onion.  Mash all with lime juice.



K’utbi p’ak (Tomato Sauce)


Same as above, but with little or no chile.

Or: Chop and fry onion or  garlic.  When colored, add chopped tomato, salt, and herbs (epazote, cilantro, oregano) if desired.  Bitter orange juice or lime juice can be mixed in.  Mash somewhat—it should be chunky, not a paste (see below).

Or: Roast and peel tomatoes.  Blend with some cilantro, salt, bitter orange juice and habanero chile.

It can also be yach’bij (mashed more thoroughly—to a paste—with a pestle in a molcajete—a small mortar), or suut’bij (the same, but with a revolving motion, not smashed down), or just licuado—blended in a blender!



Little Dogs’nose (Xni’-pek’)


This is the standard Maya salsa.  It gets its name because it makes your nose run and become cold and wet like a dog’s.


Seed and chop a habanero chile.  Add chopped onion, garlic, tomato, and any herbs, to taste.  Marinate in bitter orange juice or lime juice, with salt.

It is important that all the ingredients be absolutely fresh for this.  Xni’-pek’ can marinate for a day or so, but no more than that.



Marinated Onions

This is the universal accompaniment for many cooked meat dishes, including pok-chuk and turkey.


1 large red onion

10 peppercorns

3 allspice berries

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. oregano

1/4 cup bitter orange juice

As much habanero chile as you can stand

Salt to taste


Cut onion into slices.  Add the peppercorns and allspice.  Let stand very briefly in boiling water.  Drain.

Add garlic, oregano, orange juice and chile.  Let marinate briefly.

Variant: use vinegar and some water instead of bitter orange juice.  In this case, everything is combined, brought to a boil, and left to marinate for a day or more.



P’uybi Ik (Ground Chile)


Toast dried chiles till slightly colored.  Then (not before) seed them and grind fairly fine.



Rooster Beak (pico de gallo)


5 jicamas

5 sweet oranges

3 bitter oranges

Ground chile, to taste

Cilantro, to taste

Salt, to taste



Peel and cut up the jicamas and sweet oranges.  Mix with the juice of the bitter oranges and add the seasonings.

“Rooster beak” is a name generally given to salsas that have a bite like the peck of an angry rooster.  This is a mild one, somewhere between a salsa and a salad.  It need not be; you can use chopped fresh habanero chiles.

The pieces should be small and even, but definitely separate.  This is not a blended sauce.


Rooster Beak II


1 tomato

1 small white onion

1-2 cloves garlic

1 jalapeno chile (or whatever chile you prefer)

Bitter orange or lime juice


Chop first four ingredients into quite small but distinct pieces, and marinate in the juice.



Wasp Larvae


Toast wasp larvae and eat with relishes.

Or just smoke a wasp nest to drive away the adults and more or less cook the larvae, then open the nest and eat the smoked larvae from it.  They taste like smoked bacon (at best). (I have tried this one.)




A mixture of masa, cooked black-eyed peas, sikil, ground dried chile, chopped cilantro and chopped onion.  These are not mashed up—just mixed, so the peas and onions remain chunky.  The mixture is wrapped in hojasanta leaves, then in a second wrapping of banana leaves, and cooked in the pib or steamed to make tamales.

Without the masa, it is a standard quickly-improvised relish to put on tortillas or other corn cakes.  For this, take cooked black-eyed peas; drain; mix in the other ingredients, to taste.




The term just means “mixed,” but one standard “mix” is a salad of orange sections and chopped jicama with salt, chile, chopped cilantro, and lime juice.  This is traditionally served on the Day of the Dead, November 1.



Xub Ik (Superhot Chile Sauce)


30 dried chiles

2 lb. tomatoes

6 allspice berries

A few peppercorns

4 cloves garlic

8 or more oregano leaves

Branch of epazote


Seed the peppers.  Toast them (optional, but typical).  Boil.  When soft, add other ingredients.  Blend all.

Meat can be cooked in this, or it can used simply as a sauce.

Prepare with all windows open.  Use rubber gloves if your hands are sensitive.  Avoid touching eyes or other sensitive parts of the body.



Some other typical garnishes and relishes:

Tomato, sikil, coriander, garlic, onion, salt–chopped fine, fried and blended to a smooth paste

Cucumbers vinagreta (thin sliced with onion, cilantro, habanero chiles, garlic, vinegar, oil)

Potato slices vinagreta

Cabbage, chile and cilantro, chopped, vinagreta

White beans cooked with tomato, onion, spices, bits of ham and bacon

Chicharrones stewed with onion, tomato, chile




TAMALES AND RELATIVES (including antojitos—substantial snacks—and tortilla-based items)




Black-eyed Pea Tamales


A standard market snack.


1 lb. pork (shoulder is good; loin or other cuts perfectly all right)

Water to cover, 4-6 cups

6 tomatoes

1 clove garlic, roasted or not

1 chile, toasted

1 branch epazote

1 oz. masa

Juice of 1 bitter orange

1 cup cooked black-eyed peas

Masa for tamales


Put the pork in water with the tomatoes, garlic, chile, and epazote.  Cook till very tender.

Remove the pork from the broth.  Save the broth.  Shred the pork into small pieces; chop up the other items, leaving out and discarding the garlic and epazote.

Now cook the broth down with the 1 oz. masa and the bitter orange, till thickened, so it has a high percentage of fat.

Mix this and the black-eyed peas slowly into the masa.  Cook down very slowly till hot.  The result should be thick enough not to stick or collapse; it has to be the main substance of the tamales—a firm, solid mass, largely maize dough.

Let cool.  Then make tamales by putting a layer of masa about ¼” deep on a corn husk, banana leaf segment, piece of foil, or kitchen paper.  The big tough corn husks sold for this purpose in Mexican markets are best, but foil will very often have to do.  Put a heaping tablespoonful of pork filling on the masa and roll up into a tamale:  a sealed, stuffed corn-dough item some 4-6” long.

Steam.  The Maya traditionally seal them tightly in a closed vessel and bake them for anywhere from an hour on up in a pib.  The classic method otherwise—for those of us without a pib—is to crowd them vertically into a pot with an inch or so of water or stock at the bottom, and steam them on the stove top.  They also do fine in the oven, on a rack over water in a pan, the whole being sealed with tinfoil; or vertically in a casserole dish in the oven.

A very cheap version leaves out the pork, but in that case you still have to boil down a fatty cut of pork to get the “Maya lard” to make the tamales.



Chanchamitos (simple tamales)


Yucatecans love multiple diminutives.  “Chanchamitos” means “little little little ones”–Maya chan, “little,” is doubled, and the Spanish diminutive ending added for good measure.


1/2 lb. pork or chicken meat

1 spring epazote

1 1/2  lb. masa

1 square of recado rojo

1 tbsp. lard

Salt to taste

Corn shucks


Chop up the pork.  Boil with the epazote.  Then dissolve some masa in the stock to thicken it to thin sauce consistency.

Mix the rest of the masa with the recado, lard, and salt.

Using this masa, make tamales in the usual way, but only 1/4 to 1/3 the size of regular ones.

Variants:  These can be made with any sort of meat that will do for a filling, including leftovers.



Chaya Tamales (also called “Braza de Reina”—“Queen’s Arm”–or sometimes “Braza de India”)


Boil chaya leaves.  Roll any kind of tamale or similar food in them, using the same technique as for stuffing grape leaves or cabbage leaves.  Eat the whole thing, chaya leaves and all.

As the name implies, these are usually made long and rather slender, like a girl’s forearm.

One good filling mix: 1 kg chopped tomatoes

½ onion

3 small chiles or 1 chile xkatik, chopped

Oil for frying


Hardboiled eggs, chopped


Fry up the tomatoes, onions, and chiles (to a sofrito).  Mix with the eggs.  Use for stuffing the tamales.


Hojasanta is very often used instead of, or even with, chaya.  Chard leaves work perfectly well.



Chaya-stuffed Tamales (Ts’otobij Chay; “Dzotobichay” on restaurant menus)

As the name suggests, this very popular dish is thoroughly Maya, surely pre-Columbian.  The name means “chaya stuffing” or “chay with filling stuffed into it” (Maya ts’ot, “to stuff something into a hollow space”).


1 lb. chaya (swiss chard if you can’t get chaya)

3 lb. masa

1 lb. lard

8 eggs

¼ – 1/2 lb. sikil (ground squash seeds)

Salt and pepper to taste

Chaya leaves for wrapping

6 small tomatoes

1 onion

2 garlic cloves

Some chile, optional


Chop the chaya and mix with the masa, lard and salt.

Cook the eggs and chop finely.  Mix with the sikil.

Make tamales the usual way (the egg mix inside the chaya-masa mix), steaming for an hour.

Roast the tomatoes, onions and garlic.  Add whatever chile is desired.  Mash.  Serve as sauce for the tamales.

This recipe invites creative interpretation.  You can stuff it with anything, as long as the stuffing is not strong-flavored enough to kill the delicate chaya taste.



Chulibuul with sikil

Chulibuul means “stewed beans.”


2 lb. young fresh beans from the field (substitutes: frozen limas or black-eyed peas)

2 lb. masa

3 onions

Branch of epazote

4 garlic cloves

1 lb. sikil

Salt to taste


Cook the beans.  Mix the masa with a little water.  Chop finely the onions and epazote.  Grind the garlic.

Mix all, and cook slowly and carefully.  Add half the sikil.  Serve with the rest of the sikil sprinkled over it and with tomato sauce poured over it.

Fresh variant:  Use sweet corn kernels instead of masa.  Cook the beans first; add the corn and just bring to boil, no more.  The result bears a great resemblance to succotash, except for the sikil.

Toksel variant:  If this is made without any maize–just the beans and sikil–it is “toksel.”

Out in the fields, farm workers heat stones in the campfire and drop them into this stew to cook it.  Stone soup?




Another mestiza-Maya word: Kots’ (codz in the old spelling), “something rolled up,” with the Spanish diminutive ending added.  These are the simple, finger-food version of enchiladas.

Roll fresh or freshly-fried tortillas around tomato sauce with Mexican cheese or ground or shredded meat.

A fancy version I noted at the wonderful Hacienda Teya–a restaurant in a restored henequen estate east of Merida–rolls the codzitos around shredded boiled chicken, then covers them with k’utbi p’ak, then crumbles fresh white cheese over all.



Eggs a la Motul (Huevos Motuleños)

Motul is a large, historically important town in central Yucatan.  This dish is a standard breakfast all over the Peninsula.


2 tortillas


1 tomato

1/4 onion

2 oz. ham

2 eggs


Salt to taste

1-2 oz. refried black beans

Several green peas (necessarily canned in Yucatan, where peas don’t grow, but much better if fresh)

Tomato sauce


Fry (saute) the tortillas in the lard.

Cut up the tomatoes and onion in small pieces.  Fry.

Cut up the ham into small pieces.  It can be fried also (but usually isn’t).

Fry the eggs.

Now cover the tortillas with beans; the beans with the eggs; the eggs with the tomato, onion and ham; and the whole thing with tomato sauce.  Garnish with the peas (or mix them in with the tomato and onion, earlier step).

Chickpeas or other vegetables can be used.  Various garnishes exist.  Much of the quality of the dish depends on the ham; get the best.

Of course, the true Yucatecan eats this mammoth breakfast with habanero sauce–the perfect wake-up at seven in the morning!





Make small tortillas from masa.  Fold them around any filling—beans, chopped meat, chicken, k’utbi p’ak, etc., in any combination.  Moisten the edges to seal them.  Then shallow-fry (sauté) in a pan, or deep-fry in hot oil (but shallow-frying is better).  Serve with sliced cabbage, onions in lime juice, or other topping over them.



Enchiladas a la Quintana Roo


10 tortillas

1 cup shredded cooked spiced chicken

3 oz. Mexican sharp white cheese, crumbled

1 onion, chopped

2 ancho chiles

2 pasilla chiles

1 oz. almonds

1 oz. peanuts (optional)

1 cup chicken stock

1 tbsp. lard

Salt to taste


Shallow-fry the tortillas in lard (basically, just put them in some oil in the skillet and move them around till they soften and begin to toast at the edges).  Roll them around the chicken.  Top with cheese and onion.

Seed and toast the chiles.  Grind with the almonds and peanuts.  Blend with the stock and season.  Cook quickly to thicken and pour over enchiladas.



Fish Tamales


3 garlic cloves

1 tsp. cumin seeds

3 tbsp. achiote

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 lb. fish fillet

4 tbsp. lard

1/2 onion, chopped

2 tbsp. cilantro, finely chopped

1 tomato, chopped

1/2 cup bitter orange juice

2 lb. masa

Banana leaves


Grind up the garlic, cumin, and one tbsp. of the achiote with the salt and pepper.  Cut up the fish and rub this recado into it.

Heat half the lard.  Fry the vegetables in it.  Add the fish and then the bitter orange juice.

Mix the masa with the rest of the lard and achiote, and some salt.

Make tamales the usual way.



Green Corn Tamales with Chicken


Grains from 30 sweet corn ears

1/2 lb. lard

1 tbsp. sugar

1/2 cup milk

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 lb. pork loin meat, cooked

Meat from 1 small chicken, cooked

5 chiles

1/2 tsp. black pepper

2 cloves

2 garlic cloves

1 small piece of cinnamon stick

Salt to taste


Grind the kernels.   Mix in the lard, sugar, salt, milk and soda.  Beat.

Shred or cut up the meat.  Seed and toast the chiles.  Grind all the flavorings.  Mix all, and make tamales in usual way.

Variant: red recado has been known to work its way into these, though it is a fairly strong flavor for green corn tamales, and tends to kill the delicate flavor of the green corn unless very small amounts are used.



Hojasanta Tamales


Make as for Chaya Tamales, above, or wrap any tamale in hojasanta (mak’ol or mak’olam in Yucatec Maya) and then in banana leaves.  Steam or bake in pib.  The hojasanta leaves are edible, but not the banana leaves.



Joloches (joroches)

From Maya jooloch, “corn shuck, dried corn leaf”–presumably from the appearance of the dumplings, like corncobs in the shuck.


1/2 lb. ground beef

1/2 lb. ground pork

1 lb. tomato

1 onion

1 bell pepper

3 garlic cloves

Red recado

1/2 cup vinegar or bitter orange juice

1 1/2 lb. masa

2 tbsp lard

Salt to taste

1 lb. cooked black beans

3 oz. sikil


Cook the meat with the tomato, a strip on onion, half the bell pepper, three garlic cloves, salt, some water and the recado diluted in vinegar or juice.

Mix the masa with lard and salt.  Form cones, and stuff them with the meat mix.  Close the tops with masa.

Chop and fry the rest of the onion and bell pepper.

Warm up the beans and add the fried vegetables.

Add in the cones and cook 15-20 minutes.

This is one of those common, standard recipes that is infinitely variable.  Almost any ingredient can be left out or decreased in quantity, and other common ingredients sometimes find their way in.

For instance:  A quick-and-easy village form of the above is simply:


Squash flowers





Boil the flowers with the onion and salt.  Form the masa into little cones and add in.  The cones should look like the flowers; presumably this is the original inspiration of the dish.

Or we can have:


Joloches with Longaniza


1/2 lb. longaniza

2 tomatoes

1 onion

1 xkatik chile

1 lb. masa


Salt to taste

Kabax beans


Cut up the longaniza and vegetables.  Fry the longaniza, and then the vegetables in its oil.  Make small masa dumplings filled with this mixture.  Flatten and fry.  Add to the beans and serve.





As popular as salbutes (for which see below).  A typical workers’ breakfast, using up the remains of dinner from the day before.


2 lb. masa

1 lb. mashed black beans (cooked with two branches of epazote; left over from yesterday)

3 red onions

Leftover breast meat from a turkey roasted in red recado

Juice of 4 bitter oranges (or 8 limes)

Tomato and chile sauces



Make small tortillas.  The Maya way is to put an ounce or so of masa on a banana leaf—or, today, a plastic sheet—and press the masa gently into a tortilla.  These have to be homemade and 3-4” across (about half as big as regular ones), so they will puff up.

Toast on griddle or frying pan.  Hopefully, they will puff up, leaving a hollow center (like pita bread or Indian puris).   This hollow center is known as saay in Maya.

Stuff the hollow with mashed beans.

Fry (sauté) the bean-stuffed tortillas in lard.

Shred the turkey meat and put on top.  Shredded lettuce or other vegetables can be added.  (Chicken or other meat can be used, though turkey is traditional and particularly good.)

Cut up the onion and marinate in the salt and orange juice.  Serve separately.  Also serve separately the k’utbi p’ak and chiles.  Panuchos are very much an eaters’-choice type of food.





Papa ts’uul means “rich people’s food.”  (Ts’uul, or “dzul,” is now used to mean “foreigner,” but seems originally to have meant “rich person.”)  This may, however, be a folk etymology; Cherry Hamman explains it as “papak’, to anoint or smear, and sul, to soak or drench” (Hamman 1998:94).  Either way, economic progress has come, and this is now a relatively humble staple dish, typically found on the breakfast menu.


1 egg

1 tomato

Bit of habanero chile

1 sprig epazote


4 tortillas

2 oz. sikil

Salt to taste


Hardboil the eggs.  Chop or mash up.

Boil the tomatoes, chiles and epazote.  Drain, but save the water.   Blend.  Fry in oil.

Dissolve the sikil in the reserved cooking water.  Mix half of this with the oil.  (This is what people generally do now, and I have watched it many a time, but Hamman tells you the ancient way: roast and grind the squash seeds yourself, mix with water, and knead till they produce some oil.  See Hamman 1998:94).  Spread on the tortillas.  Then spread on these the egg mix and roll up.

Pour over the roll-ups the rest of the sikil sauce, and the tomato sauce.

Variant: a much more elaborate version involves mixing the sikil with stock, epazote, onion, garlic and chile, and serving the whole with marinated onions:  red onions cut up, blanched, and marinated in vinegar or bitter orange juice with spices and chopped habanero chiles.

Another variant involves boiled chaya (or spinach, one bunch) and 3 tbsp of cut-up chives.





Maya pool kaan, “snake head,” with a Spanish plural.  The name comes from the resemblance between the opened-up dumplings and a snake’s head with mouth open.  Another common and cheap market snack.


2 lb. black-eyed peas (fresh or briefly cooked to soften)

1/2 lb. sikil

1 tsp. ground chile

1 lb. masa

3 tbsp. lard



Cook the beans.  Drain.  Mix with sikil and chile.

Mix the masa with the lard and salt.  Stuff with the beans.  (Or mix flour and masa, make a thin skin and stuff like ravioli.)

Steam or pib-bake in corn husks like tamales, or deep-fry like hush-puppies.

For eating, split and fill with tomato sauce.





Something of a national dish of Yucatan.  The name is from Maya tsajil but’, “fried minced meat.”  As with such “small eats” the world over, the best place to get these is down at the marketplace in the morning, where the working people are stoking up for a hard day’s work.  Salbutes become a powerfully nostalgic flavor for those who regularly eat them in such circumstances.


Make small tortillas from fresh masa.  Deep-fry in very hot lard.  While these are still as hot as possible, pile on them shredded cooked chicken or turkey (preferably cooked in red recado), chopped cabbage or lettuce, marinated onion (see above), tomato slices, radish slices, and/or anything else desired.

This is often accompanied by the chicken or turkey stock; black beans; and lime slices.  As the Maya name implies, they are often topped with fried minced pork instead of poultry.  In fact, they are topped with just about anything: beans, tripe, chorizo, etc.  A good market stall will have alternatives, the eaters choosing what they want.





Fry small, thick tortillas.  Top with anything interesting.

Some toppings noted at Merida markets and fiestas include:

Nopal salad (prickly pear pads cooked, cut up, and marinated in oil and vinegar with spices)

Nopal cut up in chocolate mole (made by cooking and mixing chocolate tablets and ground chiles)

Any and all meat, preferably cooked in red recado, shredded

Beans or beans and meat, usually refried black beans

The sopes are then usually further topped off with lettuce or cabbage, various sauces, etc., over the meat.



To’obi joloch (Sweetbread Tamales)


Boil sweetbreads until tender.  Chop; eliminate tough membranes.  Mix in a handful of chopped shallots and 2 cups sikil.

Use to fill tamales in the usual way.



Vaporcitos (“little steamed ones”)

A very common, minimalist sort of snack.


Mix masa, lard and cooked black-eyed peas.  Make this mix into tamales—no filling added—and steam.  Eat with Tomato Sauce.

The same thing baked in a pib is called xnup’.



Wedding Tamales

This is the full-scale tamale of Yucatan.  The main ingredients can, of course, be varied, according to what is available.


1 chicken

1 lb. pork

1 cube red recado

1 tbsp. steak recado

2 lb. tomatoes

1 tbsp. ground allspice

1 small head of garlic, roasted and bashed

Branch of epazote

1 lb. lard

Chile and salt to taste



Cook the meats.  Dissolve the spices in vinegar and add.  Add other ingredients.  Bone the meats and make tamales in the usual way, using the stock, or grease skimmed from it, for the lard.







“Barriana” soup

Silvia Luz Carrillo Lara, in Cocina Yucateca (1995:17-18), reports that this is a true “mestiza” soup, found in many old cookbooks.  This is an adaptation of her recipe.  It is a relatively “Spanish” dish, preserving the flavors of the Spanish Colonial world.  Like all such recipes, it seems to be dying out in Yucatan, but variants of it can still be found.  The Spanish ancestors of this dish are still around in southern Spain, and use leftover bread instead of masa, the latter being an obvious Mexicanization.


1/2 lb. masa

1 tomato

1/2 red onion

1 bell pepper

1/4 cup lard (“Maya lard” recommended)

3 pints chicken or beef stock, freshly made

12 olives

2 tbsp. capers

2 tbsp. raisins

2 tbsp. chopped almonds

Salt and pepper to taste

Pinch of saffron (optional)


Break the masa into small pieces and fry them in the lard.  Chop the tomato, onion, and pepper, and fry them separately.  Add the masa.  Then add the stock and cook ca. 10 minutes.  Add the other ingredients and cook until all is heated.

Variants without the masa, often with different thickenings, exist.



Chaya Soup


8 or more fresh chaya leaves

1 chayote

1 summer squash

1 onion

3 garlic cloves

1 tsp. ground oregano

6 cups water

1 chipotle chile in vinegar or marinade (canned marinated chipotles are fine)

Salt to taste


Chop the chaya finely.  Cut up the other vegetables.  Cook all.

Obviously, this recipe can be varied at will.  The basic idea is chaya plus other vegetables—a mix of starchy and crunchy ones—and standard Yucatecan spicing.



Covered Soup

This is what Mexicans call a “sopa seca,” a “dry soup.”  This isn’t an oxymoron, just the standard term for a soup that includes enough starch to absorb all the free liquid.  Such dishes have a Moorish origin; they are related to pilaf.  This one is thoroughly Spanish, and thus out of place in a book about the true mestizo cookery, but it is far too typical of Yucatan to leave out.  It represents a large class of popular recipes transported from Spain to Yucatan virtually without change.  It also provides insight into what was imported from Spain in the old days: capers, saffron, oil, vinegar, wine, and olives were staples of trade.


For the “stuffing”:

A large chicken cut up, or any small poultry

3 garlic cloves

1/2 tsp. oregano

2 bay leaves

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

1 stick cinnamon

2 cloves

6 allspice berries

1/4 cup vinegar


For the rice:

1/2 lb. rice

5 tbsp. oil

2 xkatik chiles

2/3 lb. tomatoes

1 onion

2 garlic cloves

1/2 tsp. saffron

1 bunch parsley

1 banana leaf

3 oz. lard


For the final assembly:

1 oz. lard

2/3 lb. tomatoes

1/2 cup stock

2 oz. bottled green olives, optional

1 tbsp. chopped parsley

4 tbsp. sherry

1 oz. capers

3 oz. Mexican white cheese


Cut up the poultry.  Grind the onions, garlic and spices, rub onto poultry, and marinate overnight.

Soak the rice for an hour or more.  Drain and fry in the oil.  Add chopped chiles.  Roast the tomatoes and blend with the onion and garlic.  Soak the saffron in 1 oz. water.  Add all these to the rice, cover, and simmer over very low heat for a while–not till fully done.

Spread the banana leaf with lard, in a baking dish.  Put half the rice mix on this.

Then fry the poultry in the final 1 oz. lard.  Add tomatoes (roasted and chopped) and stock.  Then add olives, parsley, sherry and capers.

Cover with the rest of the rice mix, fold the banana leaf over, and bake 10-20 minutes at 375o.

Sprinkle with broken-up white cheese for serving.


Much simpler variants exist, converging on the familiar “Spanish rice” of Mexican restaurants everywhere.  This is basically a pilaf with peppers and tomatoes instead of Moorish ingredients.  Rice is fried with chopped onion, then spices and other ingredients are added, then liquid to cover ½-1” deep, then all is simmered at the lowest possible heat till the liquid is absorbed.  Standard in Yucatan are simple “Spanish rices” with chicken cooked in red recado, or other variants, added to the tomato-onion-pepper basic formula.



Lentil Soup


1 lb. pork

1 tbsp oregano

2 cups lentils

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 onion, chopped

Red recardo, 1 oz.

2 mild chiles

1 carrot

1 chayote

1 platano

2 potatoes




Boil the pork and lentils till the lentils are tender but not quite thoroughly done.  Add other ingredients and finish cooking.



Sopa de Lima (Bitter Lime Soup)

This soup requires a strange lime-like citrus fruit, the lima agria, with a unique flavor.  Note that it is a lima, not a limón (lime or lemon).  It is fact the Thai lime, easy to find in any Oriental market.  (No one knows how it got to Yucatan.)  The Yucatecan bitter lime should be fresh for this soup, but I get acceptable results with dried Thai lime and a bit of fresh ordinary lime.  It is also possible to use ordinary lime only.  This is done even in Yucatan if bitter limes are not available. The real lima is preferable, though.

This is probably the most famous single Yucatecan dish, after cochinita pibil.  Yucatecan restaurants far from Yucatan all carry it.  They often can’t get the real lima agria, so don’t judge this soup by versions you may have had outside Yucatan.


For the stock and meat:

1 chicken

Salt and pepper, to taste

4 cloves

1 tbsp. dried oregano

4 garlic cloves

1 tsp. cumin seeds

Enough water to produce 8 cups stock


For the soup:

2 tomatoes

1 onion

1 xkatik chile (or other mild chile according to your preference)

1 tsp. vinegar

1 lb. tortillas, cut in strips or wedges and fried in lard

1 bitter lime


Cook the chicken with the other stock ingredients.  Eat the dark meat (cook’s privilege).  Shred the white meat.

Blend the tomatoes, onion, chiles (seeded and soaked), vinegar, and salt.

Combine all: into the stock, mix the blended vegetables; the shredded chicken; the fried tortilla strips; and the cut-up lime.  A few sqeezes of ordinary lime juice are good too.

Variants: Chicken cooked in red recado is often used, and adds to the flavor.

A couple of tablespoons of beer find their way into some versions.

The fried tortilla strips are dispensable.



Squash Soup


1 tomato

1 bell pepper

3 oz. butter

6 small summer squash

6 or more squash flowers

Salt and pepper to taste


In a saucepan, chop the tomato and pepper and fry in the butter.  Add water and the cut-up squash and flowers.

Variant:  a couple of ounces of chopped ham can be fried with the tomato and pepper.  I prefer the vegetarian form, however.



Tortilla Soup


1 lb. beans

6 tortillas

Oil for frying

1/2 onion, chopped

1 serrano chile, chopped

2 sprigs epazote

2 tomatoes, roasted and skinned

1/2 lb. chorizo, taken out of its casing and fried

Grated Mexican sharp white cheese

Salt and pepper to taste


Cook the beans in enough water for the final soup.

Cut the tortillas in wedges and fry.  Fry the onion, chiles, and epazote.  Add the beans and tortilla strips.

Blend the tomatoes with salt and pepper.

Combine all ingredients–sprinkling the chorizo and cheese over the top.



White Bean Soup (Yucatan form of a very popular Spanish dish)


1/2 lb. white beans (traditionally small white limas, but ordinary white beans will do)

1/2 white onion

2 tomatoes

1/3 lb. of chorizo sausage, or 1 small chorizo and 1 longaniza sausage

1/4 head of cabbage (optional)

1 green pepper

1/4 lb. Spanish, Virginia or similar flavorful ham

Salt and pepper to taste

Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

1/2 lb. potatoes


Wash the beans.  Then soak, and boil in the same water until beginning to be tender.

Chop and fry the tomatoes, onions, pepper, cabbage, and ham.  Add seasonings.

Combine these and the sausages with the beans.  Cut up the potatoes, add, and cook all till the beans are tender.

A sprinkling of marjoram and oregano–fresh or dry—is good.  One can also decorate with chopped parsley, or even (untraditional but good) cilantro.






Baked Fish I


1 large fish (preferably fairly oily)

3 garlic cloves

1 onion

3 oregano leaves

5 bay leaves

1 glass white wine, optional (it’s good but the Maya would never have it)

1/2 tsp. pepper

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt to taste


Marinate the fish in the other ingredients for an hour.  Bake.

This can also be done on the stove top in a heavy saucepan.  Try adding xkatik chiles.

The fish is often even better if rubbed with red recado or otherwise marinated beforehand.



Baked Fish II


1 large fish

3 oz. olive oil

1/2 lb. potatoes

1/2 cup vinegar

6 tomatoes

1 onion

2 xkatik chiles

1/2 tsp. ground cumin or cumin seeds

6 leaves oregano

4 bay leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

Chopped parsley


Grind the spices (except the bay leaves) and blend with vinegar and some oil.  Rub into fish.

Cut up the vegetables.  Put the fish on the bay leaves and cover with the vegetables mixed with the rest of the oil.  Bake.

Variant: Lard is used in the villages instead of olive oil.  Butter can be used.

This can be done on the stove top also, in a heavy saucepan.



Chiles Stuffed with Dogfish

See also following dish.


1 piece, ca. 1 lb., of roast dogfish

Branch of epazote

4 tomatoes

1 onion

6 xkatik chiles


1/2 lb. lard

1 cube red recado


Boil the dogfish with epazote.  Flake and fry with onion, tomato, and epazote (all cut up).  Separately fry some of the onion and tomatoes.

Roast the chiles, wrap in a cloth and leave for a while, then skin and seed.  Stuff with the dogfish mix.  Fry.

Add the rest of the onion and tomatoes, with the recado, to the boiling stock.  Cook down and pour this sauce over the chiles.

A much more elaborate version of this occurs in Patricia Quintana’s wonderful book The Taste of Mexico (pp. 274-275).

However, only a true dogfish addict would go to the trouble of making even the simple form with real dogfish, and I strongly recommmend using regular shark, or (still better) codfish, or some other firm white-fleshed fish.  I always do.  I admit it—I am not fanatical about dogfish.



Chiles Stuffed with Seafood

Quintana Roo variant of a universal Mexican dish.


6 large poblano chiles, or bell peppers

1 lb. mixed seafood: shrimps, crabmeat, fish, shellfish


2 cloves garlic, chopped

Oregano to taste

3 tbsp. cilantro, finely chopped

2 lb. tomatoes

1 onion

1 xkatik chile

1 habanero chile (if tolerated)


Sear the large chiles or bell peppers.  Seed.  They can be peeled also.

Cut up the seafood (the more variety the better).  Fry quickly with the spices.  Stuff the chiles.  Sauté and serve.

Separately, chop the tomatoes, onion and other chiles, roasting any or all if desired.  Fry quickly.  Serve this sauce over the chiles.

Tomatoes or other vegetables can be stuffed similarly.



Conch in Escabeche

Conch is, alas, getting rare due to overfishing and pollution, and this magnificent dish may not be with us long.  However, the loss is not total, for any seafood can be cooked this way.  Abalone or other relatively chewy sea food should be particularly good, but now abalones are rare too.  One reader suggests scallops—not very close, but perfectly acceptable.


1 lb. conch meat

Juice of 2 bitter oranges or 6 limes

1 onion

5 oz. oil

1/2 bottle vinegar

2 xkatik chiles, roasted and seeded

6 oregano leaves

1/2 tsp. toasted cumin seeds

1 roasted head of garlic

4 bay leaves

Pinch of nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste


Boil conch till tender.  (For a conch, that can vary from several minutes to an hour, depending on the maturity of the conch, but for scallops a very few minutes is quite enough.  Small scallops need little more than being brought to the boil.)  Leave to cool in the orange or lime juice.  Cut up.

Fry the onion lightly in the oil.  Add the other ingredients.  Boil quickly.

Marinate the conch in this.



Dogfish Pudding


1 1/2 lb. dogfish

1/4 tsp. oregano

2 branches epazote

1 onion

2 large chiles in vnegar

1 lime

4 eggs

1 tbsp. lard

1 oz. breadcrumbs (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste



2/3 lb. tomatoes

1 onion

1 tbsp. lard

1/4 cup dogfish stock



2 avocados

1 head of lettuce, preferably buttercrunch or red leaf

1 bunch radishes


Boil the dogfish with the oregano and epazote; save the stock.  Shred the fish.  Chop and fry the onion.  Add the fish with the epazote leaves.  Chop and add the chiles.  Fry quickly.

Beat the eggs with some lime juice, salt and pepper.  Blend into the fish mix.  Put all in mold.  Top with breadcrumbs if desired.  Bake at 350o.

For the sauce, roast the tomatoes.  Blend with the onion.  Fry in the lard.  Add in the stock.  Put over the pudding.

Garnish with avocado and radish slices and lettuce leaves.

I have not brought myself to using dogfish (see Chapter 2) in this.  Use any white-fleshed fish, cod being probably best because it has enough flavor and texture to stand out in this pudding.



Fish a la Celestun


1 onion

1 bunch parsley

2 tomatoes

Fresh chile, to taste

1 red snapper or similar fish

4 cloves

1 tsp. pepper

Pinch saffron

Frozen peas (optional)

1/4 cup vinegar

Salt to taste


Chop the onion and parsley.  Fry.  Add the tomato and chile, roasted and blended.  Add the fish and spices and vinegar; cook in the sauce till nearly done, about 15 minutes.  Add the peas (if wanted) and finish cooking, 5-10 minutes.

In Celestun, a charming old fishing village famous for its flamingoes, the fish is usually fried first, sometimes grilled, and then covered with the sauce after it is cooked.  The Celestunians use canned peas, having no frozen ones available, but frozen ones are better.



Fish Fajitas


A creative response to the fajita craze.  This version is an elaboration of that created by the Faisan y Venado restaurant in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo.


1 lb. white fish fillet (not too delicate a species), cut into strips

Salt and pepper

Juice of 2 limes

4 oregano leaves

Pinch of cumin powder

2 cloves

Ground dried chile

1 onion

1 green pepper

1 tomato


Marinate the fish in the spices.

Cut vegetables into strips.  Stir-fry with the fish.



Fish in Green Sauce

A classic Arabo-Spanish recipe, which has evolved into countless variations in southern Mexico.  Compare variants in Chapters 2 and 4.


1 large bunch parsley

1 sprig oregano

1 bunch green onions with tops (trim off the ends)

1 bunch cilantro

6 tomatillos

2 xkatik or other mild green chiles

2 garlic cloves

1/2 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

6 tbsp. vinegar

1 onion

Salt to taste


1 fish


Blend up the greens and flavorings in the vinegar.  Fry in oil.  Add the fish and cook.

Variants:  This may be the most variable dish in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Everybody has his or her own version of it.  You can use any mixture of the green ingredients, in any quantity.  You can vary the spicing at will.  You can fry, grill or boil the fish first.  Sometimes, people don’t fry the green sauce first, but just fry or bake the fish in the sauce.  In fact, you don’t even have to have a fish.  This sauce is used for other seafood and even for pork.

Here, for instance, is another version:

1 fish, ca. 2 lb.; or 2 lb. of fillets or fish steak

5 garlic cloves, roasted

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

1/2 tsp. oregano

1/2 tsp. black pepper


4 tbsp. chopped Italian parsley

1/3 lb. tomatillos

2 xkatik chiles

2 green onions with the leaves except for the very tips

1/2 cup vinegar

1/2 cup oil


Clean the fish.  Grind the spices and rub into the fish.  Leave for an hour in cool place.  Blend the other ingredients (greens, vinegar and oil).  Put over fish.  Cook in a covered dish over a slow fire.

Note that in this version the green sauce is not fried.

Yet another version, almost unbearably good, uses some hojasanta leaf.



Octopus in Its Ink


3 large octopi

6 garlic cloves, chopped

2 lb. tomatoes, chopped

1/2 cup olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

2 serrano chiles, chopped


3 bay leaves

1/2 tsp. ground pepper

1 pinch ground cumin

1/2 tsp. ground oregano

1 tbsp. parsley, chopped

2 tbsp. vinegar

Salt to taste


Take out the ink (remove ink sacs from octopi) and save it.  Wash the octopi and rub with 1 clove of the garlic, mashed.  Simmer, with a tomato, one onion, and lard, till octopi are tender.  Then clean off membranes etc. and cut up.

Chop and fry the rest of the garlic, the chiles, and the other onion.  When colored, add the bay leaves, the rest of the tomato, the pepper, cumin, oregano, parsley and the octopus ink dissolved in vinegar.  When this begins to boil, add salt and the octopus. Boil a few minutes, till done.

Squid in its ink is made more or less the same way.

At this point I cannot resist mentioning a dish from Tampico’s great seafood restaurant, the Restaurante Diligencia:  seafood petrolera.  This is basically the above recipe with other seafoods–shrimp, fish roes, some fish, clams or oysters–cut up and added.  The name is a sick joke; Tampico has offshore oil, and thus oil spills at sea.  This dish looks exactly like the aftermath of an oil spill.  However, it tastes heavenly.  The roes in particular “make” the dish.



Rice with Seafood

Another of those infinitely variable recipes.  More typical of Campeche than Yucatan.


6 garlic cloves, chopped

1 onion, chopped


1 lb. seafood (mixed, or cut-up squid, or shrimp, or other)

1/4 cup vinegar

Several sprigs parsley, chopped

2 roasted tomatoes

2 cups rice

Salt and pepper to taste


Fry the garlic and onion in a little oil.  Add the seafood.  Add the vinegar.  If octopus or squid are among those present, mix in the ink.

Add the parsley and tomatoes, chopped finely.

Separately, fry the rice.  Add water and simmer over very low heat.  When almost done, add the seafood.

Variant:  This is the minimal recipe.  Most people would add bay leaf, oregano, green peas, and bell or chile peppers (chopped).  Many would add spices including clove, cinnamon, cumin and allspice–all in very small amounts.  Some would throw in a carrot, or summer squash, or chayote, or anything else interesting and available.



Salpicon de Chivitos

Tiny sea snails with shells like curled goat horns (hence their name—“chivitos” means “little goats”).  This is good with any shellfish.  I first encountered it in a tiny cafe on an isolated beach on the north coast of Yucatan.


Boil the shellfish.  Mix with their own weight (or a bit more) of raw chopped tomato, onion and cilantro.  Dress with salt, pepper, dried oregano, lime juice and a bit of oil.



Samak Mishwi


Arabic for “roast fish.”  I have seen it Yucatecanized to “samik mishul.”  This is one of the relatively recent Lebanese contributions to the Yucatan world.  It is as un-Maya a recipe as could be imagined, but I find fascinating the adoption of Lebanese culture in the Yucatan Peninsula.


2 fish

Olive oil

1 garlic clove

2 limes

4 oz. tahini (ground sesame seed paste)

6 sprigs parsley


Brush the fish with olive oil and grill.

Serve with sauce:  Mash the garlic cloves with salt and mix with the lime juice and sesame paste.  Thin this with water as needed.

Garnish with chopped parsley.

This sauce is a version of the famous taratur sauce of the Mediterranean,but substituting Mexican limes for lemon or vinegar.




Shrimps in Chirmole (or Chilmole)

Chilmole (Nahuatl for “chile sauce”) is a very widespread recipe type, deriving from central Mexico, and based on a rich sauce of ground dried chiles, usually thickened with masa.  In central Mexico there is a whole conoisseurship of dried chiles, but in Yucatan there is not much choice.


1 lb. fresh or dried shrimp

4 oz. dried chile (ancho, morron or the like)

1 onion

3 garlic cloves

3 Tabasco peppers

6 peppercorns

1/2 tsp. achiote

4 large oregano leaves (or 1 tsp. ground oregano)

2 cloves

1 lb. tomato, chopped

1 branch epazote

2 oz. masa

3 eggs

Salt to taste


Boil the shrimps, peel and clean.

Toast the chiles and grind with the onion, garlic and spices.  Combine with the shrimps, the stock they were boiled in, the tomato, the epazote and the salt.

Dissolve the masa and cook down the whole into a thick sauce.  Serve decorated with slices of hardboiled eggs or other garnishes.

Warning: note that this recipe uses lots of chile.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2000b:33)



Snook in Escabeche


As explained in the Introduction, robalo in southeast Mexico is what is called “snook” in the southern US.  It’s a flavorful, slightly oily, white-fleshed fish.  Any equivalent fish will do; even salmon works fine for this one (texture and richness being more important in this case than flavor and “white fish” qualities).


4 robalo steaks

1 tsp. steak recado

1/2 tsp. ground coriander

1 pinch ground oregano

1 pinch cinnamon

1 pinch ground allspice

2 garlic cloves

2 heads of roasted garlic

4 bay leaves


Salt to taste


Fry the steaks till not quite done.  Cool.

Dissolve the spices in the vinegar and some water.  Add the fish steaks.  Boil quickly.



Snook in Orange Juice



2 lb. snook fillets

Juice of 1 bitter orange or a few limes

1/2 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. oregano

Juice of 3-4 bitter oranges (or equivalent)



1/4 cup oil

2 cloves garlic

2 onions

2 bell peppers

2/3 lb. tomatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

1 sprig or more parsley


Marinate the fish in the orange juice, to which the ground spices are added.

Roll the fillets and fry very lightly.  Cover with bitter orange juice.  Bake at 350o.

Meanwhile, make the sauce:  Fry the garlic and onions, chopped, in the oil.  Add the chiles and tomatoes, roasted.  Add the salt and pepper.  Then add the chopped parsley.  Cook.

Serve the fish with the sauce poured over.




A very widespread traditional Maya fish dish.  Its ancestry must go back to ancient times.


1 fish (2-3 lb.)

3 garlic cloves

1/2 tsp. oregano

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

Juice of 1 bitter orange or 2 limes

2-3 tsp. achiote

1 tomato, sliced

½ small white onion, sliced

1-2 xkatik chiles, seeded, roasted and cut in strips

Salt and pepper to taste

Hojasanta and/or banana leaves


Clean the fish and slash its sides.  Blend the spices, garlic, achiote and orange juice.  Rub this recado well into the fish.  Marinate for several minutes to overnight, according to preference.

Line a baking dish with banana leaves (or substitute).  Wrapping with hojasanta leaves and then banana leaves gives better flavor.  Put the tomato, onion and chile slices on it.  Wrap well in the leaves and bake in a slow over for 30 to 45 minutes.

Originally, of course, this would have been made in a pib, and you can still do this if you are very good at wrapping.  It is also made on the grill, which is easier.

Fish steaks marinated in the recado and simply grilled (without the wrapping) are also excellent.

If you can’t find banana leaves, wrap in any flavorful leaf, or put some fennel or bay leaves around the fish, and wrap all in aluminum foil.

Variants:  Cinnamon can be added to the recado.  All quantities can be, and are, varied according to what’s cheap, available, or preferred.  This is a notably variable dish; every restaurant has its own recipe.



Worker’s Shrimp


1 lb. tomato

1 onion

3 garlic cloves

1 tsp. achiote

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

5 allspice berries

1 oz. bottled green olives

1 oz. capers

A few raisins

1 sprig parsley

6 tbsp. oil

2 bell peppers

2 xkatik chiles

4 summer squash

2 chayotes

1/2 lb. potato

2 platanos

3 tbsp. vinegar

1 1/2 lb. shrimp (shelled and cleaned)


Roast the tomatoes.  Blend with the onion, garlic, spices (ground), olives, capers, raisins, and parsley.  Fry this sauce in the oil.  Cut up and add the vegetables and cook ca. 20 minutes.  Add the shrimp and cook till done, about 10 min.

Workers have more appetite than money, so a great quantity of vegetables are used here to stretch the shrimp.

The olives, capers, and raisins were originally elite Spanish ingredients, and are optional here.  Leaving them out gives a more Maya dish—more like what workers really eat.



Fish in Vinegar

A variant of fish in escabeche—the classic Spanish sour sauce, from the Arabic as-sikbaj for a vinegared dish.


2 lb. fish, preferably robalo steaks but any firm-fleshed fish will do

4 bay leaves

1/2 bottle cider vinegar

1 onion

1 carrot

1 bell pepper or mild chile

4 potatoes


4 tomatoes


Few sprigs parsley, chopped

Pinch of nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste


Set a bit of water to boil, with the spices.  Cook 10 minutes and take out fish.  Chop the vegetables and cook in the vinegar and stock.  Add a biot of olive oil.  Pour over the fish and serve.








Ajiaco, Yucatan style


A rather spectacular elaboration of a standard Mexican recipe.  This is another dish that stretches the meat with lots of vegetables.  It is thus notably healthy.


1 lb. pork loin

1 lb. pork short ribs

8 allspice berries

2 cloves

1 small cinnamon stick

1/2 tsp. coriander seed

1/2 tsp. oregano

3 garlic cloves

6 tsp. vinegar

1 onion

1 plantain

1/2 lb. tomatoes

2 bell peppers

3 xkatik chiles

1 chayote

1/2 lb. potatoes

1/2 lb. sweet potato

2 summer squash

1/3 cup rice

Pinch of saffron


Cut up the meat.  Grind the spices and garlic, mix with vinegar, and rub into the meat.  Cook for a few minutes.  Then add the vegetables, in the order listed.  The rice can be added with them or cooked and served separately.

Add the saffron at the very end (last 5 minutes of cooking).



Ajiaco, Quintana Roo style


2 lb. pork

4 leaves of oregano

4 garlic cloves

1 tbsp. black pepper

1 pinch cumin seeds

2 summer squash

2 carrots

2 chayotes

1 sweet potato

1 plantain

2 potatoes

1 cup rice

1 onion

2 tomatoes

1 green chile

4 oz. lard

Juice of 1 bitter orange

1 pinch saffron (optional; rare)

Salt and pepper to taste

One is tempted to add: 1 kitchen sink.


Boil the meat.  Add the spices.  As it cooks, cut up the vegetables and add them in.

Separately, chop up and fry the onion, tomatoes and chile.  Add the rice.  Add enough stock to cook and simmer slowly.  As it cooks, squeeze in the bitter orange juice.  Add the saffron at the very end.

Variant:  This is a typical Quintana Roo dish in that it is delicately spiced.  Most ajiacos use a great deal more chiles than this, with dried chiles being notably evident.  Adjust accordingly.

The saffron is an exotic touch; in the villages it would not be found.  But the other ingredients would.  Dishes like this are typical of Maya village cooking, because the dooryard garden is apt to produce, each day, one squash, a couple of tomatoes, a few chiles, and so on—not a lot of any one thing, but an awful lot of different things.



Balinche Salad

Compare the Chojen Salad of the Chiapas highlands.


Cold boiled meat—deer preferred, beef common.  It is shredded or chopped, with bitter orange (or lime) juice, chopped radish, cilantro, chile xkatik, and onion.  Half a bitter orange is served on the side to squeeze on it.

Other names are used, and ingredients are mixed and matched according to taste.

This is one of those simple dishes that vary according to the creativity of the maker.



Beef in Broth


2 lb. beef, cut up

3 tomatoes

1 bell pepper

1 xkatik chile

1 onion

Half of 1 bunch cilantro

1 tsp. oregano

3 leaves mint

1 head of garlic

1 tsp. black pepper

4 tbsp. red recado

2 chopped summer squash

2 chayotes, cut up



6 radishes

Rest of the cilantro

Juice of bitter orange


Habanero chile (optional)


Boil the meat.  Chop and fry the tomatoes, bell pepper, chiles and onion.  Add to the meat.  Late in the cooking, add the herbs.

Roast the garlic and add it in.

Dilute the recado in some of the stock, and add in.  Put in the squash and chayote.  Cook till done.

Meanwhile, chop up the radishes, cilantro and chile and marinate in bitter orange juice.  Eat as relish for the meat.




In spite of the name (which is, of course, “beefsteak”), this dish is usually made with pork in Yucatan and Quintana Roo.  However, it is made with beef too, especially rather tough cuts like flank steak.


2 lb meat, cut into thin steaks (1/8-1/4” thick)

Cinnamon stick

1 tsp oregano

1 tsp cloves

1 tbsp peppercorns

3 cloves garlic

Juice from 4 bitter oranges and 2 limes (or just 4-6 limes)

1 carrot

1 onion

2 tomatoes

1-2 potatoes

Salt to taste (traditionally this is an extremely salty dish, to restore salt lost in working in the blazing Yucatan sun)


Grind the spices together, and thin with the citrus juice.  Marinate the pork in this for an hour or two.  Fry in lard till done.

Meanwhile, peel the vegetables.  Boil with salt.  Serve the boiled vegetables separately from the bistec.

For sauce (separate):  Roast the habaneros.  Mash with salt.  Add cilantro and onion, and a bit of lime juice.  Or serve with limes, radishes and k’utbi p’ak.

Variants:  The vegetables can vary according to taste, except that the tomatoes, onion and potatoes must be there.



Bistec (Steak with Potatoes) II:  Urban Form


2 lb. tender beef or pork steak, cut thin

1 cube steak recado



3 tomatoes, sliced

1 onion, sliced

1 bell pepper, sliced

4 potatoes, sliced (in rounds)

Salt to taste


Dissolve the recado in a little vinegar and rub into the meat, with a lot of salt.  Put a little oil on the bottom of a casserole or saucepan.  Layer meat and vegetable slices.  Cook over low heat.

Variant: with more onion and some garlic, instead of the tomatoes and potatoes, this becomes “steak and onions.”





Maya for “minced meat” (not rump steak!).  But’ is translated into Spanish as relleno, “stuffing,” which is confusing when it is not being used to stuff anything.


1 lb. ground pork (ideally, finely minced meat of fresh leg)

1 tsp. steak recado

1 pinch ground clove

1 pinch ground cinnamon

1/4 cup vinegar

2 tsp. sugar

4 tomatoes

1/2 onion

1 green chile (or bell pepper)

12 or 15 olives

1 tsp. capers

Raisins to taste

Almonds (to taste; optional)

4 hardboiled eggs

Salt to taste


Mix the spices into the meat.  Chop the vegetables.  Chop the whites of the eggs (reserve the yolks for garnish).  Mix all ingredients and cook in a frying pan, stirring.

This is usually used as a topping or stuffing.  It is used to stuff turkey or to make meatballs cooked with cut-up turkey.  Either way, the turkey is often boiled in a richly spiced stock (see turkey recipes).  But’ is also used in tacos or on sopes, etc., and of course for stuffing vegetables.

A very characteristic use:  wrapped around hardboiled eggs and fried, like Scotch eggs.

Traditional village versions leave out some or all of the classic Spanish imports:  olives, capers, raisins, almonds.

In fact, the very traditional, all-local form of it is:


But’ Negro


2 lb. ground pork

1 cube red recado

1 cube black recado

1/2 cup vinegar

4 tomatoes

1/2 onion

1 xkatik chile


Proceed as for previous recipe.  The same comments apply.



8 tomatoes

1 xkatik chile

2 lb. ground pork

1/2 cube steak recado

1 cube achiote paste

1 pinch cumin

1 onion

3 garlic cloves


Roast and peel the tomatoes and chile.  Dissolve the spices in water.  Add to meat.    Cook all in a frying pan, stirring.  Chop the onion and garlic and add; they should fry up in the fat from the meat.  Eat with tortilla chips.




The name is “mestiza Maya”; choko is Maya for “hot,” lomo is Spanish for “loin.”  Supposedly, the name comes not from the heat of the cooked dish, but from the fact that this was, and is, the traditional way to cook a freshly-butchered animal whose meat is still warm.  The purpose of this dish is to use the more delicate parts of the animal—loin and innards—before they spoil.  It is the standard “variety meats” dish in much of south Mexico.


Pork or beef heart, and small pieces of tripe

1 lb. pork or beef loin

Liver, kidney

Brain (optional)

Soup bones

Cube of steak recado

1 head of garlic

Juice of 1/2 bitter orange

4 tomatoes

1 onion, cut up

Sprig of cilantro

Sprig of mint

Chiles to taste


Clean the various meats well.  Before cooking, the meat of the kidneys has to be trimmed of fat and thoroughly cut away from the tough white tubule system, and then soaked in water for a while.  Discard this water after soaking.  This process makes kidneys taste good instead of gross.

Cook the meat with the recados.  Start with the heart, tripe, bones, and any tough cuts.  Cook for an hour or more.  Add the loin and cook a while longer.  Then add the liver and kidney; cook for a little more.  Add the brain (it is very delicate and cooks fast), vegetables and herbs.  Serve with Basic Relish, lime wedges, xni-pek, and other garnishes; it is traditional to have a fairly full board of relishes and garnishes with this dish.

Variants:  People use whatever mix of “variety meats” is available.  If you don’t like the innards, it is perfectly possible to make this dish with just pork loin (as the name implies).

Cabbage, chayote, xkatik chiles, radishes, and other vegetables are added to this dish, according to taste.





2 lb. pork

1 tsp. pepper

5 allspice berries

1 glass sherry

1 cup vinegar


1 dried chile, seeded, toasted and ground


Grind the pork twice.  Grind the spices and add.  Mix all ingredients and knead well.  Let stand a while, then stuff into sausage skins.  Smoke over smoldering fire including aromatic leaves such as guava, allspice or avocado.

It is possible to make patties and cook directly, without the sausage skins and the smoking process.  In this case, try forming the patties around some aromatic leaves (bay leaves, herbs, etc.).



Cochinita Pibil

With this, we reach the crowning glory and fame of Yucatecan cuisine.   It goes back to pre-Columbian times; the pit barbecue, a worldwide cooking method, was sacred to the Maya–or at least was used to prepare the sacred foods.

Unfortunately, this is also the easiest Yucatecan dish to ruin.  I confess I have tried it only with pork roast, and only in the oven.  I have ruined a few roasts even with this simplified form.


This recipe is adapted to a very small piglet.  For a larger animal, you have to scale up the ingredients proportionately.


1 piglet, cleaned (ca. 10 lb., or up to 20), with all its innards, or a large pork roast (plus a pork liver, if you like liver)

3-4 cubes red recado, or mix equivalent amount of achiote with clove, cumin, black pepper, oregano, cinnamon and bitter orange juice to make up a paste.

Juice of 5 bitter oranges

Ground chile

Salt and pepper to taste (traditionally, a lot)

Mint leaves

2 xkatik chiles, cut up

Chives (or green onions)



Banana leaves, for wrapping



2 red onions, finely chopped

Juice of one bitter orange

Chopped chiles


Dilute the recado in the juice of 5 of the oranges.  Rub this well into the meat and let it marinate overnight.  If using a pork roast, slash it and rub the marinade into the cuts.

Now, dig a pit about 4′ by 4′ by 3′ or more.  Heat rocks as hot as you can get them in a fire of very hot-burning wood.  Transfer these into the pit.  Put over them a layer of wet leaves.

Put the pork in a large, high-sided roasting pan and wrap thoroughly with banana leaves.  (If none is available, use any flavorful, safe leaves and wrap the whole thing in aluminum foil.)

Separately wrap the brain (or leave it out).  The liver should be wrapped separately, with chopped-up mint, chives, green chile and salt.  (If liver is not liked, do this with some of the meat.)

For a really thorough job of using all the pig, chop up the fat, mix with the blood and some spices, and pack into the carefully-cleaned small intestines, thus making blood sausage.  Cook with the rest.

Put the pork in the pit.  Cover carefully with a fitting metal cover.  Bury under a good foot of dirt.

Leave overnight.  (Times range from four to twelve hours, but the longer the cooking, the better the result.)

Serve with the raw onions, chopped, marinated with chopped chile (and sometimes tomato) in the juice of the remaining bitter orange.  Naturally, fresh habaneros are the chile of choice, but milder forms can be substituted.

Tomato or chile sauce is also often served.

In the Chetumal market, where many stalls sell cochinita pibil, the accompanying sauce is quite different, and wonderful with the dish: a simple guacamole made by mixing avocado and xkatik chiles, about half and half.  (Some stalls use more avocado, some use more chile.)  These are mashed to a smooth paste.  Some lime juice can be added, to good effect.  This is a really outstanding sauce for cochinita.


Fortunately for apartment-dwellers (and lazy people like me), this dish is perfectly easy to make in a regular oven, though it never tastes quite so good as when made in a pib.  The secret is to wrap it thoroughly and cover it well, so that no liquid or steam escapes, and then cook it VERY SLOWLY–200o–for several hours, until the pork is very thoroughly done.  A lot of liquid should result.

It is possible to wrap it thinly and roast at regular temperature (375o).  Indeed, this is what almost all restaurants do, especially Yucatecan-style ones that are not in Yucatan!  This produces perfectly good roast pork, but it isn’t cochinita pibil, any more than orange soda is Dom Perignon.

The best cochinita pibil is found before dawn in the village marketplaces, where the farmers are getting a quick breakfast before going off to their milpas–cornfields–for a day’s work.  The cochinita, prepared by one of the country folk the night before, is freshly dug up and still hot and juicy.  The cool air, wood smoke scent, and quiet Maya conversation add much to the experience.




A traditional Maya dish.  So far, I haven’t tried it.  You are welcome to do the experimenting with this one.


Trap a gopher.  Roast (don’t skin, don’t clean, just roast).  Rub the carbonized hair off.  Take all the meat, innards included, off the bones.  Mix with salt, bitter orange or lime juice, and chile sauce (or use these as a garnish).  Make tacos of this with fresh tortillas.  (The true outback thing to do is to pick the meat off the bones with the tortilla pieces.)

This is sometimes referred to, with more rhyme than reverence, as baj yetel u taj, “gopher with its dung.”




K’ab ik (“Chile Stew”)


2 lb. beef with bones

2 cubes red recado, and a bit of extra achiote paste

1 cube steak recado

Pinch of allspice, or allspice berries

2 to 4 dried ancho chiles (I hope no one reads that as “24 dried chiles”)

2 sprigs epazote

Bitter oranges

1 head garlic

4 tomatoes

1 onion


Cut up and boil the meat.  Add the recados, with a pinch of allspice powder or a few allspice berries.

Seed, toast and soak the chiles.  Grind and add.

When the meat is soft, add epazote, juice of 1/2 bitter orange (or 1 lime), and a head of roasted garlic (peeled and mashed).

Add the tomatoes and onion, cut up, and finish cooking.

Serve with salsas.




This is by far the most popular of the Lebanese contributions to Yucatecan food.  Kibis are sold on every busy street corner.  They have become so thoroughly Yucatecan that they appear on the menus of Yucatecan restaurants in Mexico City and Los Angeles!

The standard street kibi is uninspiring: ground lamb, bulgur, chopped onion and mint, formed into a depth-bomb (fusiform) shape and deep-fried.  It is often served with a relish of chopped cabbage, chile and cilantro in vinegar.

A more authentic Yucatan Lebanese kibi recipe (from a booklet of Lebanese cooking in Yucatan, by Maria Manzur de Borge, that I have lost and that is no longer available) gives a better product:


2 lb. beef

2 lb. leg of lamb meat

1 lb. fine bulgur

Bunch of mint

3 onions

Handful of pine nuts (pinon nuts, pignolias)



Black pepper and chile, if wanted


Separate the fatter from the leaner bits of meat.  Mince the meat and the onions.  Soak the bulgur for an hour.

Mix the leaner meat with the bulgur and one of the chopped onions.  Fry the fatter meat with two of the chopped onions.  Add the pine nuts.

When the fat is fried out of the meat, drain and mix with the lean meat.  Form into depth-bomb shapes and deep-fry.  A lower fat alternative (perfectly traditional) is to bake in a baking tray.





2 lb. pork, cut up

1 cube red recado

Juice of 1 bitter orange

1 onion, chopped

2 tbsp. lard

1 lb. tomatoes

2 xkatik chiles (or other fresh chiles, even to habaneros)

1 roasted head of garlic


Rub the pork with the recado mixed with the juice.

Chop and fry the onion in the lard.  Add the tomato and chiles.  Put in the pork.  Add water and simmmer.  Add in the garlic and cook till done.



Old Rags

Ropa vieja–so named from its appearance, like old shredded rags–is a classic dish known throughout Mexico and the Spanish Caribbean.  This is the Yucatan version.


1 lb. leftover stewed pork or beef (if starting from scratch, stew the meat a LONG time, till it is “boiled to rags”)

1 onion

4 cloves garlic

5 tomatoes

1 bell pepper and/or 1 xkatik chile pepper

1-3 sprigs or small branches of epazote

1/2 cup bitter orange juice

1 cube red recado

2 tsp. black pepper

Salt to taste


Shred the meat into small fibres.

Chop up the vegetables and fry, starting with the onion and garlic.  Add the meat and fry all.

Many variants of this recipe exist.  Tomato sauce, other spicing, etc. can be tried.

In much of the Caribbean this dish is served with “Moors and Christians” (cooked black beans mixed with white rice).

The famous Cuban version of this dish is much spicier.  It uses much more garlic, and really hot chiles instead of mild ones.  You can vary this recipe accordingly.  3 dried ancho chiles, ground, is a good start.



Om Sikil (Pipian I)

This is a village recipe, extremely conservative–basically pre-Columbian (note lack of frying and lack of any nonnative ingredient except black pepper).

The Nahuatl word “pipian” has almost displaced the ancient Maya name om sikil, but the latter is still heard.


2 cups sikil

6-8 cups water

1/2 red onion, chopped

1 tomato, chopped

2 cloves garlic, mashed

1 tsp. ground pepper

2 achiote cubes dissolved in water

1 tsp. dried oregano leaves

2 red chiles

2 lb. meat or fowl

1 cup sour abal (Yucatan “plum”; substitute sour plums)

1 tbsp. lard

4 oz. masa


Mix the sikil with the water.  Strain.  Bring to boil and add the chopped vegetables.  Cook ten minutes.  Add in the meat and spices.  Cook till meat is tender, about 1 hour.  Toward the end, add the abal or sour plum fruits.

Take out 2 cups stock.  Slowly work into it 1 tbsp. lard and 4 oz. masa.  Return this to the soup to thicken it.

It is perfectly possible to dispense with this thickening step.




Compare Om Sikil, above.


4 oz. sikil

3 dried chiles

2 tbsp. achiote

2 garlic cloves

2 lb. meat (any sort), cut up

1 branch epazote

4 tomatillos

1 tbsp. masa

2 tbsp. lard if using lean meat (pan drippings here, definitely not commercial lard)

Salt and pepper to taste


Mix sikil with water and bring to boil.

Seed, toast and soak the chiles.  Grind them with pepper, achiote and garlic.  Add to the sikil.

Add the meat, epazote and salt.  Let boil.  Add the tomatoes, blended up.

Thicken the sauce with the masa.  Add the lard.  Cook till done.



Pok Chuk (Maya for “pork chop,” usually spelled “poc chuc”)

This dish was created by the restaurant Los Almendros of Ticul.  Los Almendros has an old Mérida branch, and now is developing branches elsewhere.  This dish is widely imitated and varied.  What it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up in popularity.  One of the reasons is the beautifully artistic arrangements that can be made with the separate sauces and beans on the plate.


Rub a thin-cut pork chop with steak recado or red recado.  Grill.

Serve with Tomato Sauce, K’utbi Ik, roast onion, cooked black beans, and bitter orange or lime quarters—each served separately in neat piles around the plate.  Avocado slices and other garnishes are often added as well.



Pork and Chaya


2 lb. pork

2 tsp. oregano

4 garlic cloves

1/2 tsp. cumin powder

20 chaya leaves (if no chaya is around, substitute 1 bunch Swiss chard)

1/2 cup rice, pre-soaked

1 pinch saffron



1 red onion, chopped

3 tbsp. chopped cilantro

Juice of 2 bitter oranges


Boil the pork.  Add the spices.  When well cooked, add the chaya, rice and saffron.  Simmer till rice is just done, ca. 15 min.

Prepare a relish with the onion, cilantro and bitter orange juice.

This is a very Moorish-style recipe; Moorish cooking often involves cooking the rice or other starch in with the meat (as well as the addition of saffron).  It produces a rather stodgy dish, especially if overcooked.  Thus, you might well want to cook the rice separately and serve the stew over it.



Pork and Beans I (Frijoles con Puerco)

This dish is the local variant of a dish universal in the west Mediterranean world:  south France, Spain, Portugal.  Always, it involves beans of one or another type, with various tough parts of the pig.  This black-bean version is a sacred Yucatecan tradition.  It is often served regularly on a particular day of the week (the day varies from place to place) as the Daily Special.  Whoever said neck bones were low?  They’re among the best parts of the pig.  Also, true Yucatecans are sometimes militant about the tail and ear, but non-Yucatecans can be forgiven for leaving them out!


1 lb. black beans

1 lb. pork meat, cut up

1/2 lb. pork neck bones

1 pig tail, cleaned

1 pig’s ear

1 tbsp. black recado

1 tbsp. red recado

4 chopped tomatoes

1 branch epazote

3 oz. lard

1 tbsp. masa


Cook the beans.  Cut up the pork and add.

Dilute the recados in half a glass of water and add to the above.

Fry the tomatoes and epazote in lard.  Add in the masa and half a glass of water and cook till thick.  Add this to the stew.  Cook a minute more and serve forth.

Serve as is, or remove the pork from the beans and serve them separately.  Either way, a full range of relishes and garnishes should be provided, but must always include chopped radish with onion and cilantro in bitter orange or lime juice; and Tomato Sauce or K’utbi Ik on the side.

Rice is often cooked in the cooking liquid (after initial frying) and served separately.

“Red” variant:  Use more red recado (2-3 tbsp. or even more) and some ground allspice.



Pork and Beans II

This is a Yucatecan variant of a more Peninsular-Spanish version of the same dish.  In Spain the beans would be white–originally fava beans, now white frijoles.  In Yucatan red beans are sometimes used, and are very good in this dish.


1 lb. white or red beans

1 lb. pork

1 lb. pork ribs

6 cubes red recado


1/4 cabbage

1 summer squash

2 plantains

1 lb. potatoes

3 oz. raw ham

2 oz. bacon

2 Spanish chorizos

4 tomatoes

1 onion

1 bell pepper

4 green chiles

1/2 lb. lard

Salt to taste


Cook the beans.

Cut up the pork and ribs.  Add the red recado dissolved in vinegar.

When the pork is mostly done, add the beans, and the squash, cabbage, plantains, and potatoes (all cut up).

Separately, fry the chorizo, bacon and ham.  Add the tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, and chiles.  Fry.  Add a bit of vinegar.  Mix into meat and beans at last minute and simmer a while.

Variation comes by adding or subtracting different sorts of preserved pork products.



Pork and White Beans

By contrast, this is a very traditional, very Maya recipe.  White navy beans, dried limas or black-eyed peas may be used.


2 lb. white beans

2 lb. pork, preferably leg meat and ribs

1 onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 tbsp. red recado


1 xkatik chile

1 head garlic, roasted

Salt and pepper to taste


Cook the beans.  When mostly done, add the pork, previously fried in its own fat (i.e. cook, preferably in stickproof pan, till some of its own fat renders out to fry it; you may have to add some water at first).

In this fat, fry the chopped vegetables with red recado dissolved in water or bitter orange juice.

Combine all ingredients and cook till done.



P’uyul de Chicharron K’astak’an (“small pieces of thoroughly-cooked chicharrones”)

A very Maya dish.


Take bits of pork skin attached to fat and meat–i.e. like chicharrones but with the meat attached, not just the skin.  Deep-fry for a very long time, till thoroughly crisp.  Eat in tacos with Basic Relish or similar garnishes.

Low-fat variant: pan-fry or grill bits of pork.



Steak a la Valladolid (Bifstek vallisoletana)

A simple but wonderful and deservedly popular recipe.  Valladolid (Yucatan) is the center of the highly traditional maize-growing region of eastern Yucatan state and neighboring Quintana Roo.  It is a homeland of simple, filling, but superb foods.


Rub a thin steak or pork fillet in recado of black pepper, garlic, lime juice and salt.  Then rub on red recado made of one cube achiote paste, lime juice, ground cumin and a little ground clove, dissolved in bitter orange or lime juice.  Marinate an hour or more.  Grill.



Stuffed Chayote (“Chayote Slippers”)

A manifestation of the classic stuffed vegetable dishes of Middle Eastern cooking—another Moorish legacy in Spain; note the distinctive suite of Spanish ingredients, the olives, capers, and raisins, appearing yet again.

Basically a variant of Stuffed Squash, below.


1 lb. ground pork

1 onion

1 bell pepper

2 garlic cloves

1 tomato

4 chayotes

1/2 tsp. oregano

1/2 cup oil

Olives, capers, and raisins (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste


Cook the chayotes.  Cut in half lengthwise, removing the central seed.  (The result looks like a slipper.)

Meanwhile, cook the meat in a frying pan.  In the rendered fat, cook the tomato, onion, and pepper, chopped.  Add the olives, capers and raisins.  Cook this mixture down till dry.

With this, stuff the chayotes.  Bake in a pan for a few minutes till it all holds together.



Stuffed Cheese

A thoroughly Spanish-style dish, with Moorish antecedents, now thoroughly nativized in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Large Dutch Goudas–alas, often of a quality too low to be seen in the home country—used to be sold everywhere, wrapped in red wax and red plastic wrap.  Recently, however, the balance of payments has made them expensive, and they are no longer village food.

There may still be a few proper ladies who refer to these cheeses as chak chi, Maya for “red edge,” since queso, “cheese,” is one of the many, many, many words that have a double meaning in Yucatan.  (The same ladies refer to brown sugar as piloncillo, never panoche, and refer to eggs as blanquillos–“little white things.”)

These large cheeses are often sold by the slice in rural markets.  Only the rich can afford the luxury of using a whole ball for a single dish.

Unlike most Yucatecan specialties, this dish is a cholesterol-avoider’s nightmare.


1 ball of Dutch cheese

2 lb. pork

14 eggs, 12 of them hardboiled

3 cloves garlic

Dried oregano to taste (use a lot)

1 clove (or more)


Raisins, olives, and capers, to taste (a lot)


Saffron, to taste (optional)

1 cup flour

2 cups of tomato sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

2 xkatik chiles

2 serrano chiles

1 bell pepper

1 lb. tomato

1 lb. onion


Unwrap the cheese, remove the wax, cut in half and hollow out.

Cook the meat.  Save the stock.

Peel the boiled eggs.  Chop up the whites.

Prepare a recado by grinding together the garlic, oregano, clove and saffron.

Mince the pork.  Mix in the egg whites.  Fry with a bit of the recado.  Add generous amounts of raisins, olives, capers, and 3-4 oz. of the scooped-out part of the cheese.

Take off the fire and mix in the two raw eggs and the saffron.  Stuff the cheese with this mixture.

Seal the cheese shut with the flour (made into paste with a bit of water).

Wrap in a cloth and steam (or boil, but the water coming up only an inch or so) for an hour (adding water if necessary).  Don’t worry if it falls apart.  It often does.

Serve with a sauce, as follows:

Roast the chiles, tomatoes and onion.  Skin.  Chop fine and fry in lard.  Add the meat stock and the rest of the recado.  Add more capers, olives and raisins.  Thicken with a bit of flour.

Cut the cheese in quarters and cover with the sauce.


The flavor of this recipe depends heavily on the use of a lot of recado, capers and olives.  Otherwise, it is bland and greasy to a serious degree.

Variant:  Shrimps and other sea foods are sometimes used for the stuffing.



Stuffed Squash

A dish with Spanish and, ultimately, Moorish roots, adapted to New World squash.  Very similar dishes are prepared by more recent Arab immigrants, especially of the Lebanese community that developed in the late 19th century in Yucatan; see below.  Moreover, this dish has rebounded to the homeland; stuffed Mexican summer squashes, prepared with recipes very similar to this one but substituting lamb for pork, now universally join the original stuffed eggplants and so on, throughout southern Spain, the Middle East, and the Arabic world.


6-8 summer squash

1/2 lb. ground pork

4 cloves

Small stick cinnamon

6 leaves oregano

4 cloves of garlic, roasted


Pinch of saffron

Around 20 raisins

1 tsp. capers

Olives, as desired

Almonds, as desired

4 tomatoes

1 onion

2 xkatik chiles or 1 bell pepper

Lard or oil (olive oil is traditional, and best)

Pork stock

Salt and pepper to taste


Blanch the squash and hollow out.

Fry the ground pork.  If it is fat, enough fat will render out to fry it; if it is lean, add a little lard or oil.

Grind the spices, except the saffron, and make into a recado paste with a little vinegar.  Add to the pork.

Add the vegetables (chopped finely; the onions first), then the saffron (not all of it), raisins, olives, almonds and capers.

Stuff the squash with this mix.  Bake, or cook on stove top in a pan with a little water, until squash is soft.

Prepare a sauce by cooking down the stock with some vinegar, saffron, salt, and, if wanted, a little flour to thicken.  Pour over the squash.  Some form of tomato sauce is often used with or instead of this sauce.

Variants: the raisins, olives, almonds, and capers can be left out.  The sauces can also be dispensed with.

Variant:  A Lebano-Yucatecan version uses lamb, pine nuts, tomato and cinnamon as the basic stuffing.  It can be modified by adding the chiles, etc.



Tablecloth Stainer (manchamanteles)

One Yucatan variant of a very widespread and popular Mexican dish.  The sauce is brilliant red and leaves an almost permanent stain, hence the name.


2 lb. pork loin (or other meat)

Lard for frying

Meat stock

4 dried ancho chiles

2/3 lb. tomato

1 onion

2 cloves garlic

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

1 stick cinnamon

2 cloves

8 allspice berries

1 tsp. oregano

1 tsp. sugar

1 plantain

1/2 lb. potatoes

1 sweet potato


Cut up the meat.  Fry in lard.  Toast the chiles.  Roast the tomato, onion, and garlic.  Blend these with the chiles.  Grind the spices and mix in.

Add these to the meat.  Add the stock.  Simmer till meat is done.

Separately, boil the plantain, potatoes, and sweet potato.  When done, add to the meat.

In central Mexico this dish would usually have a lot more chiles, of 2, 3 or even 4 varieties.  I prefer that to the Yucatan form.  But the Yucatan form has more subtle, harmonious spicing and more vegetables, and the wonderful roasted tomato-onion flavor.  Nobody says you can’t have it all….



Tasajo with Chaya, I


2 lb. tasajo (salted air-dried beef), soaked and cooked for a very long time

3 cubes red recado

1 lb. chaya leaves

2 summer squash

1 bitter orange

1 roasted head of garlic

Juice of 2 limes

3 habanero chiles


Tasajo is the Spanish and Central American equivalent of jerky (which is originally Peruvian—our word comes from the Quechua Indian word charki).  Tasajo is saltier and not quite so tough as real jerky.

Soak the tasajo for a long time in several changes of cold water.  Then wash and cut up.

Boil with the recado for a couple of hours.  Then add the squash (cut up), garlic and chayas.  Cook another 15 minutes.

Take the ingredients out of the stock.  Squeeze the bitter orange (or a couple of limes) over them.  Serve the soup separately.

Seed and roast the chiles.  Mash with salt and lime juice.  Serve on the side.

Variant:  The meat and chaya can be taken out of the stock before quite done, chopped finely and fried with onion or garlic.  I like this better.

This recipe would work with corned beef or even with a tough cut of fresh beef.



Tasajo with Chaya, II


2 lb. tasajo (salted dried beef), soaked and cooked for a very long time

1 lb. chaya leaves

2 oz. bacon

2 oz. chopped ham

4 cloves

4 bay leaves

Salt and pepper to taste


Fry the meat, bacon, ham and flavorings.  Add water and cook 30 minutes.

Boil the chaya leaves and blend.  Fry this in a little oil.  Put over the meat and cook.

Variants:  This sauce is also ideal with fish.  Add any other greens to the chaya.  More or different spicing can be used.



Ts’aanchak (familiar as dzanchac in older spelling)

A traditional way to cook deer, from long before the Europeans came.  Now adapted to Spanish-introduced animals.


1 lb. beef, any cut (this is a good way to use tough or bony cuts, etc.)

3 garlic cloves

1 onion, chopped

6 ears sweet corn (optional)

2 summer squash, cut up (optional)

2 limes

Salt and pepper to taste



1 bunch radishes, cut up very finely

1 habanero chile, cut up

1 onion, cut up finely

1/2 cup cilantro, cut up

Juice of 1 bitter orange

Salt to taste


Boil the meat till tender.

When almost done, add the vegetables (if wanted—this is often just a meat dish).

Serve with the relish–the cut-up ingredients marinated in the citrus juice.  Slices of bitter lime can be used as flavorful garnish, if you can get them.

The vegetables are optional; any combination can be used.  The Maya village version is simply boiled deer meat with the relish.

The stock is critical here.  Tough, lean, flavorful meat should be used, and simmered slowly for a long time, to produce a really good stock.  It is eaten as soup, accompanying the meat, like the ancestral peasant form of French bouillon et bouilli.  Naturally, this is also accompanied by a constant stream of fresh-made tortillas from home-grown corn.

There are many variants.





1 lb. venison, cooked (any other meat can be substituted)

2 tomatoes

1 onion

Several radishes

10-20 sprigs cilantro

1 jalapeño chile

Juice of 4 bitter oranges


Cut up and boil the venison.  Cut up the other ingredients and serve with the cooked meat.

This is better if the venison is marinated before cooking, and better still if it is cooked in an earth oven (pib) rather than boiled.

A very simple standard.  This is the way ordinary Maya prepare the leaner types of meat—traditionally, venison—for a quick lunch.

By shredding the meat and mixing it with the relish, one creates the dish known as “balinche salad,” above, or by other names.



White and Gold Stew

A superb, elegant dish, this stew is thoroughly Spanish in origin, and thus out of place in this book—but too good to leave out!


1 lb. meat (anything will do)

4 cloves

Small cinnamon stick

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

2 packets saffron, dissolved in a little water

1 tsp. ground oregano

1 tsp. ground thyme

1 head garlic, roasted

Salt to taste

2 oz. vinegar

Olive oil (or lard or vegetable oil)

1 bunch green onions, roasted

Green chiles, to taste

Sugar to taste


Grind the spices (or use ground ones to begin with).  Rub into the meat, with the salt.  Brown the meat over low heat.  Add water, vinegar, oil, the sugar (if desired) and the vegetables.

Variants: a little sherry can be added.  Red recado can be used.



Xakan jaanal

Maya for “mixed food,” which this certainly is.  It is a particularly good and easy dish.  In contrast to the foregoing, this is a solid village dish.


2 lb. pork ribs

1 10-oz. package frozen lima beans or black-eyed peas

3 garlic cloves

1-2 tsp. oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

Branch of epazote

2 chayotes

1 kohlrabi

1 head cabbage

1 onion, chopped

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 xkatik chiles, chopped

1 cup rice


Cook the pork.  When it is nearly done, add the beans, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper and epazote.

Cut up the chayote, kohlrabi and cabbage.  Add into the pork and beans.

Separately, fry the chopped onion.  Add in the tomato and chiles.  Add in the rice and fry a while.  When it begins to stick, add in enough broth from the pork and beans to cover to depth of 1/2 to 3/4 inch.  Simmer over very low heat till the liquid is absorbed.

Serve the pork and vegetables over the rice.

Variants: this dish is infinitely expandable.  It can also be contracted perfectly well by leaving out the chayotes, kohlrabi and cabbage, or replacing them with any appropriate vegetable.  Eggs are sometimes added to hardboil in the stock.



Yucatan Stew


1 lb. meat

1 head of garlic, roasted, mixed with juice of one bitter orange

1/2 tsp. pepper

1-2 cloves

1 pinch cumin seeds

Sprig of fresh oregano or tsp. dried oregano

1 small bunch cilantro

3 tomatoes or 6 tomatillos

1 large green chile

1 onion, chopped; and/or a whole green onion, leaves and all except the tough top ends


Cook the meat.  When it comes to boil, add the spices.  When it is soft, chop or blend up the vegetables, fry, and add.

Eat with Basic Relish.





Chicken Adobo


1 chicken

3 cloves garlic

1 ½ tsp oregano

Large stick of cinnamon

1 tbsp peppercorns

1 oz. red recado

1 lb potatoes

½ onion

2 mild chiles, chopped

1 lb tomatoes, chopped


Cut up the chicken and boil.  Mash the garlic, oregano, cinnamon, and peppercorns together.  Add these and the potatoes, cut up, and cook till chicken is nearly done.  Then mix recado with some of the the stock.  Fry the onion, chiles and tomatoes.  Add these to the mix and finish cooking quickly.



Chicken Asado

This dish is great as is, but is far, far more commonly used as the start of something else.  This is the cooked chicken that is used in panuchos, salbutes, tamales, and countless other snacks and made dishes.   It was originally made with turkey, and often still is.


1 chicken

1 oz. red recado mixed with lime juice, lard or chicken stock, and more salt

½ onion, chopped

2 tomatoes, cut up

1 hot chile

Cut up and boil the chicken until almost but not quite done.  Take it out of the stock; save the stock.  Rub the chicken with most of the recado mix and roast it in a hot oven (ca. 375o).  At this point, if you are making this chicken only to use in panuchos or the like, set the chicken out to cool and then pull the meat off it.

Then, mix the rest of the recado into the stock.  Add the onion, tomatoes, and chile to the stock.  Cook and serve as soup with the chicken if you still have it, or, if the chicken’s destiny is otherwise, add noodles and/or potatoes and  other vegetables and a little of the dark meat of the chicken to the soup and finish cooking.

This dish has to be carefully made if you use United States chickens, which are very tender.  They tend to fall apart if boiled very long.  This dish requires that the chicken be boiled only enough to tenderize it and sterilize it.  If it falls apart, it can’t be roasted properly.

Variant:  this is made with black recado, too, especially if one is using turkey.



Chicken a la Motul


2 chickens

1/2 cup red recado

Juice of 2 bitter oranges


10 fried tortillas

3 large tomatoes

1 lb. refried beans

4 oz. cooked ham

Canned peas for garnish (or 1 10-oz pack frozen peas—untraditional but far preferable)

3 oz. grated Mexican sharp white cheese (if unavailable, use feta)

Salt to taste


Rub the chickens with salt and recado dissolved in the orange juice.  Boil in a little water.  Drain; fry.  Take the meat off the bones and shred the meat.

Boil the tomatoes in a very little salted water.  Blend and fry in the oil.

To serve:  Layer beans on a plate.  Put a fried tortilla on this.  Add the shredded chicken.  Then add the tomato sauce.  Cover with another tortilla.  Pour sauce over all.  On the top of this stack, put the ham, peas, and grated cheese.

Variants:  Turkey is more traditional, but very rarely found now in this dish.

The chicken can be cut up, and used bone-in, rather than boned and shredded.

This is only one of the architectural marvels of Motul cuisine.   Motuleños love to pile foods on a tortilla and top with some peas.  Possibly the Maya pyramids inspired it all.  It is cooking for the eye as well as cooking for the palate.



Chicken a la Ticul

Ticul is a large town in southern Yucatan, famous for its pottery, shoemaking, and food.


1 chicken, cut up


2 oz. ham, chopped

2 heads lettuce, chopped; optional (I prefer it without)

2 potatoes, cooked, chopped

1 stick cinnamon

6 peppercorns

2 cloves

4 large oregano leaves (or 1 tsp. ground oregano)

1 onion

3-4 garlic cloves

4 tbsp. vinegar

Grated Mexican sharp white cheese (or feta)

Green peas (traditionally canned, but briefly-cooked frozen peas are far better)

Salt to taste


Boil the chicken.  Drain, saving the stock.  Fry in the lard with the ham, lettuce and potato.

Grind the spices, onion, garlic and vinegar.  Add this to the stock and boil till it thickens.

Serve the chicken with this sauce poured over it.  Top with grated cheese and peas.

Variant:  The chicken can be breaded and fried.  Fried beans are often an accompaniment.  Other garnishes include red pepper strips, fried platano, etc.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2000b:45)



Chicken Chirmole


1 chicken

5 mulato chiles (or other dried chiles; mulato specified because the common ancho is a bit sweet for this recipe, but mulatos are rarely seen in Yucatan, so ancho is very often used)

1/2 cup sikil

5 toasted tortillas

5 peppercorns

1/2 onion

1 garlic clove

¼ tsp allspice

2 tbsp. lard or oil

Salt to taste


Cut up and boil the chicken.

Blend the chiles (seeded, toasted and soaked), sikil, tortillas, pepper and onion.  Note: the quality of the tortillas matters a lot in this dish.  Get good, fresh ones.

Fry this sauce in the lard.  Add two cups of the chicken stock.  Add the chicken and cook till sauce thickens somewhat.

Variant:  Ground blanched almonds make a very good substitute for sikil in this recipe.



Chicken in Bread Crumbs (Fried Chicken)


Not the most exciting dish, but too universal in Yucatan to ignore.


1 chicken, cut up

Lime juice

Salt and pepper

1 egg





Boil the chicken.  Then take out and marinate in lime juice, salt and pepper.  Meanwhile, make a batter by beating the egg with flour.  Dip the chicken in this, then roll in breadcrumbs.  Deep-fry.

The advantage of this village method is that, since the chicken is already cooked, one leaves it in the boiling oil only long enough to crisp the outside into a shell.  The result should be very crisp and not even slightly greasy.



Chicken Pibil


1 large chicken

1 cube red recado

2 tsp. pepper

1/2 tsp. ground allspice

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

Pinch of ground oregano

6 cloves garlic, roasted and mashed

Juice of 2 bitter oranges (or 4 tbsp. cider vinegar)

12 leaves of epazote

4 pieces of tomato

Chopped onion

Chopped chile

1 tbsp. lard

Salt to taste


Cut up chicken into quarters.  Rub with spice mix (the spices dissolved in the bitter orange juice).  Anoint banana leaves (or foil) in lard and wrap the chicken quarters–with a few epazote leaves, a slice of tomato, and a some chopped onion and chile on each quarter.  Cook in a pib.

If baking in an oven, use a covered dish.  The idea is to hold in all the steam, so none of the aroma is lost.  Many a chicken pibil has been utterly ruined by baking without proper attention to this detail.  One warning:  If you do this, be sure the orange juice and the tomato don’t supply too much liquid, or you’ll get chicken soup instead of chicken pibil.

Naturally, one can vary the spice mix.  Unauthentic but good is to add powdered chile pepper to the recado.



Chicken with Potatoes a la Quintana Roo

A very standard dish in the area where I lived and worked, out in central Quintana Roo.


1 chicken, cut up


5 oregano leaves

5 allspice berries

1 slice of onion

1/2 tbsp. black pepper

2 garlic cloves

1/2 cube red recado or achiote paste

Juice of one bitter orange

3 tomatoes, roasted and blended up

1 xkatik chile

1/2 bell pepper (optional)

1 jalapeno chile

1 lb. potatoes (small new potatoes, or cut-up larger ones)


Fry the chicken lightly in the oil, with the spices.

Blend up the onion, garlic and recado in the orange juice.  Add to the chile and add just enough water to cook.

Separately, fry the tomato and the peppers, chopped.

Add to the chicken.  Add in the potatoes and finish cooking.

Like many Quintana Roo dishes, this is very delicately spiced, and you may want to raise the amount of oregano, allspice and black pepper.




A relative of the “Turkey in Black Sauce” below


1 chicken, cut up

1 tsp oregano

4 cloves garlic

1 tbsp pepper

2 oz black recado, or make or approximate your own (see recipe above)

2 tomatoes

2 onions

Several dried chiles (1-2 anchos, or a few smaller chiles)

4 oz masa

½ c white flour


Boil the chicken.  Grind the spices and garlic together, add to recado, add to stew.  Roast the onion in the ashes.  Add it and the tomatoes to the stew.

Toast the chiles (traditionally until completely black).  DO THIS OUTDOORS, STANDING UPWIND; the smoke is intensely irritating.  Add.  Cook 45 min. Knead the masa and flour together.  Add to stew, mix thoroughly to thicken stew, and cook for 10 min.

Variants:  Pork can be added to this.  The black recado can be left out, since it merely adds more to the toasted chiles and spices.  Fresh chiles, roasted, can be used (but are not traditional).



Cuban Rice

A Quintana Roo dish, reminding us of the links between the Mexican Caribbean and Cuba.  The Quintana Roo version seems generally to use more lime and herbs, less achiote and oil, than the Cuban.


1 chicken, cut up

Oregano, to taste

1 cube steak recado

7 garlic cloves

2 tomatoes

1 slice onion

1 bell pepper

3 cups rice


1 cup green peas (traditionally canned, but fresh or frozen are far better)

Juice of one lime

Salt and pepper to taste


Boil the chicken with oregano, the spices, and 5 of the garlic cloves.

Blend or chop finely the tomato, bell pepper, and onion.  Fry.  Add to stock.

Fry the rice with the other two garlic cloves.

Add the stock to this and simmer.  When partly cooked, add the peas, chicken, and lime juice.  Cook till rice is tender.



K’oolij blanco (“white stew”)

1 chicken or (more traditionally) small turkey

White corn meal, stirred into stock to whiten it

1 small xkatik chile

2 cloves

Few cumin seeds

Few allspice berries

1 cinnamon stick

Head of garliic

1 tsp crushed oregano leaves

2 sprigs epazote



Sprig of mint

1 onion, chopped

2 tomatoes, chopped


Roast chicken unitl almost done, on grill.  Boil with corn meal and xkatik or bell pepper.  Mash the spices and garlic together and add to stew.  Add oregano and epazote.  Add mint at end.

Separately fry the onion and tomato to sofrito.  Add to stew near end of cooking, and cook just to get all mixed.




“Mestiza Maya”–Maya for “buried” (mukbij) and Spanish for “chicken.”

John Stephens’ account from around 1840 is classic:

“A friendly neighbour…sent us a huge piece of mukbipoyo.  It was as hard as an oak plank, and as thick as six of them;…in a fit of desperation we took it out into the courtyard and buried it.  There it would have remained till this day but for a malicious dog which accompanied them [the friendly neighbours] on their next visit; he passed into the courtyard, rooted it up, and, while we were pointing to the empty platters as our acknowledgment [sic] of their kindness, this villanous [sic] dog sneaked through the sala and out the front door with the pie in his mouth, apparently grown bigger since it was buried.” (Stephens 1843:21-22.)

Alas, all who travel in rural Yucatan, now as in Stephens’ time, encounter these oak-plank mukbipollos.  They are the result of skimping on the fat chicken broth when you mix the masa for the crust, and perhaps of also baking too long.


The following is an elaborate village version.


1 chicken

2 lb. pork (optional)

1 cube red recado

1-2 tsp. steak recado (or just another half cube of the red)

Branch of epazote

Few oregano leaves

5″ stick of cinnamon

Tsp. ground allspice or several allspice berries

2 cloves

5 roasted garlic cloves

4 tomatoes

3 onions

2 xkatik chiles

8 lb. masa

Salt and pepper to taste


Cut up and boil the meat in a lot of water.  Grind the spices and add.

Separately cook the tomatoes and onions in a very little water with 1 tbsp. lard, and boil 10-15 min. till a sauce is formed.

Take out a cup of stock.  Mix one fourth of the masa into the remaining stock and meat—slowly and carefully, so that lumps do not form.

Work the reserved cup of stock into the rest of the masa.  If the stock isn’t rich and fatty, you will have to add lard or oil, typically about ¼ cup, or you will wind up with the oak plank.  Again, work slowly.

With this mix, shape small pie shells like the familiar little chicken or steak pot pies of European and American cooking.  Fill with the meat.  Top with the tomato sauce.  Cover with a top crust of masa.  Rub over with thinned masa to seal.  Wrap in several layers of leaves.  Tie tightly to make a bundle.  Bury these in the pib.

The feast from which this recipe comes was cooked in a pib 3′ by 3′ and 1 1/2′ deep.  My next door neighbors in Quintana Roo, Elsi Ramirez and her family, dug it in their front yard.  Good firewood (the local equivalent of oak or mesquite) was put in, with large cobble-sized rocks on top of it.  The wood was burned till it became ash and the rocks changed color.  Then palm leaves were put over these until they were thoroughly covered.  The mukbipollos, wrapped in banana leaves and then in palm leaves, were then put in.  A metal cover was put over all, and dirt piled over it.  It was left for 3 hours.

In urban realms where you can’t dig up the yard:  Line a baking dish with banana leaves or foil.  Put the pies in, or just make one huge pie by pressing the masa against the banana leaves or foil.  Bake in a slow oven, around 350o, for 3-4 hours.  The exact heat must vary with circumstances.  The idea is to get a soft bottom crust and tougher, somewhat crisped and toasted top crust.


Ch’a-chaak waj (bread for the ceremony of praying for rain) is made as above, or one can fry achiote in the lard used in the recipe.  The sauce should be thick so that the whole thing is more a cornbread than a pie.

The chicken can be shredded off the bones before use in the pie.

Dried chickpeas or lima beans, boiled till tender, can be added.

Spicing changes with the cook’s taste at the moment.



Chekbij waj

Similar to a mukbipollo, but, instead of making yellow corn meal into a solid piecrust, one uses a very soft, wide, round cake of white masa with a lot of chicken-grease-rich-stock worked into it (making it quite red).  The chicken is wrapped in this so the result is more like a tamale than a pie.  It is baked or steamed in leaves like the preceding.



Pabixa’ak’ (grilled or roast chicken)

Marinate chicken in red recado dissolved in bitter orange or lime juice, or in the spice mix for Cuban Rice, above.  Marinate for an hour or two, then grill or roast.





1 chicken


Black pepper

1/2 tsp. cumin

2-3 cloves

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. oregano

3 garlic cloves

1 white onion

2 tomatoes

1 small summer squash

2 chayotes

2 carrots

2 small bell peppers

2 potatoes

1 or 2 plantains


1 package (8 oz.) fideos noodles

Salt to taste

Sprig of mint


Cut up the chicken, scrub with lime, and fry in lard.  Add salt, 1/4 of the onion, 2 tomatoes.  When all have colored somewhat, add water.  Make recado of the spices; add.  Then add in the vegetables (the plantains cut up but not peeled).  The cabbage goes in only when the other ingredients are fairly thoroughly cooked.

Saute fideos (thin angel-hair pasta) in a little oil.  Add stock to cook them.

Angel hair pasta may be substituted, but look for Mexican fideos (thin noodles—from Arabic fidaws, old Andalusian pronunciation fideos, meaning “noodle”).  They are thinner, cook faster and have more flavor.

Serve the puchero over these.  Serve with Basic Garnish or close relative thereof.

Variants:  The main one is that puchero is made with meat as often as with chicken.  Pork or beef neck bones are particularly common and good.  Pork ribs and pieces of stewing beef are also excellent.  Pork and chicken, or pork and beef, are routinely combined in pucheros.

The vegetables, of course, are an open set.  Garbanzos, sweet potatoes and other root crops are typically added.  Sometimes turnips and kohlrabi (the latter surprisingly common in the Yucatan) find their way in.

Thai lime, cut up, is very good in this–served in the bowl, not cooked with the chicken.

Rice is also used.  Any meat can be used instead of, or along with, chicken.  Chicken and pork make a good—and frequent—combination.

Garbanzos are sometimes added.



Rice and Beans

A dish native to Belize—some would call it the national dish there.  It has spread just across the border, and nativized in the Caribbean city of Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo.


1 chicken

Coconut oil

1 cube achiote paste

2 cloves garlic

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup rice

1/2 cup cooked red beans

1 plantain

1 onion


Cut up the chicken.  Make a recado of the spices.  Rub into chicken.  Cut up chicken and roast the pieces or fry them in coconut oil.

Sauté rice in coconut oil.  Add coconut cream thinned with some water and cook.  Mix with the beans.  (Excellent canned coconut cream may be found in any Asian-food market.  If you feel compulsive, here’s how to make it:  Grate the meat of a very ripe coconut.  Soak the gratings in warm water.  Pack in a cheesecloth and wring out.  This is great for developing the arm muscles.)

Cut plantain into thin strips and fry.  Serve on the side.

Separately, slice and fry the onion.  Serve over the chicken.  Alternatively, make Marinated Onions (see above) and briefly fry them.

Serve the chicken separately from the rice-bean mix.

Accompany with boiled local vegetables (such as chayote), sliced; chopped cabbage marinated in vinegar, salt and pepper; sliced raw tomatoes; salsa cruda of onion, tomato, cilantro; and xni’pek’ (habanero salsa; see above.  Habaneros are just as popular in Belize as in Yucatan.  In Belize they go by the English Caribbean name of “Scotch Bonnet” peppers.



Salpimentado (“salted and peppered”)


2 chickens

1 lb. pork, lean, cut up

2 summer squash

2 potatoes

1 chayote

1 plantain

3 cloves

1 stick cinnamon

1 tbsp. oregano

1 red onion

3 bunches of spring onions (scallions)

2 heads of garlic

2 mild chiles

Salt and pepper to taste


2 white onions

1 cup vinegar

Pinch of salt

1 habanero chile

2 Thai limes (bitter limes)

1 bunch cilantro


Cut up the chickens.  Set to boil with the pork.  Skim, then cook for 15 min.  Chop and add the vegetables  Grind the spices and add.  Cook 20 minutes or more, until all are done.  Meanwhile, roast the red onions, spring onions, chiles, and garlic.  Add them into the soup at the end; cook a minute or so.

For the relish:  chop the white onions very fine; add the vinegar



Turkey in Black Sauce

Here follow the traditional dishes of the four sacred colors.  Turkey, the only large domestic animal in pre-Columbian times, was the ritual food, and still is to some extent.  Chickens usually replace it now, being easier to raise.


1 turkey

1/2 lb. dried chiles

1 tbsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

1 tsp. oregano

15 cloves

1 1/2 tsp. achiote

4 oz. lard

2 onions, chopped

20 leaves epazote

3 lb. tomatoes, chopped

4 lb. ground pork

2 raw eggs

10 hardboiled eggs

2 limes

Salt and pepper to taste


Seed the chiles.  Then toast them till they burn (literally catch fire).  DO THIS OUTDOORS, STANDING UPWIND; the smoke can seriously damage eyes.  Be sure no one is downwind.  When the chiles begin to burn, stop the fire by throwing water over them; let them just blacken.  Wash and grind with the spices.  Then blend all in water.

Heat the lard.  Then chop the onions and fry.  When they color, add six epazote leaves and a pound of tomatoes (chopped).  When fried, add the ground meat and half the ground chile mix.

Add the raw eggs and the chopped-up whites of the cooked eggs.

Meanwhile, clean the turkey and rub with salt, pepper and lime juice.  Stuff the turkey with the meat sauce and the egg yolks.

Cook in a closed pot over a low fire.  Add the rest of the ground chile, the tomatoes, the rest of the epazote, and some lard.  Cook till turkey is done.

To make sure the chiles aren’t overburned (producing bitter, scorched or sooty tastes), make them a day or two ahead of time, soak them, and discard the water.

Variant:  The village form of this uses a lot of masa (about 6 lb.), stirred into the soup to lengthen it and make it suitable for pib uses.  This makes a pretty stodgy dish, though.

Allspice berries can be added.



Turkey in Red Sauce

The red version of this quartet of traditional ritual turkey dishes.


1 turkey

1 tsp. black pepper

1 tbsp. oregano

8 cloves

¼ tsp. allspice

2 tbsp. achiote

2 oz. dried chile

10 tomatoes

3 onions (and/or several cloves garlic)

10 leaves mint

3-4 oz. lard

½ -1 lb. masa


Rub the turkey with salt and leave for several minutes.  Soak the dried chile.

Grind the spices (including the soaked chiles and the achiote) in a little water.

Roast the turkey till browned but not fully cooked.  Cut in pieces.  Simmer with the pork in 5 quarts water.  Add the recado.

Chop the tomatoes, onion and mint.  Fry in lard.  Add to the above.

Thicken with masa.  Cook till sauce thickens.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2000b:46)



Turkey in Yellow Sauce

The recipe for the brilliant yellow k’ool is about the same, with half the achiote and without the tomatoes and mint.  Or use the very similar chicken stew from the mukbipollo recipe above.



Turkey in White Sauce


1 lb. pork ribs

1 turkey

1 branch oregano

10 peppercorns

3 garlic cloves (or more–up to one or two heads)

1 tsp. steak recado

1 tsp. red recado


Sliced onions

1 cup white corn meal

1 tsp. cumin seeds (optional)

1 tbsp. dried oregano


Boil the pork ribs in a large pot.  Add the turkey, cut up.  Add the spices, dissolving the recados in the vinegar.

Separate a few cups of the stock and dissolve the flour very carefully in it.  Cook slowly till it thickens.  Serve the turkey with this sauce poured over it.

Variants: it is possible to add quartered tomatoes, bay leaves, etc.

A much fancier version uses the classic Spanish combination of olives, capers, almonds, raisins, and a pinch of saffron.

A very interesting, and common, variant uses ground pork.  It is fried, and when the fat has rendered out, the spices are mixed into it.  (Some even chop tomatoes, onion, and chile peppers, and fry them in the mix, adding some of the almonds, capers, etc., but by this time we are dealing with a Spanish pork dish rather than a Maya turkey dish.)

If you can’t find white corn meal, yellow will do.  Some use white flour, but it merely thickens the sauce and makes it gluey, rather than adding the delightful texture and flavor of corn meal.



Turkey in Escabeche I:  Simple Form

In most of the Spanish world, escabeche—from Arabic, and originally Persian, as-sikbaj, food cooked in vinegar—is something one does with vegetables and sea food.  In Yucatan, it is first and foremost a poultry dish.


Marinate a turkey or chicken in a recado of cloves, cumin seed, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, oregano, and garlic, mixed with a little vinegar (variants:  water, lime juice, bitter orange juice).

Boil with salt and a chile or bell pepper.

Serve with sliced onions (as in recipe following).



Turkey in Escabeche II:  Classic Escabeche Oriental

No one seems to have a conclusive account of what is “oriental” about this dish.  One theory is that the name comes from the fact that the dish is typical of Valladolid in the eastern part of Yucatan state.  However, a similar dish is called “oriental” in Spain, and it seems unlikely that influence from Valladolid (Yucatan) got that far, so I suspect “oriental” means “Moorish” or “Near Eastern” in this case.


1 turkey

1 tbsp cumin seeds

1 stick cinnamon

20 oregano leaves

8 cloves

1 tbsp. peppercorns

1 bottle vinegar

1/2 cup lard

8 xkatik chiles

2 lb. red onions

6 habaneros (!! Or fewer—or, if you can’t deal with even one habanero, one mild chile)

4 roasted heads of garlic


The turkey can be cut up or whole.  For the pib, it should be whole.  Boil the turkey.

Grind up the spices and make a paste with the vinegar.  Rub into the turkey.  Put the turkey in large pot with the lard, garlic, and xkatik chiles (roasted).  Bury in pib, or roast in the oven.

Cut up the onions and habaneros.  Marinate in vinegar or lime juice, salt, cumin powder and toasted oregano leaves.  Add some of the turkey stock.  Serve as garnish.



Turkey Escabeche III

A variant, which I prefer, of the above.


3 lb. turkey parts, or 1 chicken

1/2 stick cinnamon

3 cloves

3 black peppercorns

4 cloves garlic

3 tsp. dried oregano

1 cube achiote paste

1 tbsp. lard

Juice of 6 limes

3 purple onions


Boil the turkey (or chicken) with a little dried oregano.

Grind the spices (including the rest of the oregano).  Add 1/2 of the achiote cube and mix with juice of 1 lime.  Score chicken and rub in this recado.

Slice the onions.  Let sit for a while, then pour boiling water over them.  Leave a few minutes, then drain and add juice of 5 limes and 1/2 tsp. salt.  Or make the full Marinated Onions recipe with them.

Roast the turkey in a hot oven for 15 minutes, till skin is crisping.  Or, if you have a pib, wrap it and cook it in the pib.

Add the rest of the achiote cube to the stock.  Add 3 xkatik chiles (seeded and roasted) and a head of roasted garlic.  Then add an onion, quartered.

To serve, chicken can be cut up and returned to stock.  But, if one is eating it all with tortillas, the method is to take the meat off the bones, return the bones to the stock to boil some more, and eat the meat and soup separately.  The onions are a side dish to add onto the meat.

Serve with jalapenos in escabeche or habanero chile sauce.

Variant:  The above is a village form.  Urban forms are apt to include canned green Spanish olives, capers, tomatoes, bay leaves, etc.

Fanciest of all is to use a turkey stuffed with but’ (ground meat) and garnished with hard-boiled eggs.  Increase spices accordingly.



Turkey San Simon

This dish is Yucatan food history in a nutshell.  The turkey, tomatoes, chiles, and most of the spices are indigenous.  The recado using bitter orange is Caribbean, specifically Cuban (itself a mix, about which I know far too little, of African and Native American elements).  The bread thickening and the rest of the spicing is classic Moorish-Spanish.  The plantains are a solidly African touch.  The peas are a 19th-century Mexican garnish, derived probably from French usage.  The roasted green peppers are a standard modern central Mexican garnish.  And so on….



1 tbsp. black pepper

1 tbsp. cumin seeds

1 tsp. cloves

1 tsp. allspice

1 stick cinnamon

1 head of garlic, peeled

1 tbsp. oregano



1 turkey (ca. 10 lb.)

Lard for frying (1-2 tbsp)

2 heads garlic

1-2 tbsp. oregano

1 branch mint

Juice of 5 bitter oranges (or 1 cup vinegar)

1 oz. achiote

3 plantains, cut into long thin strips

10 slices French bread (or less—or even leave out)

1 10-oz. package of frozen peas

6 tomatoes, roasted and peeled

2 xkatik chiles

2 bell peppers, roasted and peeled

Salt to taste

20 green onions, roasted till beginning to brown


Grind all the recado ingredients together, dissolve in the bitter orange juice, and rub into the turkey.  Marinate in refrigerator overnight.

Then, cut up and brown the turkey in lard with a roasted head of garlic, the oregano, mint and salt.   Add water and cook, covered, till the turkey is almost done.

Separately, fry the plantains till soft; toast the bread; fry the tomatoes (chopped), and the chile and bell peppers (cut up).

Blend the tomatoes with the roasted head of garlic.

Now combine all ingredients except the plaintains and bread.  Cook 10 minutes.  Then take the turkey pieces out of the sauce; serve the pieces and the sauce separately.  Garnish with the peas, cooked and put over the turkey.

Serve with the plantains and toast on the side.  Roast the green onions till soft and serve them on the side also.

(modified from Conaculta Oceano 2000b:47)





In general, the vegetable section of a Mexican cookbook is the shortest, if it exists at all.  Yucatan is no exception.  Vegetables are eaten as part of mixed stews, with meat, or they are garnishes.  Still, there are a few vegetable dishes.  Chaya, in particular, has been monographed by Jose Diaz Bolio.  Some of the recipes below are inspired by his.




Another Arab dish–using Yucatecan recado! According to legend, Burun was a queen of old Baghdad, the wife of Caliph Al-Ma’mun, and she liked mixed vegetable dishes.  Her name, variously distorted, applies to such, all over the Arab and Spanish worlds. She is especially associated with eggplant.  Alboromia in countless forms is universal in Andalucía and Extremadura, and presumably came to Mexico very early, but one suspects, also, later Lebanese influence in this dish.

Such vegetable recipes as exist in Yucatan frequently turn out to be Lebanese.  They are ideal for a vegetable course in a Yucatecan dinner, because they make an interesting contrast to the Maya and Spanish dishes.


1 eggplant

1 summer squash

1 lb. potatoes

1/2 tbsp. red recado

2 tomatoes

2 onions

2 garlic cloves, roasted

1 bunch parsley

1/2 bell pepper

2 tbsp. vinegar



Chop and fry the vegetables, starting with the onions, garlic and parsley.  Add in the flavorings.

Variants: More spices and herbs can be added.

In both Spain and Lebanon, the ancestors of this dish lack the recado.  In Lebanon, they usually have more herbs–mint in particular, and sometimes tarragon.  These do not go particularly well with the recado.  Leaving out the recado and using mint, tarragon and oregano or marjoram makes a good variant, similar to ones found among the Lebanese communities.



Bean Chirmole


1 lb. beans

25 small dried chiles or 4 dried ancho chiles

1/2 onion

1 lb. masa

2 cloves garlic

6 tomatoes

1 tsp. oregano

Cloves, to taste

Allspice, to taste

Lard (optional)

Salt and pepper, to taste


Cook the beans until almost done.

Toast and boil the chiles.  Wash.  Grind them with the spices.  Add to the beans.  Add the other ingredients.

Meat can be added to this, as can abal fruits (sour plumlike fruits; substitute sour plums).  Both improve it quite a bit.



Black Rice

Chop and fry an onion and some leaves of epazote, and chile if wanted.  Fry in a little oil.  Add ½ cup rice and stir-fry.  Then add liquid from cooking k’abax beans (enough to cover the rice to depth of 1 inch), and simmer, covered, over very low heat till done.

This is one of those simple but wonderful recipes.



Chaya basics

Chaya is much like spinach or swiss chard, and these leaves can always be substituted for it or combined with it.  (Incidentally, “spinach” in south Mexico usually turns out to be New Zealand spinach or some other heat-resistant green, not “real” spinach.)

Boil chaya leaves.  Chop and fry with onion.  Salt, bitter orange juice, garlic, etc. can be added.

Variants:  Scrambling eggs in with this mix is wonderful.  Or an omelette can be made thereof.  Adding chorizo, cut-up (previously soaked) salt meat, chopped ham, or comparable flavorings is even more wonderful.

Chaya is also good in any bean dish.  Combining beans and chaya enormously increases the nutritional value of the dish, and tastes better, too.  Chaya can also be put in any soup or stew, especially the ones with mixed vegetables such as puchero.



Chaya and Plantains


1 lb. chaya leaves

1 large plantain

1 bell pepper

2 garlic cloves

1 onion

2 tomatoes

1 tsp. cumin

Juice of 1 bitter orange

Salt and pepper to taste


Boil and cut up the chaya.  Peel and boil the plantain and chop it up.

Chop up and fry the onion, garlic, pepper and tomatoes.  Then add the chaya and plantain and the other ingredients and cook till hot.

This is a wonderful dish, very good with tender young Swiss chard or even turnip greens.



Chaya Rice


Fry onion in a bit of oil.  Add the rice and fry.  Add chopped chaya leaves (raw small ones or blanched larger ones), chopped tomatoes, and any other flavorings desired.  Finally, add water to cover to depth of 1/2 “-3/4” and simmer.

Chaya Seafood Rice:  Add shrimp and/or other seafood to this, along with the chaya.



Chaya Salad


Boil the chaya, chop, and eat with sliced onions and vinagrette dressing.  Other vegetables can be added.



Chaya with Bacon

That old reprobate, Bishop Landa, when he was not torturing Maya to death in the Inquisition, was enjoying their food.  (It is to the credit of the Spanish that Landa’s cruelty earned him formal censure, even in that dreadful age.)  Among other things, he noted that chaya was “good with much fat bacon.” How did he cook it?  History does not record, but here are some worthy possibilities:

  1. Parboil chaya. Meanwhile, fry chopped-up strips of bacon.  Drain off some of the fat.  Then fry the chaya in the remaining fat, with the bacon bits.

Adding garlic and dried chiles to the frying bacon improves this version.

  1. Boil the chaya with bacon strips, garlic cloves, and dried red chiles.
  2. Boil slab bacon. Skim off as much of the fat as you can.  Add chaya, garlic and chiles.

Being a Spaniard of his time, Landa probably went much more heavily into the bacon than we would do.



Chaya with Cheese


Boil chaya leaves in chicken stock.  Sprinkle crumbled sharp white Mexican cheese over them.



Chaya with Eggs


1 large bunch chaya

1 onion

2 tomatoes

1 egg


Boil the chaya and cut up.  Cut up the onion and tomato.  Stir-fry the onion; add the tomato; then add the chaya; then add the egg.  Stir-fry all.



K’abax Beans (“Frijoles kabax”)

K’abax implies ordinary food without special seasonings.  This is the everyday bean dish of Mexico.  Cooked over a good wood fire on a Maya hearth, it is as fine a dish as anyone could want.


Put beans in water and bring to boil.  Turn off and soak a few hours.  Then (in the same water) boil till tender, adding salt, an onion, a sprig of epazote and perhaps some achiote.  Eat with a relish of lime or bitter orange juice with chopped onion, cilantro, radishes and habanero chile.

Further manipulations include:

Blended beans:  Cook beans as above.  Blend, with their liquid.  Add lard (Maya lard: see above) to taste.  Or, fry in lard chopped onion, epazote and chile, and add into the beans.  Boil.  (This produces something very like the black bean soup of traditional United States cuisine.)

Refried beans:  Mash the k’abax beans but without the liquid.  Fry in lard.  Add in above ingredients as desired.



Poor People’s Paté

One of the Lebanese contributions to Yucatan’s food.  It is a variant of the “poor man’s caviare” of the Near East and East Europe.


4 small eggplants

2 tbsp. chopped onion

6 chopped garlic cloves

1/2 cup chopped olives

2 bay leaves

3 tomatoes

2 cups cabbage, chopped

1/2 cup vinegar

1 cup yogurt (to serve separately)

Salt and pepper to taste


Peel and slice the eggplants.  If you dislike the bitterness, leave in salted water for 20 minutes and then drain, but you lose some flavor doing this.

Fry the onion and garlic.  Then add the eggplants, olives, pepper and one bay leaf.

Put the tomatoes in boiling water for a minute, to loosen the peels, and skin them.

Blend all the above (discard the bay leaf) with some olive oil.

Separately, make a cabbage salad:  Cook the cabbage.  Add vinegar, pepper and another bay leaf.

Serve, separately, the pate; cabbage salad; and the yogurt.  Eat on pita bread.

Variants:  infinite.  Try leaving out the olives.  The yogurt is optional.



Squash with Squash Flowers


Cook very small summer squash for a very few minutes.  Add squash flowers and then maize kernels cut from fresh sweet corn ears.  Boil for a very short time, until all ingredients are just tender.  Serve with lime wedges.





Fresh fruit and the universal Latin American flan are the commonest desserts in Yucatan, but they need no recipes here.

Yucatan produces excellent sorbets from local fruit; the best are guanabana, mamey, and chicosapote.  They are just fruit pulp, sugar, and water.  Use any sorbet recipe.


Candied ciricote

The ciricote is a small fruit that has to be cooked to be edible, rather like a small quince.  It grows on a large tree whose wood is among the most beautiful of all tropical woods, but now cannot be legally cut because of the rarity of these important food-producing trees.


2 lb. ciricotes

2-3 limes

1 lb. sugar

Domestic fig leaves


Cook the ciricotes in water with some wood ash (a handful or so, to tenderize them).  When cook, take out and grate.

Mix with lime juice.

Cook down in sugar syrup with some lime juice and the fig leaves.  (The fig leaves produce an enzyme that further tenderizes the fruit.)

Simmer for half an hour.  Take out the fig leaves and bottle.

This recipe will work for any firm, sour fruit.  It is similar to that for orejas de mico (“monkey ears”—preserved wild papaya), etc.



Chayote Pudding


1 chayote

3 eggs or 4 whites + 1 yolk (untraditional but healthy and good)

2 oz. butter

2 oz. sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

1 tsp. ground cinnamon (or less if preferred)


Cook the chayotes, peel, and blend with the eggs, butter, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon.

Butter a mold.

Cook in the oven till done.  (For a softer texture, some use a bain-marie.  Basically, this is a dish of water in which the custard dish is set high enough so that the water does not come in, but rather steams the custard.)  Doneness is indicated by a generally firm appearance.  Don’t wait till a knife stuck into the center comes out clean–if you do, the pudding is overdone.

In Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, where apples cannot grow, nostalgic French cooks have found that chayotes make a very good substitute (if you use enough butter and spices).  I have had excellent French apple cake, apple tart, and so on, using chayotes.  There is even a restaurant totally devoted to the chayote.  Admittedly, this is far from Yucatan, but the tip is too good not to pass on.  Yucatan, like Reunion, is a tropical land where apples do not grow.



Cheese Pie (Pie de Queso)

Another very common dish, especially in Merida.  Ancestrally, it is some unsung American’s variation on cheesecake, but is in fact much better than cheesecake.  The English word “pie” is invariably used.  Sometimes the spelling is localized to pay, which just happens to be the Maya word for “skunk.”


1 can condensed milk

4 eggs

1/2 lb. cream cheese or Cheddar cheese

1/2 cup sugar

Vanilla to taste (optional)

Piecrust (see below)


Blend the milk with the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla.  Beat in the cheese.  Beat the egg whites to peaks and add in.  Fill into a regular piecrust and bake till firm.

Low-cholesterol version of the pie filling:  1 ½ cup regular milk, 6 egg whites, 1 package cottage cheese, 1/2 cup sugar, vanilla.  Blend all.  Not very authentic, but good enough.

One might also try Jack cheese in this.


Standard version:  1 cup flour, 1 stick butter, tiny bit of sugar, ice-cold water.  Cut the butter into the flour and sugar; rub in a while.  Mix in the water–just enough to moisten–and roll out.

A Yucatan version:  1 cup flour, 1/2 stick butter, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 egg, bit of cold water.  Proceed as above.

Another Yucatan version: 1 cup flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1 stick butter, 1 cup condensed milk.

Low-cholesterol version:  1 cup flour, 1/2 stick butter, 1 oz. sugar, cold water.


The other classic Yucatan “pie” is “pie de nuez,” but it is just ordinary American pecan pie, migrant from the American south.



Coconut Flan


1 lb. sugar

1 can coconut cream

8 eggs

1/2 quart milk

1 tbsp. lemon juice (optional)



Simmer 13 oz. sugar with coconut cream (cans of it can be found at any Asian-food market) till slightly thickened.  Cool.  Separately, beat the eggs.  Beat in the milk and lemon.

In a nonstick pan, melt 3 oz. sugar with a small amount of vinegar till the sugar begins to caramelize.  Pour into a buttered flan dish and pour int he ingredients.  Cook in a bain-marie till almost firm (about an hour).  Refrigerate.

Simple way (not to say cheating):  Throw milk, coconut cream, eggs, and sugar into a blender.  Blend for several seconds at high speed.  Line a pan with dark brown sugar (so you don’t have to caramelize it).  Pour the blended liquid into this and bake in the oven at 325o till almost firm.  Take out and cool; it will finish firming up as it cools.  Leaving it in the oven till firm, as most cookbooks advise, overcooks it.



An impractical recipe for anyone outside of a Maya village, but ethnographically too interesting to miss.  Cocoyoles—t’uk in Maya—are the fruit of a palm.  They are too hard to eat without treatment.  They are boiled with water and lime—not the citrus, but the result of burning limestone—to soften them.  The outer part becomes soft and sweetish.  It is then boiled down with sugar (traditionally, honey) until candied.  It takes very slow simmering for 12 hours to do this perfectly.



Corn and Squash Sweet


1 cup sweet corn kernels cut from very young ear, cooked very quickly

1 cup cooked meat from butternut or other sweet winter squash

Sugar to taste


Mix all while hot.

Allspice, cinnamon, vanilla and other appropriate flavorings can be added.  Brown sugar gives more flavor.

This very traditional Maya sweet would originally have been made with honey, or simply relied on the sweetness of the young corn.



Fruit Salad with Xtabentun


Cut up tropical fruits.  Melon, mango, papaya, mamey, banana, and citrus make a good combination.  Squeeze lime or orange juice over them and sprinkle liberally with Xtabentun, the Yucatan aniseta liqueur.  Of course you can use any liqueur, or dark rum.



Guava Paste

A universal Latin American delicacy, developed from the quince paste of Spain.  Quinces don’t grow in the tropics, but settlers quickly found that guavas are a perfect substitute.


1 lb. sugar

1 lb. guava juice (cook lemon guavas; strain.  Force some of flesh through sieve)


Cook slowly, stirring constantly, till the mixture forms a paste (soft ball stage).



Mamey Paste

Local version of the above.


1 lb. sugar

1 lb. mamey flesh


Mix sugar and mamey meat.  Simmer, stirring constantly, for several minutes.

This can also be made as in preceding recipe, but-unlike the guava–the mamey does not really need the cooking and straining.

Mamey is quite sweet enough without sugar, so this recipe is for preserving the fruit.



Posole with Coconut


1 lb. nixtamal kernels (corn kernels boiled in lime)

Juice of 2 limes

Meat of 2 small coconuts

½ c sugar (or less, to taste)


Boil the kernels in water with juice of 2 limes added.  Grind these with the meat of the coconuts.  Boil this with sugar, till thoroughly hot and sugar thoroughly dissolved.

Nixtamal kernels are available canned at any Hispanic market.



Queso Napolitano

The “national dessert” of Yucatan–the one you actually see everyone eating.


2 cans of milk

10 eggs

Vanilla extract

3 oz. sugar


Blend all except the sugar.  Caramelize it.  Turn out into a baking dish and pour in the liquid.  Cook in bain-marie for an hour (or bake till firm–this one you don’t take out early, as with the preceding).

It is possible to use only egg whites in this, and thus keep the cholesterol down to virtually nil.



Ruined Dessert

Atropellado means “totally messed up.”   The name honors the appearance of the dish.  Fortunately, its taste is as good as its looks are messy.


1 lb. sweet potato

Meat of 1 coconut

¼ lb. brown sugar

1 stick cinnamon

1 tsp. ground allspice


Cook the sweet potato.  Peel and mash.

Blend up the coconut.

Mix the sugar with some water and add the cinnamon.  Put on fire.  When it begins to boil, add the sweet potato and mix into the syrup.

Add in the coconut.  Chill.

I’m usually too lazy to grate coconut.  Canned coconut cream works fine!  Store-bought grated coconut is okay too.  Best is to use both.  Standard in Yucatan is to soak grated coconut in a can of condensed milk.



Squash with Honey

The traditional Maya sweet.


1 winter squash

1 lb. honey


Cut small holes in the squash.  Pour in the honey.  Bake in pib or oven for 2 hours.

This dish is sickeningly sweet.  A tiny amount is quite enough.  More than that can produce severe hypoglycemia after a sugar “rush.”



Spanish Cream


1 quart milk

6 eggs

1 lb. sugar

2 oz. cornstarch

1 tbsp. vanilla extract


Blend all.  Cook in a nonstick saucepan over a low fire, stirring constantly.

Low-cholesterol variant:  leave the eggs out.  (Yes, this is traditional.)



Yucatan Marzipan


1 lb. sikil

1 lb. sugar

10 oz. water

Flavorings as wanted

Food coloring


Dissolve the sugar in the water.  Simmer until a syrup forms.  Slowly work in the sikil, stirring constantly.  Add any flavorings.

Cool thoroughly.  Now, model into small animal, fruit and vegetable shapes and paint with the food coloring.

This recipe is of purely ethnographic interest, to show the ingenuity of the Yucatecan culture.  Almonds were far too rare in the old days to waste on marzipan-making.  Thus, this form was evolved.  It finds its chief use in providing pretty modeled toys and small items for children—something the ordinary person can buy for practically nothing in the market, to pacify a young child.  This sikil marzipan is only marginally edible, like the flour-and-water marzipan of the rest of Mexico, and is more the equivalent of Play-Doh than a food.




The usual round of licuados (fruit smoothies) and alcoholic drinks occur, but are as elsewhere in Mexico.


Atole nuevo (green corn drink)

Kernels from an ear of fairly well matured sweet corn, soaked a day, then blended with a bit of sikil.  This is often sweetened with honey, or otherwise flavored.



The sacred ritual drink–still as important as in ancient Maya times.



Honey, preferably of native stingless bee (much more flavorful than European bee honey)

Bark of baalche‘ tree (Lonchocarpus longistylus; sometimes closely related spp. are used)


Mix ingredients, bottle, and let stand until honey ferments.

Today, the drink is often made with regular honey cut with sugar, and the bark is reduced to a bare minimum.  The gods are said to be highly annoyed with this, and some would say the results are such events as Hurricane Gilbert and the droughts of the early 2000s.

If you are not given to brewing, but want to put on a Yucatecan dinner, be advised that Ethiopian t’ej is basically the same thing (flavored with Ethiopian hops instead of baalche’ bark, but the difference is not earthshaking) and can be bought in markets carrying Near Eastern or African products.



Chaya Drink

This is a very common, popular drink.  It is made quite sweet.


20 chaya leaves, boiled but not too soft

Juice of 3 limes

Sugar to taste



Blend in a blender till a thick drink is produced.  Serve cold.





2 lb. cacao (chocolate) beans

2 oz. cinnamon sticks

1/2 lb. flour

1 package sweet biscuits


Toast the beans till they begin to color.  Heat the cinnamon stick.   Toast the flour till golden.  Grind up the cacao and cinnamon, and the biscuits.  Form tablets and store.  For drink, beat up in water, with sugar to taste.  Note that commercial Mexican chocolate tablets are mostly sugar, while these tablets are unsweetened.  Moreover, the taste will not be much like commercial chocolate; fermentation is needed to bring out the “chocolate” flavor known to the world outside Mesoamerica.



Coconut Pozole


1 kg. nixtamal kernels

Juice of 2 limes

Fresh meat of 4 small coconuts

1 cup sugar



Cook nixtamal (whole kernels) for one hour with juice of limes.  Grate the meat of the coconuts.  Add this and the sugar to the mixtamal.  Chill.



Tan Chukwaj (“thick chocolate drink”)


The traditional Maya ritual drink, still served at festivals, often with mukbipollos.

Tan Chulwaj is almost certainly what was in those Classic Maya chocolate cups with the owners’ names on the rim, but it would have had chile then—if anything—instead of the modern cinnamon and sugar.


1 tablet Mexican chocolate

1 lb. toasted corn meal, or ground-up sweet corn kernels

1/2 tsp. allspice powder (or more)

Cinnamon stick

Sugar to taste (traditionally, none was used; today there is usually some sweetening)


Mix up the tablet with the corn and spices.  Heat.  Serve hot or cold.

Variants: Other flavorings can be added; anise is traditional and good.  The ancient Aztecs used chile powder, and one supposes the ancient Maya did too.


October 10th, 2016


Water:  Sacred Trust or Resource to Waste


  1. N. Anderson

Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Anthropology,

University of California, Riverside


“Bless the Lord….

He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.

They give drink to every beast of the field:  the wild asses quench their thirst….

He watereth the hills from his chambers:  the earth is satisfied…..

The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;

Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.

The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies [rock hyraxes].”

Psalm 104:1, 10-18, based in part on Egyptian originals such as Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Sun


“For the mountains will I take up a weeping and wailing, and for the habitations of the wilderness a lamentation, because they are burned up, so that none can pass through them; neither can men hear the voice of the animals; both the fowl of the heavens and the beast are fled; they are gone….

The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah concerning the dearth [drought].

Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish…

And their nobles have sent their little ones to the water: they came to the pits [wells], and found no water; they returned with their vessels empty; they were ashamed and confounded, and covered their heads.

Because the ground is chapt, for there was no rain in the earth, the plowmen were ashamed, they covered their heads.

Yea, the hind also calved in the field, and forsook it, because there was no grass.

And the wild asses did stand in the high places, they snuffed up the wind like dragons; their eyes did fail, because there was no grass.”

Jeremiah 9:10, 14:1-6 (the sad touch of the deer deserting her young is based on solid observation, as is so much of Biblical natural history; the “dragons” sound impressive, but are probably jackals mistranslated, and jackals do sniff for water)


“Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting.”  Mark Twain


“You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry,

You don’t miss your sweetheart till she says goodbye.”

Traditional blues verse


“Demand for water is projected to grow by more than 40% by 2050.  By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions in which water is scarce, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in conditions in which the supply of clean water does not meet the demand… 750 million people do not have access to safe drinking water.  Roughly 80% of wastewater is discharged untreated into oceans, rivers and lakes.  Nearly 2 million children under the age of 5 die every year for want of clean water and decent sanitation….  Two and a half billion people do not have adequate sewage disposal.”  (Eliasson 2015; imagine it in 2050, with 10 billion people and all fresh water resources tapped out or depleted.)


The quotes give several views of water.  In abundance, it gives life.  Drought is the starkest and most terrifying symbol of death and loss.  Water is for fighting, and for cold economic calculations that imply all the horrors Jeremiah saw.

The western United States has a water problem.  Its water resources are exceedingly limited by climate and geography.  It is expanding rapidly.  Its citizens love lawns and gardens.  All models show that the American Southwest will be one of the most drastically drought-stricken areas of the world as global warming progresses (Overpeck and Udall 2010).  The climate we now associate with Arizona’s southwest border will move northward.   Arizona’s reservoirs will run dry.

Groundwater is overdrawn in Arizona, as elsewhere (Glennon 2004).  There is little recharge of Arizona’s groundwater basins today; the water is essentially fossil water, left over from the Pleistocene.

Arizona’s water is seriously overcommitted already.  The Colorado River is overcommitted by at least 50%.  It does not reach the sea; in fact, it is essentially dry below the Arizona-Mexico line, in violation of treaties with Mexico.  The Gila, Arizona’s major tributary of the Colorado, no longer comes even close to the Colorado except during abnormal flow.  Indeed, most of Arizona’s rivers are now dry washes for at least part of their length.  I remember when the Santa Cruz River still ran through Tucson, feeding mesquite thickets and the occasional cottonwood.  No longer.

At least Arizona is not, so far, forced to draw on poisoned wells, like the citizens of Bangladesh whose wells are increasingly contaminated with arsenic from groundwater.  Development has forced people to dig deeper wells, diverted and spread out aquifers, and introduced alkalinity and carbon that mobilize the arsenic, making water deadly in Bangladesh and parts of Vietnam (Daigle 2016).  Everywhere, though, agricultural and industrial wastes, including extremely toxic ones, are percolating into groundwater.

Arizona and drought-stricken California are typical of an emerging problem.  Worldwide, the situation is bleak.  Several excellent reviews of the situation exist, The best include Fred Pearce’s When the Rivers Run Dry (2007) and Peter Gleick’s biennial reviews of world freshwater resources (e.g. Gleick 2006; see also De Villiers 2001; Fagan 2008; Glennon 2004; Oki and Kanae 2006; Postel 1999; Rogers 2008; Shiva 2002; Strang 2013.)

The Colorado River is not the only major river that no longer reaches the sea.  The Nile, the Yellow River of China, and many other rivers now share this dubious distinction.  The drying of the Yellow and other rivers in China has left 300 million people without adequate water for irrigation, sanitation, or locally even drinking (Smil 2004); there as in more and more parts of India, water must be trucked to villages.  Deforestation led to huge floods in China and elsewhere (Laurance 2007).  The Chinese belatedly tried to stop logging, but were too late; illegal logging is rampant (according to many reports I have heard, including studies ongoing by my students).  The Three Gorges Dam, in addition to its countless other problems, is already silting up because of deforestation (Stone 2008).  Droughts have brought down civilizations, including the ancient Maya (Gill 2000).  They have also depopulated whole areas of the United States, as in the dust bowl or the Oregon desert (Jackman and Long 1967).  Agriculture now uses 2/3 of the world’s available fresh water, and population is growing; desalination is still expensive in money and energy (Schiermeier 2014).

A recent review in Nature (Vőrősmarty et al. 2010) finds that river overuse and misuse is leading to a collapse of freshwater biodiversity.  Only 0.16% of the world’s rivers do not show this deterioration, and they are in isolated Arctic areas.  No area with water overdraft has avoided biodiversity problems.  Areas where dams and water systems have enabled consumers to have enough water in spite of short supply have done so at the expense of biodiversity; the dams and diversions dry up wetlands and distort the ecology.  A huge percentage of the world, including most of the United States, and virtually all of Mexico, China, India, and the drier parts of Africa, is now stressed.  As is expectable, the Nile is a particularly scary situation, with 180 million people depending on one relatively small (if long) river.  Most of its course is degraded, and from Cairo downstream it is basically a sewer.  Some short rivers now flow entirely within urbanized areas and have become urban drains (e.g. the Ogun River in Lagos, Nigeria) (Vőrősmarty et al. 2010:557).  Vast water transfer projects have dried up rivers.  The biggest of all, in China, transfers water from the Yangzi drainage to the north.  It is inadequate, but is causing major ecological and social disruption including displacement of millions of people (Barnett et al. 2015).

Deltas are also in extreme danger (Cooper et al. 2015).  Global warming is adding to existing problems by raising sea levels and causing more intense storms.  Groundwater withdrawal, pollution, poor dyke maintenance, poor erosion control, and similar problems are endangering the world’s deltas, in which a large percentage of the world’s population resides.

Global warming increases rainfall—rain has increased about 1% already and will increase 5% more before the end of this century (Smil 2008:401).  However, this rain will be largely over the ocean or in already-rainy areas.  On average, global warming is already drying up the land, worldwide (Jung et al. 2010).  It will increase drought in areas like the American Southwest.

Indeed, in spite of overall rain increase, the dry parts of the world are rapidly getting drier.  This is already happening in western North America and the Middle East.  The driest rainfall year in southern California history, as of 2000, was a year in the 19th century that gave Los Angeles about five inches and Riverside three.  Since 2000, 2001-2 gave Los Angeles four and Riverside less than three, and then 2006-7 only three and two respectively.  The winter of 2014-2015 was virtually rainless throughout the whole states of California and Nevada (figures from ongoing daily totals in the Los Angeles Times).  Projections of enormous rains the following winter were not fulfilled; southern California was drier than ever.

Population is rapidly expanding.  Agriculture is taking more and more.  The really productive agriculture of the world is typically irrigated.  The world’s best soils, irrigated ornot, are being rapidly urbanized and rendered unavailable for farming.  Cities have naturally been located where agriculture was most productive; in this age of urban sprawl, that has become, ironically, a recipe for disaster.  Urbanization pushes more and more agriculture out into increasingly marginal irrigated lands.

Some 66% of the world’s people do not have reliable access to fresh water (Bellware 2016), and the number is growing.  Extreme cases include Egypt, wholly dependent on the Nile, with a rapidly growing population not only in Egypt itself but in the upriver countries from whence the Nile comes.

Water use for agriculture is far greater than most people realize.  Agriculture takes 80-90% of California’s water, though supplying only 2% of the state’s monetary wealth; of course it provides food, something impossible to do without, so it is far more important than that 2% figure indicates.  A single almond requires 1.1 gallon of water; of course this can all come from rain—almonds are not irrigated in much of Spain or northern California—but almonds are heavily irrigated in much of California.  A head of broccoli takes 5.4 gallons, an orange 13, a single walnut 4.9, a tomato 3.3.  One strawberry requires only 1.9.  Only a grape is lower, at 0.3.  Again, these figures refer to products 100% irrigated (Park and Lurie 2014; see also Appendix).

Smil (2008) reports that rice requires 2300 kg (liters) of water to produce 1 kg of rice; beans, 2000; wheat, 1300; corn, 500; vegetables, 100 up; chickens, at least 4000; pork meat (muscle tissue—not whole pig) 10,000; beef 15,000.  Cotton and coffee are in the range of pork and beef, not in the range of grain.  Smil also notes that Americans “waste” 35-45% of the food available in the US.  (This is a bit harsh.  A lot of the “waste” is spoilage and other storage loss, which could be avoided but only with difficulty.)  This is a huge waste of water.

Households use a lot of water also, and they use much more if they are rich.  Rich people like huge lawns and water-sucking landscaping, as well as large swimming pools.  Thus communities differ.  In California overall, households and their outdoor landscaping use 360-400 gallons per day on average.  Turfgrass covers an estimated 11,000 square km of the state, consuming incredible quantities of water in California’s extreme drought of recent years; the water could all be saved by substituting dryscaping (Lees and Bowler 2015).

Consumption strictly within the house varies greatly.  In southern California, north Tustin’s Golden State Water Co. reports that its domestic user households (apparently not counting outdoor watering) average 281 gallons per day.  Next is La Cañada-Flintridge, with 191; East Orange County, 174; Arcadia, 173; Malibu, 165.  At the other end is Covina, 27; Vernon, 35; and Santa Ana, 38.  The Los Angeles overall figure is 70, the United States average 98.  Of course, the water use in southern California communities generally tracks wealth, but Covina is an interesting standout; it is a pleasant middle-class community that simply has economical landscaping.  Vernon, by contrast, is a desperately poor industrial ghetto, and Santa Ana is largely apartments.  A problem with the water economy in poor neighborhoods is that they are covered with asphalt and concrete, so the rain that falls on them goes directly into the sea instead of sinking into groundwater.  Thus, ironically, they waste far more than they consume.

Manufacturing takes more and more water.  Contamination is very rapidly increasing everywhere, and includes some horrific problems unknown till recently, including an explosive increase of drugs in the water.  Everything from cocaine to birth control pills is contaminating water supplies, with rapidly mounting serious effects.

Cities are rapidly expanding and using more and more water.  Much is lost to storm drains, leaky pipes, and evaporation (Larsen et al. 2016).  Sewage goes untreatred in much of the world.  Most of Africa lacks improved drinking water sources (Larsen et al. 2016:930).  Updating the world’s water systems simply to eliminate massive leakage would take billions of dollars and more will than current governments seem to have.  The problems of water supply take a back seat compared to war, crime, disease, and political conflict.


Peter Gleick, with Meena Palaniappan (2010), has shown that the world has plenty of fresh water, but not where people want it and not always in usable form or situation.  About 70% of it is tied up in ice sheets (rapidly melting with global warming).  Most of the rest is in groundwater, much of it too saline or deep-down to use.  These two authorities describe three types of peak water.  Renewable peak water refers to river flow and renewable groundwater.  This will reach peak when drafts on the water equal inflow, as on the Nile and Colorado now.  Nonrenewable peak water will occur when withdrawal of fossil groundwater becomes more expensive than the water is worth.  This is close to occurring in much of the world, including parts of the Ogallala Aquifer in the United States.  Ecological peak water occurs when damage to ecological services exceeds benefits from the water.  This is a sliding economic scale and very hard to calculate.

Also typical is waste of water by the rich, for trivial purposes, to the ultimate suffering of everyone.  Vast lawns and golf courses take up a huge percentage of the water in urban and developed areas.  In California, water withdrawn by giant agribusiness for very low-value agriculture (irrigating wild hay, potatoes, and the like) has destroyed extremely productive and high-value fisheries as well as wetlands that had less quantifiable but no less real values.  California now faces a huge water crisis that will send water prices sky-high for everyone—though no one really benefited from the hay and potatoes.

Water use for cities and irrigation tends to remove the water from the aquifer recharge system, thus leading to faster reduction of aquifers.  Where irrigation causes buildup of groundwater instead of drawdown, the buildup is often salty, making the water unusable.


Access to water should be about the most basic matter of environmental justice, and thus has been addressed by Meena Palaniappan et al. (2006), and by Wutich and Brewis (2014) in a long and important article.  They raise the usual cases of big dams, water privatization, and water waste by large-scale schemes, in the context of environmental justice, particularly for minorities and people of color (see esp. pp. 120-122, a statement on environmental justice).

Ismail Serageldin, former World Bank vice-president and a leading resource economist, said in 1995—as reported by Wendy Barnaby in an article in Nature—that “the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water” (Barnaby 2009).  This was overstated on both counts.  As of 1995, the main war over oil was still to come: the Iraq war in the next century.  And there has still never been a war over water.

Wendy Barnaby started out to write a book on the coming water wars.  Her research showed that no country has come even close, as of 2009.  Countries will deal over water.  It is not nearly so limited as oil; most countries have plenty of it.  The few dry countries can import water-demanding products (from fresh fruit and meat to paper).  She thus predicted that there will not be wars over water in the 21st century.  Many are not so sure.  Several letters to Nature about her article argued against her position.  Since her book appeared, there have been more and more dire predictions, but still no war over water.   Countries find treaty-making far preferable to fighting.  But local conflicts have erupted, and, as one letter says, “the potential for water conflict is on the increase, as populations in water-stressed areas continue to grow and the demand for water increases to improve living standards with better sanitation and a water-intensive diet” (Kundzewicz and Kowalczak 2009).

Detailed and thorough studies of transboundary water conflicts, now and in future, by Aaron Wolf and his group (Di Stefano et al. 2012; Wolf 2007) come to the same conclusion.  They emphasize the fact that even countries in serious conflict—and not just a few, but many—have managed to come to agreements about transboundary rivers.  They foresee a world of much more conflict, with at least 61 river basins short of water by 2050 and in potential conflict (Di Stefano et al. 2012), but provide full details on how new treaties could be negotiated to solve the immediate problems—though not the longer-term one of sheer exhaustion of freshwater resources.

Some countries are truly desperate:  Tunisia, Afghanistan, Jordan, and many others.  Some are very close to the edge, and will not be able to carry out current development plans without extremely major changes in water management; this includes China, India and Iran.  Some are in desperate straits because they are downstream:  Egypt, Syria and Iraq depend almost entirely on river flow from other countries.  Barnaby points out that Egypt has treaties with its upstream suppliers, but those are Sudan and Ethiopia, countries with no history of honoring such scraps of paper.  At present, Egypt has its armed forces on the ready.  Syria and Iraq are in worse shape, since their supplier, Turkey, has a military that could beat both of them (and several other countries) at once with ease, especially given their current chaotic state.  Big dams under construction in Turkey could cut off water to those nations.  My interviews with experts in Turkey in 2000 indicated that the government had little or no concern over that.  The same appears to be still the case.


The world’s fresh water is exceedingly limited.  Almost all of it is used to capacity.  Much of it, including the Colorado River, is overcommitted.  Much of the United States is under some form or other of English common law, variously adapted.  This guarantees riparian rights: people on a watercourse have rights to the water.  In this context, it is well to remember that the English word “rival” derives from Latin rivus, “riverbank,” as does the word “river.”  Twain’s famous comment on water in the west, quoted at the head of this paper, emphasizes the point.

This has been widely extended to water allocation, including a “first in time, first in right” principle that is the greatest bane of California water law.  Agricultural interests that descend, legally, from those established in the 19th century dominate the state, and sell, rent, or otherwise profit from their rights.

This leaves groundwater in a legal limbo.  Normally, anyone who owns the surface of the land owns the right to pump the water—in striking contrast to the rules concerning oil and minerals.  As a result, groundwater reservoirs are rapidly being exhausted.  Global warming is causing drought in arid parts of the world, including California and the southwestern US, and this has led to massive withdrawals of groundwater—many times more than could be recharged even in a good year, let alone in the horrible droughts that have followed on global climate change.  Until 2014 California (unlike other western states) had no regulations on groundwater use.  In late 2014, the Legislature finally recognized that catastrophic drought was forcing their hand and was here to stay, so even the most obstructionist Republicans agreed to pass a groundwater regulation law (George Skelton, 2014, decribed the micropolitics).

We cannot easily get more water.  Towing Antarctic glaciers north and desalting sea water are the only possibilities. This being said, more efficient use of water is imperative.  This is especially true of drylands agriculture (Cleveland 2014; Rockström and Falkenmark 2015).  There are two particularly fine books about how to do this:  David Cleveland and Daniela Soleri’s Food from Dryland Gardens (1991) and Gary Nabhan’s Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land (2013).

Sewage treatment is the most obvious and immediate need worldwide.  It would free up a great deal of water for better use.  Another need is dealing with waste of water in irrigation.  Drip irrigation instead of sprinklers, natural landscaping instead of lawns, and control of golf courses are familiar themes.  Common now is the use of dryscaping in place of grass lawns.  The total area of lawns and related water-demanding landscaping in the United States is greater than the area of Pennsylvania.  Lawns and ornamental gardens take a wholly disproportionate amount of water, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Few people seem to realize that human use of water for drinking and bathing is utterly insignificant relative to the use in agriculture and industry.  Personal use is less than 1% of all water use.  We should all take short showers, but it won’t matter much in comparison to even very water-sparing industrial processes, let alone agriculture.

Meat and milk are the worst problems (see Appendix).  Cows are fed on irrigated feed, and demand huge amount of water themselves for drinking and washing; then processing their meat and milk takes yet more water.  I have seen a wide range of figures for the water requirements of this process, but all are in the range of hundreds to thousands of gallons for a pound of beef or bottle of milk.  We need to go back to eating cactus fruit, mesquite beans, and prickly pear pads.  Or at least feeding them to the cows—there are areas of the world, including south Madagascar, where cows get along with essentially no water by living on spineless varieties of prickly pear.  Cotton is probably second; it is grown in dryland areas by irrigation, and is an incredibly thirsty crop.

People are very poor estimators of their water use.  Shahzeen Attari (2014) found that people underestimate household water use; they use about twice what they think they use.  Moreover, they think of saving waters in terms of curtailment (shorter showers and the like) rather than more efficient devices (low-flow shower heads, better toilets), though the latter would make far more difference, in most households.  Thomas Dietz (2014) placed this finding in a context of human cognition and decision-making, noting that it is all too typical of human understanding of environment and of factors influencing environment-affecting decisions.

Water experts are now talking about “virtual water,” a concept developed by John A. Allen in the 1990s (Barnaby 2009; Smil 2008).  It takes into account the water needed to produce goods.  All agricultural commodities and all manufactured goods require large amounts of water.  My consumption of such goods uses water indirectly.  If I buy a cotton shirt, I am probably not using any American water to speak of, but I am using enormous quantities of Egyptian and Chinese water—assuming, as if often the case, that the cotton is grown in Egypt and the shirt is made in China.  The horrific case of cotton in Uzbekistan is entirely export-driven.  Whoever gets the good quality cotton items made from Uzbeki cotton is ruining that desperately stressed nation, but is probably quite unaware of the fact (see Globalization of Water [Hoekstra and Chapagain 2008])

On the other hand, Barnaby (2009) points out that a dry country can spare its limited water resources by importing food and not growing crops with high water requirements.  Most of the water used to produce grain and coffee comes from rainfall, but most of that used to produce meat, cotton, and many vegetables is irrigation or piped water.  Thus, by eating lower on the food chain, and by wearing clothing more economically, we could save enormous amounts of water.

In China, water could be saved most easily by giving up irrigation in really water-short areas like Inner Mongolia and around Beijing, where groundwater is depleting at dramatic speed.  Agriculture drives 65% of water withdrawals in China, 59% worldwide (and 80 in California).  Inner Mongolia loses the most virtual water, in the form of agricultural products exported to the rest of China.  China imports 30% of its virtual water in the form of soybeans, beef, and similar products from other countries (Dalin et al. 2015).

An example of unconventional solutions comes from Peru.  Lima is essentially rainless, but very foggy (especially in winter), because of the cold water of the Humboldt Current just offshore.  In ancient times, this fog sustained lomas—areas of dense vegetation, even forests, inhabited by animals as large as deer.  Today, there is an attempt to restore these.  Large, dense nets have been set up, on which the fog congeals into water.  This is directed down to young trees.  When the trees are old, they will strain their own fog, thus restoring the old lomas forests.  The drought-tolerant local tree Caesalpinia spinosa is being tried, because of its useful fruit and timber (Vince 2010).  This idea could be used in many other places where cold currents run along desert shores:  Baja California, Morocco, South Africa and elsewhere.


Governments mismanage water because of incompetence, corruption, and bureaucratic paralysis (see Ascher 1999 for the best discussion of the general problem of government mismanagement of resources).

Mismanagement of water resources not only leads to loss of water; it leads to poisoned soil.  Salts of all kinds leach out from upstream or leach upward from deep in the earth.  I have seen thousands of acres in Australia rendered unusable because farmers cleared off the forest and planted wheat.  Without the deep roots of the trees, the groundwater from deep underground moved upward, carrying salt.  The ground over millions of acres of Australia is now white with salt and will be unusable for millennia.

Public relations campaigns endlessly “spin” the benefits of pollution, the need for rampant and unregulated economic growth, and the inexhaustibility of fresh water and other resources (Stauber and Rampton 1996).  The western United States has been repeatedly fooled by inflated figures, using, for instance, far-above-average river flows as baselines.  Agriculture has changed from careful management of water to considerable waste, partly due to the rise of big agribusiness (see Monks 1998 for a rare critique of this).  There is some hope of changing back.  Meanwhile, Arizona and California cities buy water rights from farmers.


The poster child for water mismanagement is the Aral Sea (Kobori and Glantz 1998; Micklin and Aladin 2008; Varis 2014).  The Aral Sea is a vast lake in a closed basin in central Asia.  For millennia, it was sustained by model water management.  Some of this management was developed by unlikely heroes, including Genghis Khan and Tamerlane the Conqueror.  A rich economy producing wheat, barley, silk, melons, vegetables, and livestock developed along the Amu and Syr Rivers.

The Soviets changed all that.  They planned to turn the whole basin into a vast cotton source.  The resulting monocrop agriculture has been a disaster.  It takes many times as much water as the old economy did.  Also, cotton uses more artificial chemicals than any other crop; one-third of all the pesticides in the world are used on cotton.  Wheat is also intensively irrigated.  The result is that the nations in question use more water per capita than any others on earth; Turkmenistan is far ahead of others, followed by Iraq and rice-growing Guyana and then by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, the United States,Tajikistan, Estonia, Canada (water-rich), Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan (Varis 2014).  In water use per dollar of GNP, the situation is even more extreme.  The nations that use the most water per dollar of GNP are, in order, Tajikstan, Kyrgystan, Madagascar, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan.  All are central Asian and dependent on the Amu Darya drainage, except for rice-dependent, impoverished Madagascar.

The Amu Darya now does not get even close to its former mouth into the Aral Sea.  A toxic mix of natural salts and accumulated pesticides and fertilizers blew over the desert plains.  Infant mortality in the Amu delta reached 10% and locally 50% (Micklin and Aladin 2008; Paul Buell, pers. comm. on basis of wide reading of the Uzbekistan press).  The huge fishery of the Aral Sea disappeared as the sea dried.

There remains a small salty puddle in the lake basin.  Most of the basin is now owned by Uzbekistan, which is trapped in a vicious circle:  it cannot stop growing cotton, the source of most of its income, and cannot make enough from cotton to do much.  The north end of the Aral Sea is more fortunate; it is owned by Kazakhstan, which is richer and has a more diverse economy.  Kazakhstan has dyked off its end, which includes the Syr River delta, and is slowly restoring that end of the sea (Micklin and Aladin 2008).  But there is no hope of real restoration.  The Aral basin is ruined forever, and will never produce more than a tiny fraction of the wealth it produced in Tamerlane’s time.  Meanwhile, the irrigated lands become ever more salty and poisoned by pesticides, so they will soon go out of production permanently.  The other rivers that water Turkmenistan and Afghanistan are in the same situation.  How long irrigation will last in these formerly rich lands is an open question.

Lake Urmia, in northwest Iran, is rapidly following the Aral Sea into oblivion.  Only 10% of it is left.  The irrigation is this case is for sunflowers and other water-demanding crops.  These replaced water-sparing vineyards when Iran’s extremist government banned wine production in 1979.  Religion has strange side effects, and, as will appear, it is particularly strange when Islam is the religion in the case.

Humans not only tolerate large amounts of salt but must have it to live. Plants, however, cannot stand more than tiny traces of it in the soil, with the exceptions of certain highly specialized forms.  The only major cultivated crops that tolerates much salt are barley and sugar beets, and even they do not tolerate much.  The world needs to think seriously about domesticating edible forms of saltbush, salicornia, and other marginally-edible salt-loving plant species.

Arizona’s current scene has an unpleasantly suggestive antecedent in the fall of the Hohokam civilization.  The Hohokam and their neighbors constructed an incredible network of canals in the Gila and Salt drainages.  Some of these were as large and long as major modern irrigation canals.  They fed an intensive agriculture based on maize, beans, squash, agaves, and many other crops.  Sophisticated terracing and check-damming added to the water management picture.  Yet, after devastating droughts in the 1200s, the Hohokam fields dried up or salted up (Abbott 2003; Redman 1999).  The Salt River deserves its name, and thus was not a good river to use for irrigation.

The Little Ice Age came, and the rivers refilled.  The Pima arrived and made the land fertile and well-irrigated again.  Unfortunately, the Spanish and then the Anglo-American settlers devastated this blissful scene by developing intensive irrigated agriculture, with increasingly severe water drafts.  As in the Aral Sea case, the Pima had been using the land carefully and sustainably, with drought-tolerant crops.  The early-day anthropologist Frank Russell and the contemporary botanist Amadeo Rea have provided possibly the best accounts of traditional small-scale plant and water management in the entire world (Rea 1983, 1997; Russell 1975).  Thus we have a solid baseline of knowledge here.  The Anglo-Americans planted a great deal of moncrop cotton.  Finally,

the Gila River went dry from Phoenix onward (Dobyns 1981; Rea 1983; Webb et al 2007).  The Pima were left high and very, very dry, in violation of treaties as well as common decency (Russell 1975).  Ironically, Phoenix takes its name from the Hohokam ruins.  The English developer and “character” Darrell Duppa, seeing huge ruins there, planned a city that would rise as the phoenix bird rose from its own ashes.  The settlers were better prophets than they knew.  The phoenix cyclically burns up and has to rise again.  We are about to witness the next fire.

An even more incredible part of the story of water mismanagement is the great beaver massacre.  Hats made of beaver-fur felt were the fad in 1820s England.  It is estimated that as many as a million beaver were taken out of the lower Colorado drainage (including the Gila drainage) in the early 19th century (see e.g. Hilfiker 1991; Pattie 1962 [1831]; Rea 1983).  The result was arroyo cutting, floods, and general disaster.  The Gila and its tributaries had been sluggish streams draining through vast beaver ponds, sloughs, and water meadows, with scattered trees growing from lush mesquite, rushes, grasses, and sedges (Rea 1983).  Much of the damage to Arizona’s hydrology and soils that has been blamed on overgrazing, climate change, and so forth was actually done by beaver trapping.  The beavers had controlled flooding by their thousands of dams.  The damage each year from flooding alone, let alone loss of water conservation, in Arizona is probably greater than the value of all the beaver skins.  There is now no going back; the rivers are dry and the land is urbanized.

Peter Skene Ogden was paid to wipe out the beaver totally in eastern Washington and Oregon, so as to deny the resource to American trappers (Ogden 1987 [1827]).  Of course the result was billions of dollars in damage every year in most years since, though at least the beavers are coming back in some of that area.  Similar things happened in Colorado’s Front Range (Wohl 2005).  And all this so some rich men could wear funny hats for a few years, until the style changed to sustainable silk.

Beavers are incredible water engineers (Hilfiker 1991; Morgan 1868). If people were as good at water management as beavers, there would be no world water problem.  The 18th-century French zoologist Charles Bonnet half-seriously and half-wistfully expected that evolution would produce beaver architects as great as Vauban, the leading architect in Bonnet’s time (Foucault 1971:153).

Lewis Henry Morgan, who invented modern anthropology, also in his spare time invented modern animal behavior studies.  He got interested in beavers and produced what is still the best monograph on their behavior (Morgan 1868).  Of course he did not fail to compare them to humans.  He pointed out that they are not very bright; instinct guides them.  Modern studies confirm this.  At least according to biologist folklore I have heard, biologist tested a beaver by playing the sound of running water.  The beaver carefully covered the sound-system speakers with mud.  This must have been cute to watch, but it certainly shows blind instinct rather than rational calculation.  Still, I have seen beavers show considerable ingenuity at working sticks into their dams.

The point is that simple beavers manage water infinitely better than smart but foolish humans.  Humans that make dams frequently make a bad job of it (Chamberlain 2008; Giles 2006; Scudder 2005; Stone 2008).  Ellen Wohl has done a particularly superb, sensitive, and historically sophisticated account of the superiority of beavers and the idiocy of humans in managing Colorado’s water (Wohl 2005).

The Aswan high dam brought schistosomiasis to all Egypt, wiped out the fisheries of the Nile and the eastern Mediterranean, and loses 25 to 40% of its water to evaporation (Chamberlain 2008:96). Most desert-country dams are similarly wasteful.  It is doubtful if any big dams in the Third World have positive cost-benefit accounts (Scudder 2005; W. Partridge, pers. comm.).  They drown good farmland, displace millions of farmers and other productive citizens, spread disease, waste water, and destroy fisheries.  The benefits they supply are often illusory, or confined to the rich.  Benefits of undammed water can range from 50 to 400 times as high as those from the same water, dammed (Katz 2006:41).  These are probably extreme cases, but, in the Third World, no clear cases of even slight advantages for big dams have been reported to balance them out.  In the First World, many dams are now clearly costly rather than beneficial, and many older and smaller dams are being removed.

The fashion for large dams owes everything to one man, John “Jack” Savage.  A Wisconsin farm boy who rose to become the world’s expert on dams, he designed the Hoover…, Grand Coulee, Parker, and Shasta Dams and the All American Canal system” (Sneddon 2015:29), and then went on to further designs and to world efforts when the “Cold War” between the US and the USSR made it expedient for the US to “help” other countries by building big dams (Sneddon 2015).  Fortunately, in those days the US had a conscience, so few of these were actually built; the social and economic costs were actually taken into account (as they have rarely been since).  Savage’s dams in the US were in fact seriously needed for flood control and irrigation, did not displace many people (none in most cases), and did not cause huge immediate effects (though the Colorado in Mexico was ultimately dried up).  The next great step in dambuilding was the TVA, far more ambitious, organized, and region-wide; it has had a mixed legacy.  It initially paid, in flood control, electricity generation, and transportation (allowing rivers-turned-lakes to bear heavy shipping traffic), but at current prices the value of the enormous amounts of prime farmland and world-class hardwood forests drowned would probably outweigh the benefits.

Unfortunately, the US found it expedient to design and build more and more dams, and many of the countries where the US pulled out found other backers to do the dubious work.  Thus vast numbers of countries now have huge dams inspired by US efforts, but not judged by US standards of cost-accounting.  Whether any of these dams are a benefit is a very open question.  The politics behind them, and the whole political economy of dams, is a complex and involved subject (Sneddon 2015).

Perhaps we should take the big dams out and bring the beavers back.  They have been reintroduced to Scotland—the first beavers in Britain since the 17th century.  The common name Beverly means “beaver meadow,” and was originally the name of an estate based on one such in England.  That estate now has no beavers.  Hopefully there will soon be as many real beverleys as girls bearing the name.

Fish, of course, suffer even more than beavers.  Wild salmon are now a rapidly disappearing resource everywhere except Alaska.  The steelhead runs of southern California are down to a few fish; the only one south of Los Angeles is in San Mateo Creek, and it was down to one female fish in a recent drought (Hovey 2001; this run will surely not survive the current droughts).  Many, if not most, of the freshwater fish, amphibia, and shellfish of America are threatened or endangered.  Caviare will soon be a thing of the past; fishing for it is out of control, and sturgeons are succumbing to pollution and dams even where they are not fished.  The only healthy sturgeon populations in the world are in the major rivers of the Pacific Northwest, and even here they are declining fast.  Aquatic birds are also declining fast.


However, anthropologists and other social scientists have recorded many success stories in water management around the world.  They reveal very clearly what is wrong with our system in the world today, and what we can do about it.

Most of the interesting work has revolved around questions of common property resource management.  Water, by its very nature, is usually owned in common.  One would think that it would be thus wasted, because people so often treat a common property resource as something to use without care—Garrett Hardin’s classic “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968).  However, as Hardin saw (Hardin 1991), if a common resource is owned by the group as a corporate entity, and managed by them, it can be excellently managed and sustainably used.

Water is an open-access free good only in situations of extremely low and transient population.  Otherwise, water is almost always owned by communities—tribes, villages, cities, states.  In the ancient Near East, irrigation was life, and thus many excellent irrigation systems and methods were developed (Drower 1954—still an excellent source).  Mesopotamia had to build canals, some hundreds of miles long.  Egypt could simply wait for the Nile flood, but it varied from very low to very high.  The ideal was a 16-cubit rise as measured at Memphis.  There is “a Hellenistic statue of the Nile god in the Vatican” with 16 children, each 1 cubit high (Drower 1954:539).  Under 12 cubits—a cubit is about 32 cm—meant devastating famine; over 18 meant devastating flood.  Yet, normally, the Nile was reliable, and made canal irrigation necessary only in small, marginal areas.  In China, most agriculture was rainfed or fed by very local streams, but eventually—once the empire was established, and locally even before—large canal systems were developed to control whole river systems.

Governments and rulers worked out various bureaucratic systems for managing all this.  All had to have specialized water managers.  In sharp contrast to the famous “irrigation hypothesis” of Wittfogel, this rarely led to absolutism.  Irrigation has to be managed locally, and top-down control of anything except major basic canals merely interferes with necessary local decisions.  In Mesopotamia, China, and the Indian subcontinent, absolutism really came from conquest of irrigation societies by hordes sweeping down from rainfed or very locally irrigated areas.  In China, conquests and absolutism were more apt to come from nomadic herding societies.  In Egypt, absolutism developed within an irrigation society, but the pharaoh had little real control over the river.

In the Middle Ages and locally since then, lords owned streams and lakes, but they could be said to be owning them as feudal lords—that is, administrators—rather than as private citizens.  Recently, a drive to privatize water has allowed corporations, large and small, to control water sources as well as sales, but this is an unusual development from the point of view of history.  It is an exceedingly ominous development (Chamberlain 2008).  It often drives up the cost of water severalfold, while lowering availability.  If there were actual competition this might not be the case, but such schemes involve governments cutting deals with big firms to have local monopolies.  Corruption is endemic.  All the abuses of monopolies and mercantilism immediately surface.

Thus, water has been prudently maintained as a common-property good until now, even in the most capitalistic societies, and especially in the Middle East.  Water thus becomes a fascinating study.  Traditional and more recent Jewish spiritual attitudes toward water, and the world in general, have been introduced in the service of water management in a brilliant article by Aaron Wolf (2012).

Some of the most interesting researches on water in the Middle East refer to Muslim or Muslim-influenced local irrigation systems.  This is in large part because Muslim law, developed in arid lands, is quite specific about water.  Gary Chamberlain, synthesizing a number of sources, reports:  “Muslim law codes…forbid private ownership of water, at least in its natural state.  There is a hierarchy of uses…first is the right of thirst…no one can be denied the water necessary to drink…then all are allowed water for their daily needs of bathing, cleaning, cooking, and so forth.”

This is a priority partly because Islam enjoins cleanliness, making thorough washup and bathing a religious duty.  However, even ritual cleaning must not be wasteful.  Muhammad once saw his early follower Sa’ad “performing the ablutions…using a lot of water, he intervened, saying:  ‘What is this?  You are wasting water.’  Sa’ad replied asking: ‘Can there be wastefulness while performing the ablutions?’  To which God’s Messenger replied:  ‘Yes, even if you perform them on the bank of a rushing river.’”  (Cited Özdemir 2003:14.)

Then “next comes the right to provide water to livestock; and last comes the irrigation of crops, which consumes the most water.  Only when water has been placed in a vessel…is water considered a private good” (Chamberlain 2008:54).  “Water distribution has very clear-cut legislation in Islam.  In general terms its rules are based on the principle of benefiting all those who share its watercourse” (Dien 2003:116; details following).  The duty to provide water for livestock is taken very seriously, Islam having originated among desert travelers.  Accounts describe careful management of flocks at the wells, with the most water-needing animals drinking first.

This emphasis on common property led to intricate but efficient and enforceable common property regimes being established in Muslim lands.  The Muslims could build on earlier systems that were often extremely intricate and highly developed.  South Arabia—today’s Yemen—had a vast system involving a huge dam across the major wadi; this system died when weather patterns shifted, drying the wadi except for occasional damaging floods (Scarborough 2003).  The Nabatean system in the Negev Desert had harvested water by incredibly sophisticated means in Roman and pre-Roman times.

Most spectacular of all were the qanat systems of Iran and neighboring areas, including the slopes around Mesopotamia.  A qanat is a long tunnel dug back into an alluvial fan.  It is set at a very slight upward slope.  Water percolates in from the alluvial material, so the qanat produces a live stream that can be directed to irrigation.  Otherwise, the water would evaporate through the porous fan material and be lost.  Qanat systems extend east as far as west China (Xinjiang), where they are called karez.  Major innovations in qanat irrigation, dam-building, and integrated irrigation system engineering were made in Central Asia in the medieval period (Hill 2000).  This was a little-known golden age of engineering innovation, especially in systems design.  The Persians and Mongols introduced this technology to the western world, and it may lie behind some of our modern “systems thinking.”

The Arabs brought them to Spain, Italy, and elsewhere.  They grade into ordinary water tunnels that merely convey water to cities with minimal evaporation.  Qanat systems are maintained by local communities.  A fee is charged for the water.  Specialists maintain the water tunnels.  It is a dangerous job, since cave-ins are hard to prevent and generally fatal.

Arab systems survive everywhere in the Middle East and in much of North Africa.  I have observed them in Morocco, where they have blended over many centuries with indigenous, related Berber traditional systems.  The latter in turn may go back to the Roman Empire, when North Africa was a key part of the empire, producing agricultural products of all kinds.

Excellent systems survived till late.  The Arab irrigation systems of Yemen (Varisco 1996) and elsewhere are legendary.  Egypt’s superb irrigation system long predated the Arabs, having been developed in ancient Egypt (see Butzer 1976), but it was continued by the Arabs, later by the Ottomans (Mikhail 2011), and finally by independent Egypt, up until the extremely ill-advised Aswan Dam destroyed the old system.  Today, slow but sure salinization is adding to global warming, delta subsidence, and other ills.

The Arabs supplied Palermo, Sicily, through aqueducts cut into rock in the 9th and 10th centuries (Maurici 2006); these still supply Palermo today.  Sicily still uses them to irrigate crops, especially those the Arabs brought, such as lemons, sugarcane, eggplants, and high-quality melons (Pizzuto 2002).

In Spain, the “Reconquista” conquered Spain from the Moors after 800 years of Moorish rule.  Most of the Moors were expelled, to Spain’s permanent and major loss.  However, a few villages hung on in areas so remote that they could avoid exile by superficial conversion to Christianity.  The most significant of these for our purposes were in the Sierra de la Contraviesa area southeast of Grenada, studied by Gaston Remmers (1998) among others.  Remmers describes an incredibly sophisticated system for making sure that everybody has fair access to irrigation water, no matter how wet or dry the year.  The village social organization is based on water management.  (Spain has other successful irrigation systems without obvious Moorish ancestry, too; Grove and Rackham 2001, Guillet 2006.)  Another important study, from Morocco, was carried out by Hsain Ilaihine on the Ziz River (Ilaihine 2004).  It describes careful maintenance of canals and allocation of water in a dry drainage from the Atlas Mountains.  I have examined almost exactly similar systems above Marrakech.

Many of the Moors converted to Christianity but were not quite trusted, and were sent to remote parts of Mexico, where they could not do much damage by rebelling. Converted Moors and Spanish who learned from them gave us qanats in Tehuacan, where they flourish—or did when I was there in 1996—in the dry Tehuacan Valley.

From here they were introduced to San Bernardino, California, and until not long ago San Bernardino was supplied by this ancient Iranian technology. The ditch that brings water to Redlands, California, is still called “the Zanja” (the old Moorish term), and the city water manager is officially the Zanjero.

San Bernardino, the neighboring city, also benefited from ancient Chinese technology, via “Pedley dams,” huge sausage-shaped bundles of rocks done up in ropework (or wire) and used for instant levees.  Pedley was a 19th-century water engineer.  He had seen them in China, where they were invented in the far past.  (At least this is what locals told me when I was young.)

In New Mexico and extreme south Colorado, Arab systems flourish.  A local farmer turned anthropologist, Devon Peña, is not only studying them anthropologically but also using them to irrigate his own farm in a Hispanic community there.  He has used water management as a natural symbol, or entry point, for his excellent discussions of environmental justice (Peña 1998, 2000).

Perhaps the most remote extension is into Zuni Pueblo.  The famous waffle gardens of Zuni are indistinguishable to my eyes from those of Sicily, and are often used to grow the same crops (melons, cucumbers, etc.).  The Zuni are creative and brilliant gardeners and water engineers in their own right, and surely there is some parallel innovation here; one wonders if the Zuni gardens were influenced by conversos—converted Moors—in northern New Mexico.

Moorish systems also went to South America, where they fused with the ancient and formidably competent systems of the Quechua and Aymara.  The Incas and their predecessors in Peru had constructed canals up to dozens of miles long, through some of the harshest and most difficult country in the world.  They had terraced mountain slopes up to two miles high, and run irrigation systems throughout these terraces, perfectly controlling the flow of water on slopes up to 45% or so.  They had integrated water systems all the way from glacier snouts 18,000’ above sea level down to the edge of the Pacifc.  The Nazca, around 500 CE, constructed systems to tap groundwater, similar to Old World qanats, but with the added sophistication that they built spiral excavations that caused the wind to spin round, creating a low-pressure zone that brought water to the surface (see Proulx 2008).  These nonliterate people, with little metal, no wheeled vehicles, and limited animal power, had carried out some of the most spectacular water engineering jobs in the world.

Naturally, they quickly saw the value of metal tools and European draft animals.

They also saw the value of  Moorish technology and organization (Gelles 1995, 2000; Trawick 2001a, 2001b, 2002).  Traditional Quechua society is organized dualistically:  there is an uphill group and a downhill group, or some comparable split, in every village.  This has had a real but uncertain amount of influence from Moorish and Spanish customs.  The water hierarchy in a village is more clearly influenced by Moorish-Spanish usage, with water officials and titles similar to those elsewhere in the Hispanic world.  Each half of the village has its water organization, and the two must cooperate and distribute water fairly.  They tend to keep each other honest.  Also, typically, the two halves of the village are not really separated; plots belonging to members of the uphill half are scattered through the downhill side, and vice versa.  This is partly a matter of inheritance and marriage, but partly also a matter of geographic necessity.  Warm-weather crops have to be downhill, cold-weather crops uphill, in canyon villages.  Some villages have fields extend for a vertical mile, for instance in the Colca Valley, a canyon twice as deep as Grand Canyon (Gelles 2000).

Critical to the operation of the system are the fiestas.  Every village has, or had, its huge party, usually in the summer.  This brought everyone together and allowed everyone to have a good time.  It also allowed some working out of conflicts, because both sanctioned competitions and unsanctioned fights naturally occur at fiestas.  Occurring in a public, mostly happy gathering, such fights are quickly stopped and mediated.  This would not be the case if the fights occurred on a dark night out in the watershed.  Better have them in the open, at the fiesta.

The astonishing level of honesty in these village systems would certainly be devastating to any disciples of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century Englishman who saw humans as individuals in permanent conflict.  Honesty depends on several factors.  First, the water managers are vigilant.  Second, neighbors too are vigilant.  However, all a water thief needs is a dark night and a spade.  It is very easy to turn the village canal into one’s own fields for a couple of hours.  This can help one’s own prospects greatly, but, of course, at the expense of others’.  Yet people rarely do it—intimidated not only by popular opinion and the revenge of gods and spirits, but also by their consciences.  Humans want to cooperate, and will sacrifice a lot to do so.

Paul Gelles’ village had to cooperate beyond usual levels back in the 1990s (Gelles 1995, 2000).  The Peruvian government built a water project that brought water to lowland cities, but, apparently inadvertently, preempted the water supply the village.  The town faced disaster.  So the most intrepid young men went out and tore a hole in the water project canal, directing the village’s proper flow back to it.  They did not wreck the whole project or the canal.  The government came with warrants and police, but the entire village stood up against them.  Arrests, threats, cajoling, and bureaucratic foot-dragging all failed.  The village got its water back.  Quite a few similar stories could be told, from Spain to New Mexico (see e.g. Chamberlain 2008).

Another system maintained by religious organization holds in Bali.  Stephen Lansing studied this system over many years (Lansing 1987, 1991, 2006).  Irrigation on that Indonesian island is derived from water coming from the crater lake at the top of the island, which is a single giant inactive volcano.  The water is sacred.  The head priest of the island, the jero gde, lives at the lake outlet, and oversees the water system.  Apparently he is appointed more for his hydrological expertise than for his religious devotions.  A hierarchy of priests, progressively farther and farther downstream, oversees the breakup of this stream into tens, hundreds, and finally tens of thousands of channels.  These feed a vast system of rice paddies; the island is one huge farm, growing mainly rice but also dozens of tropical crops.  Water is timed so that there is no one pulse of irrigation.  That would not only take too much water; it would allow insect pests to multiply out of control.  Instead, each field has its schedule of irrigating and drying off.  The World Bank came in with sophisticated technology in the late 1980s to improve this system, and promptly caused disaster.  Their computer-assisted plans led to water shortages, local floods, and insect outbreaks.  Control promptly went back to the jero gde.  Lansing modeled the traditional system with his own computers, and found it to be about as perfect as could be achieved in the real world.  (Criticisms of his scenario exist [Vayda 2008], but are sufficiently refuted by Lansing’s material.)

Similar, if less comprehensive and perfect, local systems of terracing and water control are well documented from elsewhere in Indonesia, as well as from the Philippines, pre-American Hawaii, New Guinea, and indeed most of Oceania and the rest of the montane tropical and subtropical world (Scarborough 2003).  Usually, religion is marshalled to help maintain them.  Often they are also maintained through kinship systems, as in Luzon and among the Toba Batak of Sumatera (studied by my former student, the late Richard Lando, in the 1970s).  Often they produce fish and other animal protein as well as staple plant foods.  India has countless religiously maintained irrigation systems too (a particularly superb account is by David Mosse, 2003, 2006).

The irrigation systems of south China are well known (the best descriptions are in Marks 1998 and Ruddle and Zhong 1988, but see also Anderson and Anderson 1973 and Wen and Pimentel 1986a, 1986b).  They too have religious representation, via the guardian spirits and gods of the localities involved, though they are largely secular concerns.  They are usually administered by village elders.

Typical in this area are lineage villages, where all males are related by direct descent from a single founding ancestor.  The lineage elders are then all kin.  Such villages can have thousands of people and be hundreds of years old.  They can thus manage irrigation on a substantial scale.  However, much more impressive were the vast water systems that the Imperial governments maintained.  The most famous was the one in the Chengdu Plain of Sichuan, designed by the Li family of engineers more than two thousand years ago.  Their advice—“keep the dykes low and the channels deep”—should be learned by every water manager.  They split the Min River into three channels, so that the river could be directed into two of the channels in order to allow local people to clear rocks and silt out of the other one to keep it deep.  This system has been maintained and repaired over the centuries, and is still in use.  A fine and very old temple to the Li engineers has survived even Communist abuses.

Where water fails, people are incredibly innovative about doing without it.  The Chinese of dry north China were as sophisticated in water harvest as the south Chinese were in water management, and many incredibly sophisticated techniques were known more than 2000 years ago (Anderson 1988).   We of western North America have a lot to learn.  Some of my colleagues at the University of California, Riverside proudly and helpfully told a group of West Africans, many years ago, that UCR had developed crops that could grow on 12 inches of rain.  The West Africans calmly answered that their crops grew on four inches of rain.  We of UCR thought we would be the teachers, but we became the learners.

Among Native Americans, the Tohono Oodham of Arizona also had crops that grew on four inches of rain.  They also shared with the West Africans a trick of following recent runoff channels, making fields in areas recently flooded.  By the time the water has dried up and the soil is dry, fast-growing crops have yielded a harvest.  The Hopi had varieties of maize that were planted a foot deep to take advantage of soil moisture.  The Hopi and most other traditional maize cultivators hilled up soil around the growing stalks, saving yet more water.  The ancient cultivators of the Muddy and Virgin River area of Nevada allocated and managed water carefully, maintaining a dense population without salination (Haines 2010); they were probably the ancestors of the Southern Paiute, who maintained successful intensive agriculture in that area well into the historic period.  Haines compares their water management with Near Eastern systems noted above.

This sort of agriculture did not develop in a laboratory.  Like other traditional, efficient management strategies for water, it required people to take water and crops very seriously.  It was religiously represented.  The Hopi, like almost all other Native American corn farmers, worshiped the maize god.  Saving water requires reverence for water, for the irrigation process, and for crops.  It will require planning based on respect for people and for water resources.

Common property management works in today’s world.  Elinor Ostrom (1990) studied water management in my home area, the Los Angeles basin.  She found that the dozens of cities sharing the basin had been forced to work together to manage the small rivers that provide water and carry away sewage.  I well recall the days when Riverside’s water was unsafe to drink and the city sewered into the Santa Ana River.  Orange County cities were richer and more powerful, however, and thus forced more and more treatment on Riverside, till its sewage is now safer than its drinking water used to be!

Without such powerful downstream users, however, upstream users can progressively degrade the water resource (Murphy 1967), and by ruining the downstream users they can de-fang their political power, and thus prevent any recourse from affecting them (Wilkinson 1992).  Elinor Ostrom also studied the Mojave River, just outside the Los Angeles Basin.  Here, powerful mining interests control the headwaters.  Next downriver are the relatively well-off towns of Hesperia and Victorville.  The river dies in the desert just past Barstow.  This unfortunate town, always poor, has become poorer and poorer as its water source is sucked away.  Having less and less political-economic clout, it progressively loses to the mines and the richer towns.  Barstow is slowly strangling to death.

Even people who do not plant or irrigate may have an important and valuable water ideology, religiously supported.  Katherine Metzo (2005) reports on the ideals of pure water among the indigenous peoples of the area around Lake Baikal in Siberia.  These ideals are now the main thing standing between this deepest and most copious of all lakes and its ruin by Russian pollution.


It is, indeed, hard to avoid worshiping water if one has any religious regard for nature.  One of the striking facts about humans is that, everywhere, they seem to honor and revere waterfalls.  Major falls are parks and pilgrimage spots in the United States and China and elsewhere.  Traditional small-scale societies everywhere seem to have worshiped them.  The Shuar (“Jivaro”) people of Ecuador and Peru call themselves the “people of the sacred waterfalls” (Harner 1972).  In my research in China and with Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest I found that these disparate peoples still have high religious regard for waterfalls, eddies, rapids, and other areas where the power of water is evident.  Native Americans often went on vision quests at such places.

The sheer force of the water at such points is hypnotizing.  One can stand looking in a sort of trance for minutes or even hours.  Lakes and deep pools, and above all the vast ocean, have a different kind of spiritual sense:  peaceful and calm, yet evidently extremely powerful.  The power is latent.  One knows that a storm or a break in a water barrier could unleash it at any moment.  Legends of lake monsters, maelstroms, and bottomless pools seem to express some of this feeling.  The Greek god Triton and the Roman Neptune are more explicit statements of it.  Yemaja, the mother goddess of the Yoruba of West Africa (and many of their descendants in Brazil), is a sea goddess and can be stormy at times.

The Chinese see the ocean not so much as a god but as a vast universe in which or on which gods, dragons, and other supernatural beings play.  The Chinese were aware from very early times of islands forming from deltas, and of fossil seashells on mountaintops, so they early developed a story that the seas and lands had changed places many times.  The seas had been mulberry fields, as they expressed it.  They were aware that life-giving rains came from the sea, and were all too aware that these could come in the wake of typhoons (ta fung, “great wind” or “striking wind” depending on what character is used). The Chinese thought that dragons caused these storms.  Some of my fishermen friends had seen dragons in the rolling, boiling stormclouds.  Indeed, in the dim light and driving rain of a typhoon, one can easily imagine one sees these giant reptilian beings riding the wild winds.

It is also hard to avoid seeing the contrast of land and water, or land and sea, as one of those basic dichotomies around which people love to organize their thought.  Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962, 1963, 1964-1972) discussed this in great detail.  Often, such dichotomies symbolize the dichotomy of male and female, which in turn may involve wife-giving and wife-accepting groups.  The Northwest Coast peoples contrasted land and sea, and many of their stories turn on progress from one to the other.  This can symbolize creation, or marriage, or a hero’s journey to wisdom, or tribal trade and interaction, or anything else involving such moving through landscapes.  Of course, salmon and other sea-run fish are the staple of subsistence there, and they run from fresh waters to the sea and then back again.

Animals that easily cross the boundary between water and land, like river otters, are sacred and powerful.  Otters are believed to lure humans to come into the water with them; the people then drown and are converted into otter-men, as scary to the Haida as werewolves were to medieval Europe.  The fear of otter-men (gagitx or “gogeet”) has actually spread to some Whites on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands; I discovered this during my research there).  Otters are playful creatures, and do, in fact, try to lure humans into the water to play with them.  There is no mistaking their intent; they are as obvious about it as any puppy.  I have personally observed this several times.  I resisted the temptation.

Most powerful are those beings that can interact between water, land, and air:  the raven, eagle, and kingfisher (Jonaitis 1981).  The kingfisher nests in a burrow in the underground—or underworld, flies in the air, and fishes in the water.

Not only the Northwest Coast peoples attribute special power to anomalous creatures that are able to live in two different worlds.  It is a worldwide characteristic.  Consider the scary, uncanny nature of frogs, toads, and newts in Shakespeare.  African and South American peoples have similar attitudes toward lungfish.  And scientists show great fascination with the perfect intermediates between fish and land life-forms that have recently emerged from Chinese fossil beds.

Whales and porpoises are naturally uncanny, since they look and act like fish but breathe air and are obviously intelligent.  My fishermen friends on the Hong Kong waterfront would not touch them, for these reasons.  A recent fascinating book, Trying Leviathan by D. Graham Burnett (2007), tells of a trial in New York in 1818.  New York State enacted an inspection fee on fish oil.  Inevitably, a shrewd New York fish-oil dealer refused to pay on whale oil, since the whale had recently been declared by science to be a mammal.  This led to a trial.  The dealer called to witness the leading American ichthyologist, Samuel Mitchill, a genuinely great scientist.  However, the trial went against him, since it was pretty clear that the law had been intended to cover whale oil as well as other “fish” oils.  The law was, however, subsequently rewritten.

In any case, the controversy was not easy to settle.  This was long before Darwin, and there was really no obvious reason to privilege lungs and live birth over fins and aquatic lifestyle.  The trial played ordinary people, with their functional view of the world, over laboratory scientists, with their structural and abstract view.

The whale remains anomalous among water creatures.  Americans want to save whales because they are intelligent mammals.  Many Japanese still see whales as essentially fish, and see American attempts to stop whaling as an imposition on fish-eating peoples.  It is, however, worth noting that most Japanese will not touch whale meat any more, and the government has to store in freezers the whale meat its fleets bring home.


It would be very hard to imagine a moral or religious code that denied water to those dying of thirst.  Yet, modern governments do exactly that, by wasteful and corrupt development schemes, privatization of water, permitting contamination, displacement of impoverished people, and many other practices.

Gary Chamberlain (2008) reviews the status of water in all the world’s major religions, and finds that all of them are quite specific about enjoining us to treat water as a common good to share with all who need it.  Certainly, of all human needs, water is second in immediate importance only to oxygen.  Water is needed every day, in fairly large quantities, by every human.  It is needed directly for drinking and washing, indirectly in much greater quantities for food production and manufacturing.  It is irreplaceable; the economists’ notion of “infinite substitutability” breaks down totally here.  Water has to be reasonably pure to be useful—the purer the better.

This being the case, all religions have made a point of insisting that water be made available.  All seem, also, to have used it as a symbol.  Water is soft and flowing, yet wears away rock.  It is pure, yet can be contaminated.  It is meek and unprotesting and always ready to serve, yet it is arguably the most valuable thing in the world.  It is often ignored and devalued, yet is absolutely necessary to life—every faith seems to have made the obvious comparison with religion here!  Probably nothing else has been such a universally used symbol and metaphor, for so many things.  Rivers are goddesses in India, and had a human feminine form before they descended to earth.  (Chamberlain quotes a wonderful story of the sea and the Ganges on p. 17.)  In Indian art, rivers such as the Ganges, Narbada and other rivers are beautiful women in the prime of life.   Their long, flowing hair and supple bodies recall the flow of the rivers.  In Bangladesh, Islamic norms prevail, but local water culture involves much management and associated ideology about water (Hanchett et al. 2014).

Water is most notable in religion for its cleanness and its purifying qualities and for its tremendous power, but Zena Kamash (2008) has recently emphasized its terrifying aspects.  Floods, whirlpools and fast rivers kill countless people.  Religions recognize this, and pray for protection, but also see water and the water surface as liminal.  They are boundaries between life and death, and water is both lifegiver and deathbringer.  Kamash’s own work is on the Roman Empire, and from Anatolia to England she has found Roman shrines that link these two aspects.  She finds similarities elsewhere, and I certainly saw plenty of this in China, where my fishermen friends lived by the sea but often died by it.  They loved it and feared it.  Cultivators in land villages had a similar view of fresh water; it kept them alive and irrigated their crops, but floods were frequent, and killed millions by starvation as well as hundreds by direct drowning.  Temples took full note of this, and so did prayers and ceremonies.

Religions have also insisted on the moral necessity of giving water to those who need it. Chamberlain reviews a wide range of sources.  I have mentioned the most graphic—the Islamic injunctions—above.  Chamberlain goes on to give us a powerful call to renew our faiths, whatever they may be, and work to make water freely and universally available in today’s world.

Even if one is not religious, any concern for anything outside one’s own narrowest self-interest simply has to include concern for water.  Even one’s narrowest self-interest, in fact.  The future for all of us is bleak unless immediate action is taken on a global scale.

Indeed, we need to bring religion and ethics into the picture.  At the very least, we need to see that water is literally and figuratively the water of life.  Denying it is murder.  Polluting and wasting it are potential murder.  I doubt if anything short of a concerted effort by all religions will save the world from a water shortage that will be catastrophic beyond imagining.




Based on a talk at the Sharlot Hall Museum, Prescott, AZ, 2008; amended since.  Thanks to Sandy Lynch and Gary Chamberlain for help.





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“…On average, the water we use in our households is about 98 gallons a day, says a U.S. Geological Survey. The industrial goods we use — paper, cotton, clothes — that’s about another 44 gallons a day. But it takes more than 1,000 gallons of water a day per person to produce the food (and drinks) in the average U.S. diet, according to several sources. More than 53 gallons of water go into making 1 cup of orange juice, for example.

Just to get a sense of how much water goes into growing and processing what we eat, here’s a list of the water footprint for some common foods, via National Geographic:

A 1/3-pound burger requires 660 gallons of water. Most of this water is for producing beef (see below).

1 pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water, which includes irrigation of the grains and grasses in feed, plus water for drinking and processing.

1 slice of bread requires 11 gallons of water. Most of this water is for producing wheat (see below).

1 pound of wheat requires 132 gallons of water.

1 gallon of beer requires 68 gallons of water, or 19.8 gallons of water for 1 cup. Most of that water is for growing barley (see below).

1 pound of barley requires 198 gallons of water.

1 gallon of wine requires 1,008 gallons of water (mostly for growing the grapes), or 63.4 gallons of water for 1 cup.

1 apple requires 18 gallons of water. It takes 59.4 gallons of water to produce 1 cup of apple juice.

1 orange requires 13 gallons of water. It takes 53.1 gallons of water for 1 cup of orange juice.

1 pound of chicken requires 468 gallons of water.

1 pound of pork requires 576 gallons of water.1 pound of rice requires 449 gallons of water.

1 pound of sheep requires 731 gallons of water.

1 pound of goat requires 127 gallons of water.

1 pound of corn requires 108 gallons of water.

1 pound of soybeans requires 216 gallons of water.

1 pound of rice requires 449 gallons of water.

1 pound of potatoes requires 119 gallons of water.

1 egg requires 53 gallons of water.

1 gallon of milk requires 880 gallons of water, or 54.9 gallons of water for 1 cup. That includes water for raising and grazing cattle, and bottling and processing.

1 pound of cheese requires 600 gallons of water. On average it requires 1.2 gallons of milk to make 1 pound of cheese.

1 pound of chocolate requires 3,170 gallons of water.

1 pound of refined sugar requires 198 gallons of water.

1 gallon of tea requires 128 gallons of water, or 7.9 gallons of water for 1 cup.

1 gallon of coffee requires 880 gallons of water, or 37 gallons of water for 1 cup. ‘If everyone in the world drank a cup of coffee each morning, it would ‘cost’ about 32 trillion gallons of water a year,’ National Geographic notes” (Hallock 2014).


Ethnobiology of the Huihui Yaofang, a 14th-century Chinese Book of Western Medicine

October 10th, 2016

A Power of Good, Gone Bad

April 29th, 2016



Rough expressions carefully excluded by my modest wife from our book A POWER OF GOOD.





Putdowns and general negatives


Full of beans.  (Usually, angry, as if from indigestion; also, full of energy; can also be a euphemism for “full of shit.”)


I don’t take no shit.


Shit fire!  (All purpose exclamation.)


Screwed the pooch.  (Totally messed up.  As in “so-and-so screwed the pooch.”)


Cold as a witch’s tit


Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass baboon (or “monkey”)


Colder than a welldigger’s ass (thanks to Chris Chase-Dunn for this one)


They’d steal Christ off the cross if He weren’t nailed down.  (Said of chronic shoplifter types, of employees who “liberate” supplies from the company, etc.)


Up shit creek without a paddle


RF  (Short for “rat fuck”; means a practical joke or similar goofy action—as in “I RF’d the psychologists’ questionnaire by answering the craziest way I could.”)


He’s so low he’d have to stand up on his hind legs to kiss a snake’s ass.

From an Okie ex-Marine friend of mine.


He’s so low he’d have to use a ladder to harvest potatoes.


He’s so low he sucks earthworm dicks.

He’s got a wild hair up his ass.  (He has an attitude–i.e. he is being irrationally negative or aggressive.)

He’s lower than a snake’s navel.  (Classic putdown, leading to the use of “Snakenavel” to mean “the middle of nowhere,” as in “I was offered a job but it was in Snakenavel, Idaho, so I turned it down.”  Compare the use of Podunk—a real town in Iowa—and the academic equivalent, Slippery Rock State, to mean “nowheresville.”  Slippery Rock State is actually quite a good school, and the term is dropping out of use.  Spanish equivalents include “en las Batuecas” in peninsula Spain—the Batuecas are a group of insignificant towns in a backwoods region.  In Mexico, it’s donde no va el Coca—“where even the Coca-Cola truck doesn’t go”; such a place is almost unimaginably remote in that soft-drink-dependent country.)


Kiss my ass and growl like a fox.  (our student Matt Des Lauriers quoted this from his grandfather’s usage)


Every little bit helps, as the whore said when she pissed in the ocean.


Feisty.  (Full of fight, from “feisting,” an old word for farting.  Similarly, a small mutt was called a “feist dog” or just “fice,” especially if it had an attitude.)


Brown-nosing.  (Kissing ass.)


Snafu.  (Acronym for “situation normal, all fucked up.”  Military slang, satirizing the military’s fondness for acronyms.)


That ain’t worth a pee-hole in the snow.  (Very common.)


“My daughter thinks the world of him, but, to me, he’s a sluffed-up sack of Siberian sheep shit.”  (Recorded by a folklorist in Texas.  Typical Texan putdown.)


I wouldn’t give you the sweat off my balls if you was dyin’ in the desert.  (Learned from my dorm neighbor Richard Sylla in college; he used it as his comprehensive summary of economic theory.  He was summa cum laude in Economics and became a very eminent historian of economics.)


Can’t tell shit from Shinola.  (Proverbial stupidity; a phrase notably associated with the military, who had to shine their shoes regularly)


Doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.  (Possibly the commonest term in my youth for incompetence and stupidity.)


So dumb / incompetent he can’t find his ass with both hands and a flashlight.


I’m gonna tear him a new asshole.  (Common threat.)


A German story too good to miss, and known in the Midwest where there was German settlement:

The soldier Götz von Berlichingen, a real person who lived from 1482 to 1562, was trapped in a house surrounded by his enemies.  History (not totally unquestioned…but at least written) records that they called to him that his situation was hopeless and he should surrender.  He hung his bare ass out the window and said “Leck mich in arsch” (lick my ass)…and proceeded to fight his way out, single-handed, and survive to fight again.  He became the German national hero, and his line is the German national putdown.  (See Alan Dundes, Life Is a Chicken Coop Ladder, for more.)



Animal Metaphors


When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember you set out to drain the swamp.  (I prefer to say “…to conserve the wetland.”)


Chickenshit   (a common extension of “chicken.”  This is a word used focally for a very common and typical state of mind, the results of childhood abuse, VERY common in the old Midwest.  The abused kid was often weak, isolated, resentful, cowardly, and alternating between placating and nastiness.  With maturing, this often took the form of touchy defensiveness and excessive concern for “honor.”)


To goose someone  (to strike at the genital region, as an angry goose does to drive people away from its young)


Smells like two skunks fucking in an onion patch.  (Black American—at least in so far as I know it—but probably more widespread; alternatively “fighting in an onion patch”)


In a pig’s ass.  (I.e. something that won’t happen, or something that’s bullshit.  Bars used to post signs saying “your credit is good here” –with a pointer pointing to the back end of a pig.  Cleaned-up variants:  In a pig’s ear; in a pig’s eye, when pigs fly; when pigs fly to the moon.  “Ears” was and sometimes still is a standard euphemism for “ass,” dating back to the 18th century, when ass was still “arse” and “ears” was pronounced “airs,” so the words were near-homonyms.)


Up a pig’s ass:  same as “up shit crick.”  In a hopeless position.  Note that “crick,” not creek, was and is the universal Midwestern pronunciation.


Piss like a racehorse  (copiously)


Faster than a cat can lick its ass.  (Usually said of unpleasant things, as in “If he gets mad he’ll be on you faster than…”).


Hotter’n a fresh-fucked fox in a forest fire.  (Texanism.)


I don’t give a rat’s ass.


About as much use as tits on a boar.


(Not from our childhood, but too good to miss, is a Malay proverb:  “Even if ten ships come, the dogs have no loincloths but their tails.”  [The ships are understood to be bringing fancy imported fabrics, the Great Luxury of old Malaysia.  The proverb is a comment on the hopelessness of the poor.])





Today’s forthright speech has cost the English language a vast range of ridiculously creative euphemisms.  Midwesterners needed strong and pungent speech to express their emotions, but were too inhibited to use the blunt words, at least in mixed company.  Children actually got their mouths washed out with soap for “cussin.’”  I was threatened with this periodically, but I was usually too careful to get the actual washing.  This resistance to blunt verbiage led to a lot of nonsense.

Besides the obvious “Gosh!” “Golly!” “Jeez!” “Darn!” and so on, there were more arcane ways to modify taboo words:  “Bushwah!” for “bullshit”; “shucks” and “shoot” for “shit”; “asset” and “yes-yes” (pron. “yas-yas”) for “ass” (“arse”); “for cryin’ out loud” for “for Christ’s sake”; “foot” for “fuck” as an expletive (oh foot!); “Lor’ love a duck” for “fuck” (this is a Cockney one); “peter” for “penis”; and so on.  “Spend a penny” was universal British slang in the first 2/3 of the 20th century for “go to the toilet,” with reference to the cost of the pay toilets in old-time London.  A toilet is a “loo” in England, from French l’eau, “the water.”   The name “John” developed unfortunate connotations, first in French, especially in the nickname form Jacques, whence English “Jack” and Scottish “Jock.”  So “jakes” (from Jacques) and later “John” was used for the toilet.

“John” and “jock” also became standard euphemisms for the penis, whence “jockstrap” as slang for a supporter strap to protect a man’s groin.  “John” was lengthened to “Johnson” for a while in the mid-20th century (when “-son” was a slangy lengthening of anything—“Jack” and “Jackson” were slangy terms of address to men).  “Johnson” inspired a line of double entendre T-shirts (the “Big Johnson” line) that were, for a change, really witty rather than just gross.  “John” gave way to “Dick” (from rhyming slang for “prick,” and not so much euphemistic as universal, in many American dialects).  It seems that the English language requires a boy’s name for the organ in question; I have heard “Aleck,” “Tom,” etc.  (British slang includes excusing oneself to go take a leak by saying “Must go point Percy at the porcelain,” etc.)  And “to roger” was a very standard euphemism for sexual intercourse.

The general lack of intelligence, taste, and good judgement of the organ in question has caused “dick,” “dork,” etc. to be words for a stupid person, like “pendejo” (thing that hangs on) in Spanish.  However, the male genitalia were very commonly referred to as “the family jewels,” so clearly there were more favorable judgments out there.

Other common terms for the penis included dong, tool, joystick, rod, and so on.  In addition, almost anything can be used, as limericks and dirty jokes prove.  There was a similarly vast corpus of euphemisms for sexual intercourse, but most of the ones that were widely used are still around.  Anal intercourse in the Midwest was “cornholing,” from “corn hole” for anus.

There is a whole genre of English and American folksong that uses rural metaphors for sexual intercourse, beginning with a medieval one in which our hero grafts his pear tree for his ladylove, and more recently a song in which “I showed her the works of my threshing machine” (an implement of modern invention).  Studies show that metaphors involving tools and weapons can be constructed right back to Proto-Indo-European.  Other languages (notably Spanish and Cantonese, from my experience) have equally complex vocabularies and metaphors.

“Cock” was never a euphemism.  It is a translation gloss from various European languages.  Several languages over the world use the male chicken as a metaphor.  The euphemism came in when Americans coined “rooster” for the bird!  The British really laugh at us for that one.

Meanwhile, in deep southern US English, “cock” means the female genitalia, not the male; it’s a completely different word, from French coquille, “shell,” via New Orleans French.  “Poontang” is another southern localism for the female parts.  I know it only from Virginia and the Appalachians, but it may be elsewhere in the south.  It centers on Black English, so is probably an African word originally.

Another set of euphemisms surrounded teaching kids about sex.  Parents were often too ashamed to discuss human sexuality directly, so referred to it as “the facts of life.”  They had recourse to explaining the sex lives of animals first.  This gave rise to the expression “tell them about the birds and the bees,” and thus to “the birds and the bees” as a euphemism for human sex in general.

Yet more terms referred to courting (itself a term covering a wide range of activities).  Most of these were teenage slang referring to stages of intimacy.  “Necking” was kissing and other above-the-neck action.  “Petting” and “spooning” covered more bodily contact.  “Making out” was definitely more serious: foreplay-like activity that could, and often did, lead to what was known in that euphemistic age as “going all the way.”  Somewhat similar, later in time (somewhat after our day), were baseball images—variously defined, but the following seems fairly typical:  “first base” for kissing and the like, “second base” for fondling breasts (these days it covers fellatio too), “third base” for genital touching or digital sex, and, significantly, “home base” or “getting home” for sexual intercourse.

Not so much euphemisms as folk speech were various words for male erections (bone, boner, hard-on, rod-on, stiff, etc.) and words for masturbation.  Teenaged boys being often fascinated with both masturbation and colorful speech, there were plenty of phrases.  Standard was “jacking off” (equivalent to British “frigging” and “wanking” or “whanking,” which can be either male or female).  “Jerking off” was also heard, but “jacking off” comes from “Jack” for penis (see above) rather than from “jerk.”  More poetic were “beat your meat” (as common as “jacking off”) and  “flog your log.”  Some Southernisms that I never heard in youth, but learned in early adulthood, were “jerk your jewels,” “slam your ham” and “choke your chicken” (as in “chokin’ his chicken”; there was actually a blue grass band called the Blue Ridge Chicken Chokers).  Masturbating was not considered particularly intelligent, hence use of “jerk,” “wanker,” etc. to mean a dumb person.  Compare Spanish “freguer” and “joder” (rub, i.e. masturbate or, sometimes, have sex) and the countless phrases derived from it, e.g. the folk rhyme “La ley de Herodes: o te fregues o te jodes” (“the law of Herod: either you fuck up or you screw up”—one of a vast number of Spanish rhyming “laws,” but in this case one that achieved immortality when “La Ley de Herodes” became the title of a short story that was made into a successful film).

Prostitutes were “ladies of the evening,” “soiled doves,” “in the trade,” “in the oldest profession” (incidentally a wildly inaccurate claim), or just “professionals.”  “Floozy” could mean a prostitute or just a loose woman who looked or acted like one.

Pissing and shitting got their share: taking a leak, taking a crap, taking a squat, etc.

There is also “I’ve got to see a man about a horse” (said to excuse self from present company, usually to go to the toilet).  Another was “Gotta drain the water off the potatoes.”  Another common politeness (if such it can be called) was “Your barn door is open,” meaning your fly is unzipped.  Of course, all these were man talk or boy talk.  I confess to ignorance of specialized female terms.

In addition to the above, there were the usual obscenities and ethnic, religious, and other insults and offensive words, but most are still around, and to list them would be tedious and unedifying.


There were literally thousands of dirty jokes, songs, and limericks in circulation.  Most of them, but not the rawest, were captured by Gerson Legman in his series of books of erotic folklore and in Vance Randolph’s book Pissing in the Snow.  Good dirty song collections include Ed Cray, The Erotic Muse, and the pseudonymous Snatches and Lays for British/Australian material.  I fear the heavy-duty stuff I know is so raw that I would never repeat it even in unmixed company.  I have even, alas, found it necessary to remove some wonderfully colorful short standard phrases from the above list.


Rough expressions carefully excluded by my modest wife from our book A POWER OF GOOD.
Putdowns and general negatives

Full of beans. (Usually, angry, as if from indigestion; also, full of energy; can also be a euphemism for “full of shit.”)

I don’t take no shit.

Shit fire! (All purpose exclamation.)

Screwed the pooch. (Totally messed up. As in “so-and-so screwed the pooch.”)

Cold as a witch’s tit

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass baboon (or “monkey”)

Colder than a welldigger’s ass (thanks to Chris Chase-Dunn for this one)

They’d steal Christ off the cross if He weren’t nailed down. (Said of chronic shoplifter types, of employees who “liberate” supplies from the company, etc.)

Up shit creek without a paddle

RF (Short for “rat fuck”; means a practical joke or similar goofy action—as in “I RF’d the psychologists’ questionnaire by answering the craziest way I could.”)

He’s so low he’d have to stand up on his hind legs to kiss a snake’s ass.
From an Okie ex-Marine friend of mine.

He’s so low he’d have to use a ladder to harvest potatoes.

He’s so low he sucks earthworm dicks.

He’s lower than a snake’s navel. (Classic putdown, leading to the use of “Snakenavel” to mean “the middle of nowhere,” as in “I was offered a job but it was in Snakenavel, Idaho, so I turned it down.” Compare the use of Podunk—a real town in Iowa—and the academic equivalent, Slippery Rock State, to mean “nowheresville.” Slippery Rock State is actually quite a good school, and the term is dropping out of use. Spanish equivalents include “en las Batuecas” in peninsula Spain—the Batuecas are a group of insignificant towns in a backwoods region. In Mexico, it’s donde no va el Coca—“where even the Coca-Cola truck doesn’t go”; such a place is almost unimaginably remote in that soft-drink-dependent country.)

Kiss my ass and growl like a fox. (our student Matt Des Lauriers quoted this from his grandfather’s usage)

Every little bit helps, as the whore said when she pissed in the ocean.

Feisty. (Full of fight, from “feisting,” an old word for farting. Similarly, a small mutt was called a “feist dog” or just “fice,” especially if it had an attitude.)

Brown-nosing. (Kissing ass.)

Snafu. (Acronym for “situation normal, all fucked up.” Military slang, satirizing the military’s fondness for acronyms.)

That ain’t worth a pee-hole in the snow. (Very common.)

“My daughter thinks the world of him, but, to me, he’s a sluffed-up sack of Siberian sheep shit.” (Recorded by a folklorist in Texas. Typical Texan putdown.)

I wouldn’t give you the sweat off my balls if you was dyin’ in the desert. (Learned from my dorm neighbor Richard Sylla in college; he used it as his comprehensive summary of economic theory. He was summa cum laude in Economics and became a very eminent historian of economics.)

Can’t tell shit from Shinola. (Proverbial stupidity; a phrase notably associated with the military, who had to shine their shoes regularly)

Doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. (Possibly the commonest term in my youth for incompetence and stupidity.)

So dumb / incompetent he can’t find his ass with both hands and a flashlight.

I’m gonna tear him a new asshole. (Common threat.)

A German story too good to miss, and known in the Midwest where there was German settlement:
The soldier Götz von Berlichingen, a real person who lived from 1482 to 1562, was trapped in a house surrounded by his enemies. History (not totally unquestioned…but at least written) records that they called to him that his situation was hopeless and he should surrender. He hung his bare ass out the window and said “Leck mich in arsch” (lick my ass)…and proceeded to fight his way out, single-handed, and survive to fight again. He became the German national hero, and his line is the German national putdown. (See Alan Dundes, Life Is a Chicken Coop Ladder, for more.)
Animal Metaphors

When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember you set out to drain the swamp. (I prefer to say “…to conserve the wetland.”)

Chickenshit (a common extension of “chicken.” This is a word used focally for a very common and typical state of mind, the results of childhood abuse, VERY common in the old Midwest. The abused kid was often weak, isolated, resentful, cowardly, and alternating between placating and nastiness. With maturing, this often took the form of touchy defensiveness and excessive concern for “honor.”)

To goose someone (to strike at the genital region, as an angry goose does to drive people away from its young)

Smells like two skunks fucking in an onion patch. (Black American—at least in so far as I know it—but probably more widespread; alternatively “fighting in an onion patch”)

In a pig’s ass. (I.e. something that won’t happen, or something that’s bullshit. Bars used to post signs saying “your credit is good here” –with a pointer pointing to the back end of a pig. Cleaned-up variants: In a pig’s ear; in a pig’s eye, when pigs fly; when pigs fly to the moon. “Ears” was and sometimes still is a standard euphemism for “ass,” dating back to the 18th century, when ass was still “arse” and “ears” was pronounced “airs,” so the words were near-homonyms.)

Up a pig’s ass: same as “up shit crick.” In a hopeless position. Note that “crick,” not creek, was and is the universal Midwestern pronunciation.

Piss like a racehorse (copiously)

Faster than a cat can lick its ass. (Usually said of unpleasant things, as in “If he gets mad he’ll be on you faster than…”).

Hotter’n a fresh-fucked fox in a forest fire. (Texanism.)

I don’t give a rat’s ass.

About as much use as tits on a boar.

(Not from our childhood, but too good to miss, is a Malay proverb: “Even if ten ships come, the dogs have no loincloths but their tails.” [The ships are understood to be bringing fancy imported fabrics, the Great Luxury of old Malaysia. The proverb is a comment on the hopelessness of the poor.])

Today’s forthright speech has cost the English language a vast range of ridiculously creative euphemisms. Midwesterners needed strong and pungent speech to express their emotions, but were too inhibited to use the blunt words, at least in mixed company. Children actually got their mouths washed out with soap for “cussin.’” I was threatened with this periodically, but I was usually too careful to get the actual washing. This resistance to blunt verbiage led to a lot of nonsense.
Besides the obvious “Gosh!” “Golly!” “Jeez!” “Darn!” and so on, there were more arcane ways to modify taboo words: “Bushwah!” for “bullshit”; “shucks” and “shoot” for “shit”; “asset” and “yes-yes” (pron. “yas-yas”) for “ass” (“arse”); “for cryin’ out loud” for “for Christ’s sake”; “foot” for “fuck” as an expletive (oh foot!); “Lor’ love a duck” for “fuck” (this is a Cockney one); “peter” for “penis”; and so on. “Spend a penny” was universal British slang in the first 2/3 of the 20th century for “go to the toilet,” with reference to the cost of the pay toilets in old-time London. A toilet is a “loo” in England, from French l’eau, “the water.” The name “John” developed unfortunate connotations, first in French, especially in the nickname form Jacques, whence English “Jack” and Scottish “Jock.” So “jakes” (from Jacques) and later “John” was used for the toilet.
“John” and “jock” also became standard euphemisms for the penis, whence “jockstrap” as slang for a supporter strap to protect a man’s groin. “John” was lengthened to “Johnson” for a while in the mid-20th century (when “-son” was a slangy lengthening of anything—“Jack” and “Jackson” were slangy terms of address to men). “Johnson” inspired a line of double entendre T-shirts (the “Big Johnson” line) that were, for a change, really witty rather than just gross. “John” gave way to “Dick” (from rhyming slang for “prick,” and not so much euphemistic as universal, in many American dialects). It seems that the English language requires a boy’s name for the organ in question; I have heard “Aleck,” “Tom,” etc. (British slang includes excusing oneself to go take a leak by saying “Must go point Percy at the porcelain,” etc.) And “to roger” was a very standard euphemism for sexual intercourse.
The general lack of intelligence, taste, and good judgement of the organ in question has caused “dick,” “dork,” etc. to be words for a stupid person, like “pendejo” (thing that hangs on) in Spanish. However, the male genitalia were very commonly referred to as “the family jewels,” so clearly there were more favorable judgments out there.
Other common terms for the penis included dong, tool, joystick, rod, and so on. In addition, almost anything can be used, as limericks and dirty jokes prove. There was a similarly vast corpus of euphemisms for sexual intercourse, but most of the ones that were widely used are still around. Anal intercourse in the Midwest was “cornholing,” from “corn hole” for anus.
There is a whole genre of English and American folksong that uses rural metaphors for sexual intercourse, beginning with a medieval one in which our hero grafts his pear tree for his ladylove, and more recently a song in which “I showed her the works of my threshing machine” (an implement of modern invention). Studies show that metaphors involving tools and weapons can be constructed right back to Proto-Indo-European. Other languages (notably Spanish and Cantonese, from my experience) have equally complex vocabularies and metaphors.
“Cock” was never a euphemism. It is a translation gloss from various European languages. Several languages over the world use the male chicken as a metaphor. The euphemism came in when Americans coined “rooster” for the bird! The British really laugh at us for that one.
Meanwhile, in deep southern US English, “cock” means the female genitalia, not the male; it’s a completely different word, from French coquille, “shell,” via New Orleans French. “Poontang” is another southern localism for the female parts. I know it only from Virginia and the Appalachians, but it may be elsewhere in the south. It centers on Black English, so is probably an African word originally.
Another set of euphemisms surrounded teaching kids about sex. Parents were often too ashamed to discuss human sexuality directly, so referred to it as “the facts of life.” They had recourse to explaining the sex lives of animals first. This gave rise to the expression “tell them about the birds and the bees,” and thus to “the birds and the bees” as a euphemism for human sex in general.
Yet more terms referred to courting (itself a term covering a wide range of activities). Most of these were teenage slang referring to stages of intimacy. “Necking” was kissing and other above-the-neck action. “Petting” and “spooning” covered more bodily contact. “Making out” was definitely more serious: foreplay-like activity that could, and often did, lead to what was known in that euphemistic age as “going all the way.” Somewhat similar, later in time (somewhat after our day), were baseball images—variously defined, but the following seems fairly typical: “first base” for kissing and the like, “second base” for fondling breasts (these days it covers fellatio too), “third base” for genital touching or digital sex, and, significantly, “home base” or “getting home” for sexual intercourse.
Not so much euphemisms as folk speech were various words for male erections (bone, boner, hard-on, rod-on, stiff, etc.) and words for masturbation. Teenaged boys being often fascinated with both masturbation and colorful speech, there were plenty of phrases. Standard was “jacking off” (equivalent to British “frigging” and “wanking” or “whanking,” which can be either male or female). “Jerking off” was also heard, but “jacking off” comes from “Jack” for penis (see above) rather than from “jerk.” More poetic were “beat your meat” (as common as “jacking off”) and “flog your log.” Some Southernisms that I never heard in youth, but learned in early adulthood, were “jerk your jewels,” “slam your ham” and “choke your chicken” (as in “chokin’ his chicken”; there was actually a blue grass band called the Blue Ridge Chicken Chokers). Masturbating was not considered particularly intelligent, hence use of “jerk,” “wanker,” etc. to mean a dumb person. Compare Spanish “freguer” and “joder” (rub, i.e. masturbate or, sometimes, have sex) and the countless phrases derived from it, e.g. the folk rhyme “La ley de Herodes: o te fregues o te jodes” (“the law of Herod: either you fuck up or you screw up”—one of a vast number of Spanish rhyming “laws,” but in this case one that achieved immortality when “La Ley de Herodes” became the title of a short story that was made into a successful film).
Prostitutes were “ladies of the evening,” “soiled doves,” “in the trade,” “in the oldest profession” (incidentally a wildly inaccurate claim), or just “professionals.” “Floozy” could mean a prostitute or just a loose woman who looked or acted like one.
Pissing and shitting got their share: taking a leak, taking a crap, taking a squat, etc.
There is also “I’ve got to see a man about a horse” (said to excuse self from present company, usually to go to the toilet). Another was “Gotta drain the water off the potatoes.” Another common politeness (if such it can be called) was “Your barn door is open,” meaning your fly is unzipped. Of course, all these were man talk or boy talk. I confess to ignorance of specialized female terms.
In addition to the above, there were the usual obscenities and ethnic, religious, and other insults and offensive words, but most are still around, and to list them would be tedious and unedifying.

There were literally thousands of dirty jokes, songs, and limericks in circulation. Most of them, but not the rawest, were captured by Gerson Legman in his series of books of erotic folklore and in Vance Randolph’s book Pissing in the Snow. Good dirty song collections include Ed Cray, The Erotic Muse, and the pseudonymous Snatches and Lays for British/Australian material. I fear the heavy-duty stuff I know is so raw that I would never repeat it even in unmixed company. I have even, alas, found it necessary to remove some wonderfully colorful short standard phrases from the above list.

Genocide: Prediction, Hatred, and Exclusionary Ideologies

April 6th, 2016



Genocide: Prediction, Hatred, and Exclusionary Ideologies

E. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside, CA


Barbara A. Anderson

Salvia Education Services

Riverside, CA 92507



A predictive model of genocide has been developed.  Genocide occurs when an authoritarian regime is consolidating power and can do so by mobilizing hatred against particular groups of subjects or citizens, and then moving to exterminate them.  Geenocide involves the political manipulation of ethnic, religious, and political hatred, through development of an official or quasi-official exclusionary ideology.  Anthropological study of genocide requires investigation into the nature and background of hate and an understanding of how it can be politically mobilized.  Psychology and ethnography (especially of genocides) allows us to construct a model on this basis.  Hate is a general emotion, but mobilizing it requires specific conditions and can be prevented.



Genocide may be the defining crime of the 20th century, and is maintaining itself in the 21st.   Not only genocide itself, but indifference to it by the international community, remains a huge problem for the world (Apsel and Verdeja 2013; Hinton 2005; Hirsch 2014; Power 2002; Totten 2012, 2014).

Violence in a hierarchic, repressive society almost invariably triggers outbreaks that seem to the outsider to be literally insane.  People afterwards often recall feeling out of their minds—either crazed with blood lust or feeling like automatons (Anderson and Anderson 2012 review a long literature; see also Staub 1989, 2011).  From a considerable literature on evil and human hate, especially valuable are Scott Atran’s Talking to the Enemy (2010), Roy Baumeister’s Evil (1997), Aaron Beck’s Prisoners of Hate (1999), and Erwin Staub’s The Roots of Evil (1989).

  1. N. Anderson and Barbara A. Anderson constructed a model for predicting genocide in the book Warning Signs of Genocide (2012; Doughty 2015; Heying, 2013). The book followed the original definition by Raphael Lemkin: “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group” (Lemkin 1944:79; see Lemkin 2013).  He included cultural destruction through forced assimilation, and also partial or attempted genocide that did not totally succeed.  (Indeed, few totally succeed.)   The book further defined genocide as murder by a government of its own citizens or subjects, when they are accused of nothing consequential other than belong to a particular demographic category.

This category can be a religion or sect, a political philosophy, a “race” (however defined by the genociders), an ethnic group, or any other essentialized but ultimately arbitrary cultural category.  Killing of actual enemies, however general and ruthless, does not count, which means we are using a quite different definition from Ben Kiernan’s in his magistral work Blood and Soil (2007).  Kiernan, in a truly great study of “genocide,” defines it as any mass murder of noncombatants, even enemy noncombatants in an active war.  Since all wars involve this, he studied war in general, throughout all history.  He found that most involved “blood and soil”—descent groups, and land to appropriate, conquer, or loot.

Restricting genocide to murder of a government’s own peaceful subjects eliminates almost all Kiernan’s cases.  It leaves us with two quite different types:  Settler genocides (Wolfe 2006; these are well covered by Kiernan), and modern total genocide.  In the former, an ethnic group takes over an area and clears the land, once the people are subjected, by methodically exterminating them.  This occurred in the New World with many Native American groups, and in Australia with the Aboriginals.  In modern total genocide, a government picks on long-established citizen groups and exterminates them for what appear to outsiders to be arbitrary or inadequate reasons.  The classic case, of course, is Hitler’s extermination of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, handicapped and mentally ill persons, political dissenters, modern artists, and several other categories.  Other particularly horrific examples include the massacre of Armenians by the “Young Turk” government of Turkey (Akçam 2012) and the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s (Frye 1989; Hinton 2002a, 2002b, 2005; Kiernan 2007).

Genocide remains rather difficult to define.  Martin Shaw, in his new book Genocide and International Relations (2013), critiques much of the usage of the term for being too restrictive; like Kiernan, he would expand it to include almost any violence against defined groups, and also sees  it as typically on ongoing process.  This, of course, makes genocide virtually universal, eliminating, for instance, the close link between genuine mass violence and dictatorial regimes based on exclusionary ideologies.  Shaw is right in pointing out that the killings often spill over into neighboring countries and involve other governments, and often have significant linkages with international politics.  Shaw notes the hypernationalist policies that went worldwide after World Wars I and II, with massive resettlement of populations all over the planet.  The mutual genocidal killings of Greeks and Turks in 1922-3 were pursuant to population deals in the Treaty of Lausanne, for example (see Appendices I and II).

Lemkin’s definition, by contrast, is rather strict.  It rules out, for instance, most of the extermination campaigns against Native Americans in the United States.  Most were either actual wars against genuinely combative enemies not under control of the United States Government, or they were informal massacres carried out by local people without government authority.  Only a few actual genocidal massacres had official government blessing.  Those few included the Cherokee Long March, the Shoshone-Bannock “war” of the 1870s, the Sioux campaigns of the 1890s (Mooney 1896), and several other cases, but not, for instance, the mass murders committed in missionization and later de-missionization in California (which have often been called genocide).  Lemkin was defining a real and extremely important type of killing, and one that vastly and explosively increased in the 20th century, making it exceedingly important as a factor in world history.  Overgeneralizing his term loses us a category that needs serious study.

However, genocide does include “wars” in which a vastly disproportionate percent of the killing was government extermination of innocent noncombatants, such as the Guatemalan terror of the 1980s, in which over 200,000 people died in what was called a civil war, but the government was responsible for at least 95% and possibly 97% of the killings, and virtually none of those were combat deaths (see e.g. Stoll 1993, 1999).

By this definition, at least 100 million and possibly more than 200 million people were killed by genocide in the 20th and early 21st centuries, in at least 67 countries (Anderson and Anderson 2012; De Dreu et al. 2010; Rummel 1994, 1998; Tilly 2003:55).  This makes it as potent a killer as malaria or tuberculosis.



Anderson and Anderson (2012) found, working with a sample including every 20th century genocide, that modern genocide was predicted by 1) authoritarian government; 2) a major challenging situation to it, almost always either consolidation after it just seized power, or civil or international war in which loss by the government was very likely.  Hitler’s genocide, for instance, began with WWII but did not become total—the “Final Solution”—till it was uncomfortably apparent that the Axis was losing ground and would probably be defeated.  Settler genocides (and conquest genocides that are structurally the same) are expected when a government of settlers (conquerors) is consolidating control, and has reduced the conquered people to subjects but is still afraid of rebellion or outbreak.

Barbara Harff, a student of conflict and civil unrest, developed a model essentially the same as that in Anderson and Anderson (2012).  She and her husband Ted Gurr were leading authorities on conflict (Harff and Gurr 2005).  Harff uses Lemkin’s definition.  She further follows the UN definition, elaborated from (and partly by) Lemkin (but she and we follow Lemkin and not the UN in including political-ideological massacres).  She defines genocide as governmental attempt “to destroy, in whole or in part, a communal, political, or politicized ethnic group” (Harff 2003:58, her italics).  She does not make a point of noncombatant status, but she sympathetically cites others who do; she does not deal with the possibility that religion, gender identity, or modern art could be definers, but they often are.  She specifically includes politics, thus including Charles Tilly’s “politicide” (Tilly 2003).  Her sample in 2003 was genocides from 1955 to 1997.  Anderson and Anderson’s was 1800 to 2007.

In her predictive model of genocide, Harff (2003, 2012) summarized the direct correlates of genocide succinctly: “almost all genocides of the last half-century occurred during or in the immediate aftermath of internal wars, revolutions, and regime collapse”  (2003:57; cf. Ben Kiernan, 2007:393:  “By 1910…a new phenomenon emerged: genocides perpetrated by national chauvinist dictatorships that had seized control of tottering, shrinking, or new empires…”—difficult to define but close to Harff’s findings).  She has also, and perhaps more importantly, identified the critical role of what she calls “exclusionary ideologies” (Harff  2003, 2012).  These are the ideologies of the leaders who call out genocides.  Ideologies of this type, however, are not confined to genocides or genocidal leaders.  They are widespread, and create much killing outside of actual wars or genocides.  Harff points out that all genocides must have, underlying them, some ideology that not only legitimates mass murder, but makes it seem like a noble cause.  Her model (like Anderson and Anderson’s of 2012) predicts that authoritarian governments led by such ideologues will become genocidal if stressed by events that seem to challenge their power, especially consolidation of a new regime, or civil war or unrest.  More or less similar ideas have recently surfaced in genocide scholarship (see e.g. Aijmer and Abbink 2000;  Jones 2011; Lewy 2012; Mann 2005; Meierhenrich 2014; Stanton 2013; an anonymous posting on Motherboard, 2015, notes the use of words like “cockroaches,” long known to be associated with genocide, are actually predictive of it).

She stresses the role of autocratic governments, and also “political upheaval” (p. 62); again, her italics) as the near-invariable immediate cause.  She emphasizes the frequency of prior genocides in a nation’s record, which Anderson and Anderson did not find, due to working with a larger sample over a longer period of time, which tended to wash out this variable.  She discusses the existence of “ethnic and religious cleavages” (p. 63) and found no correlation; all nations have diversity but only some have genocide.  “Low economic development” (p. 64) also bought her little variance, and again the wider sample confirms this, destroying any correlation.  Major genociders included Germany at a time when it was one of the three or four richest countries in the world, and within her time frame there were genocides in Argentina, Chile, China, Serbia, and elsewhere, as she notes.  More recently, Israel has engaged in genocidal activities in Palestine, with calls by major government figures for outright extermination of Palestinians (Robinson 2014).  Several other affluent nations have hovered on the brink.

She finds that recent genocides have more likely in countries that were relatively isolated or independent of the world-system (p. 65).  Again this does not hold for older genocides.  Even in her sample, it is difficult to defend, because of such issues as China’s genocides in remote western areas (Tibet, Xinjiang) while being open to the world (p. 69).

Her final result as of 2003 (p. 66) was that autocratic government and prior genocides were both correlated at .9 with genocides that occurred, but of course both conditions also existed in countries without genocide.  Other political upheaval correlated only .47, but “exclusionary ideologies” (“hate ideologies” in Anderson and Anderson 2014) and rule by members of a self-conscious ethnic minority both correlated .69.  Openness to trade, a proxy for world-system incorporation, correlated .7.  She admits that the model did not predict genocides in rich, trade-involved countries (e.g. Chile), or even poor but trade-involved ones (Philippines, El Salvador, several others).

In 2012 she reaffirmed her risk factors, and predicted serious troubles in several countries.  First on the list was Myanmar, which in fact has had genocidal attacks on Rohingya Muslims since she wrote.  As she pointed out, it was rather a simple prediction, since the country was a military dictatorship with almost continual war against minorities.  Second was Syria, and we know what has happened there.  Third was China, and indeed the Uighur genocide has come up since she wrote.  Fourth was Sudan, but the breakaway of South Sudan damaged the government so much that it has not had the energy to do much more than harass Darfur, though that long-running bloody action continues.  Meanwhile, South Sudan has had genocides of its own.  Less successful predictions were the next few:  Pakistan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Iran, though the first two have had a great deal of violence and repression.  Then comes a hit, D. R. Congo, but genocide was already ongoing there when she wrote.  A number of lower-risk countries follow, of which only Central African Republic has had a genocide, and there—for once—the international community moved fast to damp it down (Brown 2013).  The others include very stable countries like Saudi Arabia.

The Anderson model has the advantage of breaking regime consolidation out from response to disruption, and also noting that economic and military disruptions are both causative and predictive.

Harff and others have independently come to stress more and more the ideological side.  Governments that live and maintain themselves by mobilizing hatreds are almost always forced sooner or later to exterminate the people they say they hate.  In one well-studied case this did not happen: Mahathir bin Muhamad’s Malaysia in the 1970s.  That case may be instructive.  Mahathir took over on a ticket of hatred and suppression of the Chinese, after several years of ethnic rioting and violence in which Bumiputera (Malays) and Chinese battled.  Under Mahathir, the Chinese gave as little cause as they could for actual repression, tolerated a great deal of impact, and meanwhile worked terribly hard to build up the economy and make sure Mahathir and his group were beneficiaries of this.  His position softened in direct proportion to his own and his political group’s economic success.  Thus hate ideologies are real and dangerous, but enough economic success may convince most haters to be more quiet.  This has not happened recently in the United States, however, where every new statistic showing the US is economically flourishing seems to make the racists and religious bigots more and more extreme.


Meanwhile, Samuel Totten, veteran student of genocide and especially of mass murder of Indigenous minorities, has added his own more immediate warning signs—signs that genocide is ongoing, not just that it is potential:

–A specific groups is “demeaned, ostracized, marginalized, segregated, excluded, or isolated”;

–“mass deportations and forcible transfer”;

–Government forces “kill unarmed civilians at will” [hardly a warning sign—the fact itself!];

–“test massacres are carried out”;

–“mass rape and enforced pregnancy are taking place.”  (Totten 2014:24).

A somewhat similar list is found in “The Ten Stages of Genocide,” posted by Gregory Stanton (2013) on his Genocide Watch website—a very useful resource.  The ten stages are classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.  They are indeed stages to watch for, and Stanton gives quick definitions and suggests countermeasures, including things for governments and the United Nations to do.  Dr. Stanton maintains on his website a list and map of countries that are genocidal or threatening to become so:  The assessments are similar to Barbara Harff’s (whom he cites).  An earlier posting, “Twelve Ways to Deny a Genocide” (2005), neatly summarizes that unpleasant aspect of mass murder.

With Harff and Stanton actively predicting risks and advocating preventive measures, and with other new work summarized below, knowledge about genocide prevention has been revolutionized.  One hopes that this will translate into action, but continued fecklessness of the world community in the face of ISIS and Boku Haram indicate that the lessons are not being learned.



In a review of Warning Signs of Genocide, Kristin Doughty (2015) identified several needs for future work.  These include “the political and moral economy in which violence and humanitarianism occur,” and looking more at “recent anthropological work on violence, the state, collective belonging, and human rights” (Doughty 2015:175); she also points out that when genocide is defined as state murder of its own citizens, there should have been an an extension for genocidal pursuit of people across national boundaries (as earlier noted by Martin Shaw, 2013).  This was obvious from Hitler’s massacre of the Jews and others—he murdered all he found in any country under his control—and also from on the hot pursuit by Tutsi and Hutu of each other into the Congo.  Finally, she asks some questions:“how the act of labeling violence is political and…mobilized within specific historical trajectories of global configurations of power” (Doughty 2015:175); Ben Kiernan, Taner Aksam, and other cited sources cover this issue.  Much more serious is her other question: “What are the warning signs that the human tendency toward group hate is being exploited by powerful people for violent ends?”  (Doughty 2015:175).  The appalling failure of the world at large to spot this in the Koch brothers’ manipulation of the Tea Party, the Saudi Arabian manipulation of extremist Islam, and many other governments’ exploitation of hate shows this is indeed a particularly pressing problem.

Civil war is quite different from genocide, epidemiologically and otherwise.  Economics is clearly associated with civil war (Collier and Sambanis 2005).  In contrast, genocide is countereconomic; eliminating a large percentage of one’s workers and taxpayers cannot really be beneficial.  Civil war usually occurs when a region feels oppressed and wishes to break away, or when a huge rebellion seriously threatens a regime (Collier and Sambanis 2005); genocide occurs when the regime preempts such situations by exterminating the groups that might so act.  A link with newly independent nations that arise from the collapse of empires has been traced for civil war (Wimmer and Min 2006), and holds for genocide also; the two tend to merge into each other in such situations.


A final note on cause is another epidemiological one: how genocide spreads.  Rudolph Rummel (1998) documented in great detail how it spread with Leninist-Stalinist Communism, occurring in essentially all countries that adopted that particular form of Marxism. (Marx himself did not, of course, advise any such thing, however much he may have counseled the elimination of ruling-class elements.)  Rummel also documented the spread of genocide under fascism, especially, of course, Hitler’s particular form of fascist doctrine.  A point somewhat missed by Rummel was the degree to which the United States spread genocide, via its CIA operations in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.  How much this was foreseen—let alone deliberately planned—is controversial.  However, genocide followed CIA-backed takeovers in Guatemala, El Savador, and Chile, and often the genociders had been trained at the School of the Americas operated by the U.S. Department of Defense in Fort Benning, Georgia.  This school trained Rios Montt of Guatemala and Roberto D’Aubuisson of El Salvador, as well as participants in the genocides in Haiti and Argentina (AlJazeera 2012). It taught a range of techniques and established a values system based on exterminating perceived enemies of military regimes.  Also, the Guatemalan and Argentine armies, at least, had long-standing relationships with Hitlerian fascism; the Guatemalan army had been trained in the 1930s and 1940s by pro-Hitler Germans, and Mein Kampf was required reading for Argentine military officers in the years before the genocide of the 1970s there (see e.g. Lewis 2001; Timerman 2002).  Thus, many of the 20th century genocides can be traced to three origin points and to a very few men.



“Genocide has two phases, one, the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor” (Lemkin 1944:xi, quoted by Shaw 2013:55).

This quote reminds us that genocide is definitely about culture; it is about the elimination of a lifeway as well as a people.  That leads us to consideration of hate ideologies.  Others call them “extremist ideologies.” The most extreme form of hate ideology, when open extermination of the group is advocated, has been called “eliminationism” in Daniel Goldhagen’s monumental and intense history of genocide (2009).  A very sensitive history of genocide and its ideology, using Foucault among other sources, has been written by Jacques Sémelin under the significant title Purify and Destroy (2007).

The common exclusionary ideologies are fascism (Neumann 1943, 1957), racism (Sussman 2014), the more extreme and radical forms of communism, and extremist movements within religions.  These ideologies are defined simply: they all advocate indiscriminate violence to eliminate or terrify by mass killing some particular large group of people, defined such that men, women, children, old people, the sick, and noncombatants in general are all equally targeted.  The roots of all these in religious killings, going back to the movements to exterminate heretics (such as the Catharist “crusade” and anti-Jewish pogroms), have been explored (Anderson and Anderson 2012; Rubinstein 2004).

They are generally splinter movements within splinter movements.  Radical terrorist Islam, for instance, is an extreme offshoot of Wahhabism, itself an extreme offshoot of Hanbali Sunni, which is itself the most rigid and narrowly legalistic of the Muslim law interpretation schools.  The terrorist form is almost universally condemned by Muslims and Muslim scholars and religious figures (see e.g. Schewitz 2015).  The extremist Christianity that leads to murdering abortion clinic workers, gays, and Muslims is similarly far from the teachings of Jesus.  Blaming religion in general for the murderous behavior of ISIS or the anti-abortion bombers and murderers is about as accurate as blaming democracy, or, for that matter, blaming bread (the staple food of the relevant groups).

Maoist and Stalinist communism is extreme by communist standards.  Fascism, by definition, is a murderous hate ideology, but there has been considerable variation in how bloody the fascist regimes have been; Franco, repressive as he was, actually protected Spanish Jews from Hitler.

An important point made by few students of such movements is that they cannot promise only hate and gratification of hate.  They cannot succeed if they simply call for indiscriminate mass murder.  They need some professed high ideals.  Most often, these are the most exalted ideals of all: those of world religions.  Secular ideologies, however, must have equivalents.  Fascism and racism promise purity, prosperity, and safety from hordes of criminal and inferior minorities. Communism professed ideals of equality, progress, social justice, and welfare that it did indeed deliver in some of its milder manifestations, but failed to deliver when it drifted into genocidal extremism, as in Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China.  Genocidal movements in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and elsewhere promised prosperity, peace, homogenous societies, and similar benefits if the enemy ethnic groups were eliminated.

As pointed out by Ben Kiernan in his book Blood and Soil (2007), similar ideologies animated settlers taking over land from Indigenous peoples; they would have peace and prosperity if they could take over the land, eliminating its rightful owners in the process.  Concepts like “Manifest Destiny” were created to justify this.  However warped and twisted all these benefits may seem in retrospect, they provided excuses for eliminating or decimating vast numbers of ethnic groups worldwide.

Thus, a hate ideology must have more than hate going for it.  Even Hitler managed to promise progress, purity, virtue, superiority, and other goods, promises still associated with fascist leanings in some parts of German society (Voigtländer and Voth 2015).

Rios Montt’s fascist rule in Guatemala may have failed to eliminate the targeted groups partly because of his failure to tell a convincing story.  In spite of his deployment of evangelical Christianity, he provided thin promises.  He has been judged guilty of genocide (Fausset 2014; Sanford 2013) but the judgment was annulled, and many Guatemalans still yearn for a mano dura (“firm hand”) rule (Torres 2016).  However, Christians in Guatemala were not convinced that mass murder of innocent people is a Christian act; the evangelical churches there are not, on average at least, as right-wing as US ones (at least in our research experience in Central America).  By contrast, ISIS sells itself by offering the revival of the Caliphate and the glories of Islam.  Its publicists can sound downright utopian.  Scott Atran has found that it is these utopian calls, not the murder and bloodshed, that attract young Muslims, especially those facing prejudice and discrimination in Europe and America (Atran 2015a, 2015b).

On the other hand, direct, unsubtle hate appears to be necessary to make people torture and kill; subtlety does not work well in hate ideologies.  Kteily, Bruneau et al. (2015) found that hate ideologies tend to compare people either to disgusting animals (rats, cockroaches) or to unfeeling machines (robots).  These can be ideologically represented, and always seem to be in hate ideologies, especially the animal comparisons.  The authors noted a tendency for richer groups to be “robots,” poorer minorities to be compared to animals, but there was substantial overlap, especially in the animal insults.  Following up on this, Kteily, Hodson and Bruneau (2016) found that these stereotypes get mutually applied: stigmatized groups return the favor by dehumanizing their oppressors, and a vicious cycle emerges in which groups demonize each other more and more.  We have seen this over the years in Israeli-Palestine conflicts and now in the widespread mutual dehumanization of each other by Muslims and right-wing Europeans and Americans, and consequent escalation of terrorist bombing by extremist Muslim groups and of indiscriminate air strikes by European powers and the United States.

Dehumanization, however, is only one part of a continuum that extends from simple dislike and devaluing to contempt, callousness, deliberate irresponsibility, bigotry, and ultimately real hatred.  The common theme is rejecting people as people.  Structural violence (Galtung 1969) can be as bloody and total as genocide.  Corporations that simply take no notice of pollution-caused deaths, dam-builders that do not plan to resettle displaced persons, and oil companies that allow local militias to “protect” company operations by indiscriminate violence are on a very slippery slope toward genocide (Anderson 2010).

Hatred ideologies win over countries through military coups, elections (Hitler was democratically elected—by a bare plurality), or outright revolutions.  Sometimes an already authoritarian state turning suddenly more extreme, almost always when challenged by stresses, but sometimes simply through normal succession practices that happen to bring a brutal ruler to power, as has happened today in Xi Jinping’s China.

Finally, a very important point is made by S. I. Wilkinson, as quoted by Martin Shaw (2013:160):  “’…the constructivist insight that individuals have many ethnic and nonethnic identities with which they might identify politically.  The challenge for politicians is to ensure that the one that most favours their party is the one that is most salient in the mimnds of the majority of voters…in the run-up to an election’ (Wilkinson 2006:4).  By the same token, the challenge for activists mobilizing riots and other…violence is to stigmatize the ‘enemy’ through the most lethal combination of identities that can be ascribed to it.”  Strategic negotiation and deployment of group identification is a well-studied phenomenon in politics, but not often applied to genocide cases.



Religious extremism—what used to be called “enthusiasm” and “fanaticism”—is currently attracting the most attention, especially in connection with genocidal or near-genocidal behavior.  This includes the mass murder of Yazidis and Syriac Christians by ISIS in Iraq, but also the mass murders of Muslim Rohingya by Buddhists in Myanmar—a genocide that seems ironic to anyone steeped in the American stereotypes of peaceful Buddhism and murderous Islam.  Netanyahu’s rhetoric and behavior in Israel are variants on the same theme, with genocidal ideation openly stated by some government figures (Robinson 2014).  Atheists too have been genocidal in the name of religion—eliminating it by mass murder, notably in Mao Zedong’s persecution of religion in China in the 1950s and 1960s.  Stalin and other extreme communists also killed simply to repress religion.

In the United States, leading Republican clergy (e.g. Ted Cruz’ friend and advisor Kevin Swanson) and other Republican leaders have called for literal extermination of gays.  A ballot proposition was seriously introduced in California to proceed with this.  (It was blocked by the state Attorney General.)  A video game called “Kill the Faggot” was briefly marketed (Hayden 2015).  Genocidal rhetoric about Muslims and other minorities has also been heard, and rising violence by the Ku Klux Klan and similar bodies has been chronicled by human rights groups.  We live in a period when people’s insecurities and fears are dealt with by reactionary religiosity.  It is highly significant that the extremisms of the 20th century were often forward-looking extremisms like communism and even the early forms of fascism.

The same people who fueled commuinst movements—the poor and excluded working classes, especially young people—now fuel movements that promise return to a mythical golden past.  This tells us a great deal about their expectations, and the changes therein over the last few decades.



Scott Atran, leading expert on the anthropology of Islamic terrorism, has provided many findings on extremist Islamic ideology (Atran 2010, 2015a, 2015b).  Most of them boil down to the familiar tenets of advertising: find out whom to target, find out what they respond to, try campaigns and see what works.  Atran has worked only on Islamic (or pseudo-Islamic) terror, but his findings probably apply, mutatis mutandis, to any and all violent religious movements.  One can read the following paragraphs substituting “the Communist movement” or “the KKK” for “ISIS.”  The many studies of the rise of Communism in China and Vietnam, for instance, reveal the same basic picture, including the disproportional and wholly unsuccessful efforts by the US to stop it all.

The people targeted by ISIS and related extremist Islamic groups are the young, disaffected, nonaffluent Muslims or would-be Muslims in European slums and throughout the Muslim world, and in particular “those seeking meaning, glory, esteem, adventure, respect, remembrance, camaraderie, justice, rebellion, self-sacrifice and structure around personal chaos” (Atran 2015b:3).  Most of the terrorists are not well versed in Islam, which is not surprising when one recalls that Islam forbids killing innocent civilians in war unless there is no way to avoid it.  Many of the terrorists are actually converts, up to 1 out of 4 in France and allegedly even higher rates in the United States.

Atran notes that the media contribute greatly: “our own media are mainly designed to titillate rather than as a public servidce to inform; it has become child’s play for ISIS to turn our own propaganda machine, and the world’s mightiest media, into theirs—a novel, highly potent jujitsu style of asymmetric warfare that could be countered with responsible restraint” (Atran 2015b:4).  “Many governments are sacrificing liberties for security, which plays into ISIS’s hands” (Atran 2015b:5).  On the other hand, he notes that there are many Muslims willing to do anything they can to stop ISIS.

Atran has found, and has stressed, that the extreme and non-negotiable commitment people have to their religions and communities is a key factor in both extremism and opposing it; this is the opposite of “rational choice,” and cannot be dealt with as if it were simple economic decision-making.  The ISIS recruits are idealistic and hopeful; like fighters for causes everywhere, they see fighting for a glorious future as the best of all possible lifeways.

ISIS and other hate ideologies emphasize development of strong personal ties, making people willing to sacrifice themselves for comrades (Atran 2010, 2015b:7).  He emphasizes the need to study actual networks.  Peer-to-peer recruitment is the norm.  “Few are recruited in mosques” (Atran 2015b:10).

He notes that “The 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000, whereas the response by the US alone is on the order of 10 million times that figure…. On a strictly cost-benefit basis, the violent movement of which Al Qaeda and now ISIS are the spearheads has been wildly successful” (Atran 2015b:14).

Atran also reminds us: “In academia, you’ll find very many who criticize power…but very few willing to engage with power.  They thus render themselves irrelevant and morally irresponsible…. As a result, politicians pay them little heed and the public could care less” (Atran 2015b:16).  Fortunately there are many exceptions.

The one thing lacking in this assessment is the threat aspect.  In its areas of strength, ISIS, like other such movements, does use direct threat to individuals and their families.  It systematically uses show-trials and public executions to induce terror, as did all other extremist movements that succeeded in conquering and holding territory, including Christian sects in the medieval and Renaissance periods, and, for that matter, settlers in North America dealing with Native Americans (see e.g. Kiernan 2007).  Veiled or open threats are a recruitment technique; they simply scare most people, but to those intrigued by extremism, they can force a decision: get out of the “gray zone” and commit to ISIS, or suffer the consquences of not doing so (cf. Atran 2015b:2).


In general, the ideology of ISIS is far from Islamic, and is close to if not identical with the ideology of right-wing Christianity in the US—the latter being similarly far from the New Testament, and similarly identified with followers who know very little about their religion.  Right-wing Judaism in Israel and extremist Buddhism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka seem more or less identical.  There are similar extreme movements within other religions and ideologies.

Common themes include, first (of course), a dedication to hatred of the vast hordes of enemies of the faith.  Next comes repression and oppression of women, murderous hatred of gays, and other strong sexual controls; there is, to our knowledge, no thorough explanation of why sex is so terrifying to the orthodox.  (Assertion of power over the elemental force of sexuality is part of it, but not all of it.)  Then come opposition to science and learning, obedience to a very narrow construction of religious rules, hatred of nonreligious authority, and above all a devotion to violence as a first and best recourse.  This is no new ideology; it was abundantly represented in the religious wars of Europe from Rome to the present.  It needs to be more tightly defined and studied.


One very significant difference between ISIS and American fascism and religious exclusionism is that the support for the most extreme candidates in the United States comes from older, less educated whites as opposed to young minorities with limited hopes.  The former is exactly the demographic that has recently been found to have a rapidly rising death rate due to skyrocketing rates of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide (Case and Deaton 2015).  It is also the demographic most hard-hit by absolute and relative decline in economic well-being, as industrial jobs are increasingly exported to other countries, often by the same individuals who fund the far right.



Someone has to fund extremist ideology.  Hitler had his giant corporations: Krupp, Volkswagen, I. G. Farben and others.  Mussolini had corporate backing. ISIS lives by selling oil on black or gray markets, with added income from looting anquities and selling Yazidis and Christians into slavery.  They also have the benefits of  major remnants of Saddam Hussein’s military, who have joined them (Sly 2015).  American hate is funded by a handful of wealthy interests long associated with right-wing causes:  Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, the late Richard Scaife, and others, especially the giant oil corporations and arms interests (see Blumenthal 2015).  Most of these pretended to be in favor of small government and free markets, but now are largely interested in taking over the government and using it to eliminate groups of people and to control markets and corporations.  Naturally, the funders wind up having disproportionate power to define the movements and set agendas—ideological, economic, and political. Big government has replaced small.  Cutting welfare and related expenses dedicated to the less fortunate seems more a matter of persecution than of saving money; the astronomical sums poured into indiscriminate bombing of Islamic populations dwarf the savings into rounding errors.  Subsidies to oil, agribusiness, munitions, and chemical corporations also dwarf the welfare cuts.

A genuinely fascist movement is sweeping the US, fed by such right-wingers as Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers via their massive funding of the Tea Party and many other “Astroturf” organizations, and of the most extreme Republican candidates at national and state levels.  The Koch brothers are the sons of a leading Nazi sympathizer and supporter of Hitler’s regime, who actually sought out a German Nazi nurse to raise them—they absorbed their politics from birth (Mayer 2016).  Their “libertarianism” is actually socialism for the rich; one must rememeber that “Nazi” is short for Nazional Sozialismus, and the Kochs’ economic theorists were Ludwig von Mises, an active and enthusiastic Nazi supporter, and Friedrich Hayek, also a sympathizer with fascist regimes (Robin 2012).  The Kochs now dominate the Republican Party and its funding and ideological operations.



Beyond Scott Atran’s prescriptions, the three things that stand out are a need to promote tolerance and valuing diversity, a need to make hatred socially unacceptable, and a need for directly but rationally and coolly confronting hatred and bigotry.  The surest cure for hate is making it a social sin.  Hate is an emotion that hugely dominates the human animal when it is aroused, and it can be dealt with only by patient, rational discourse kept up with constant pressure.  Prayers, good will, love, and other favorite recourses of good people do not have much effect.

Prevention of genocide and bringing genociders to justice have moved forward.  Governments are more aware of international sanctions.  Marcus Alexander and Fotini Christia (2011) found that schools in Bosnia that had been well integrated ethnically did not have the hatred and problems of schools that had not.  The journal Genocide Studies International moved up from newsletter to serious major journal in 2014, with a stunning introduction by veteran genocide scholar Herbert Hirsch that bluntly calls out the world powers for failing to deal with the problem (Hirsch 2014).

Many effective remedies and preventions have been proposed in the available literature, notably by Samantha Power (2002 and subsequent writings) and Daniel Chirot (Chirot and McCauley 2006).  Immediately bringing massed international force to the scene seems to be the only really effective way of stopping killing once it begins (see e.g. Brown 2013 for a recent case).  Before that, however, international condemnation, in no uncertain terms, is necessary, and should be backed up by severe economic sanctions.

The Gurr group’s biennial survey of conflict has moved to new editors (Hewitt et al. 2012; Barker et al. 2014).  International denial and national denial have been rigorously analyzed by Kaligian (2014).  Carol Kidron (2012) compared Jewish and Cambodian refugees in their approach toward their genocidal past; Jews talked more and worked it over, Cambodians talked less and had more problems, but the situation is not as simple as talking vs. silence; there are many issues of community support, how one does the talking, whether one is listened to, success in the new society, and more (Barbara Anderson had little trouble getting most Cambodian refugees to talk, but it did require counseling skills and some never opened up).  A new collection of texts by Bartrop (2013) gives enough anguished stories to convince anyone that genocide should be stopped.

The challenge to social science in these models is abundantly clear.  Social science has overwhelmingly assumed that people were rational, and acted in their rational self-interest.  Such is clearly not the case; humans are often creatures of irrational hate.  Many are psychopaths, out of the reach of normal economic or social restraints. The Harff, Totten, and other models have extremely high success in predicting and explaining behavior based on the implicit or explicit assumption (implicit in Harff and Gurr, explicit in the Anderson model) that humans are primarily social and primarily creatures of emotion, and that they often give priority to fear, because ignoring a threat can be deadly.  Fear, if not dealt with by rational means, often leads to hate.  Then, there is no amount of self-interest that people will not abandon to kill their rivals, and even their friends and neighbors.

Social science will have to start over from the ground up, with the basic principles that people are basically social and emotional, and that hate takes priority in times of threat and disturbance.  Love and solidarity may rule, or reasonable self-interest or unreasonable greed may rule, the rest of the time; in any case, emotion is the usual driver.  This may make sense in a world that is often threatening, and in which we never have the “perfect information” on which rational choice models depend.  We have to be alert to danger, and prioritize response to it when threatened—which is a lot of the time.


Better things are possible.  Some years ago, John Heidenreich (2001) gave us a number of ways that diplomacy and political resolve could stop genocide.  Far more ambitious is Ervin Staub’s life work, epitomized in Overcoming Evil (2011).  This book summarizes all possible causes of genocide and terrorism, and gives an extremely comprehensive and detailed account of what can be done by ordinary people to damp down the vicious cycles of hate and violence that lead to mass murder.  The methods range from getting people from the different sides to talk to each other and work out their problems (the classic group therapy techniques) to active-bystander intervention, and on up to political, media, and educational approaches.  The latter will certainly be needed, since encounter groups can never be comprehensive and widespread enough to do the job—though they are surely desirable, even necessary.  Staub emphasizes the need to see others as ourselves—to see that we are all in the same boat, all humans together (see summary point, p. 515).

The successes he describes appear to come from damping down vicious cycles—from turning positive feedback loops of hatred into negative ones.  The germs of genocide are the millions of imagined slights and trivial hurts that we all suffer every day in our capacity as social beings.  They almost always get constructed into annoyance and exasperation, and then projected on scapegoats.  People angry at their loved ones take it out on safe targets, often minorities and other vulnerable people.  Politicians find this tendency very easy to exploit.  They deliberately whip up hatred and direct it against scapegoats.  They they get caught in the vicious cycles they have started.

We will all have to confront these crimes at national and international levels, and throw the whole weight of citizenry behind ways to reverse vicious spirals and get people to see each other as all in the same lifeboat, and not fighting over the provisions on it.




Appendix I.  Evaluating Martin Shaw’s Recent Model


Shaw’s main point is that genocide does not exist in isolation; it comes from an environment of nationalist and colonialist killing in which displacement of people, mass killing in war, and forced acculturation of minorities are standard operating procedure.  He uses the term “degenerate war” for what others call “collateral damage”:  Large-scale killing of civilians due to indiscriminate use of massive deadly force.  “’International context’ was the emergent idea that I appropriated from the existing genocide literature…. I rejected a rigid idea of the ‘international system,’ but I have continiued to use this notion in a historicized way, arguing that we should understand the system as one that undergoes constant change, not only of an evolutionary but also, throuigh periods of major upheaval, of a more radical kind” (Shaw 2013:196).

He notes several ways “the European inter-imperial system was implicated in genocide” (Shaw 2013:69):  Colonialism and imperialism set the stage and often involved genocide; centralized states were formed in less than pretty ways; “the internal homogenization of empires’ ‘national’ cores fed into the often genocidal processes of settler coloinal settlement” (Shaw 2013:70, his italics).  This led to further colonial and liberation wars.  There were settler genocides in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including American genocides of Native American groups.  During and following WWI, there were central and east Europe’s imperial collapses, including the appalling Turkish genocides of 1915-22.  This was followed by the collapse of all the world empires in the post-WWII era, and the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia after 1989, and the genocides following postcolonial transitions of power in Africa in the 1990s and 2000s.  All these led to the rise of ethnic rivalry, displacement of persons, and genocidal nation-states; relations between empires played out in ways that impacted large populations, often in devastating if not quite genocidal ways.  He also notes the correlation of communist genocides with mass killings by imperial powers in liberation wars, anti-Communist wars, and, most recently, anti-Islamic wars.  The rise of militant Islam since 2000 has been associated with not only genocide but violent wars that seem especially targeted at civilians, with the United States heavily involved (see esp. 200f).  Shaw does not quite say that genocide comes out of civilian-targeted war—it clearly does not always do so—but he certainly sees a correlation.

In our book, we commented on the genocides and near-genocides following the end of WWII and sometimes, ironically and vengefully, directed against Germans, in central European countries.  Shaw also notes this (2013:79).  Throughout the 20th century, international and national politics “increasingly stimulated nationalist population politics,” with inevitable feedback loops; led to “radical nationalists for whom violent expulsion was an acceptable means of solving population ‘problems’”; radicalized population displacements in wars; caused governments to fear their own citizens (especially when losing wars, as we showed in Anderson and Anderson 2012); and reified all this in treaties (Shaw 2013:81-82, his italics).

This all makes much more sense of genocide history, including the frequency of near-genocides:  wars that turn into simple butchery (like the US wars against the Plains Indians from 1870 to 1900), massacres that are not actually done by governments but are winked at by them (again several Native American cases come to mind), wars that involve systematic terrorist massacre of civilians (like the Mongol conquests), apartheid in South Africa (oppression and frequent killing without actual mass murder), the ambiguous civil war/international war/genocide that has ravaged Iraq for 15 years now, and so on.  Shaw counts these as genocides, and uses them to link from outright mass murder like the Holocaust to ordinary wars with their inevitable civilian deaths.  (Shaw never quite defines genocide, using Lemkin’s classic definition [1944], but qualifying it by expanding it without quite specifying the limits.)



Appendix II: The Turkish Genocides


Many aspects of genocidal ideation and response to it are explored in recent work on the Armenian genocide during WWI in Turkey.  This can now be added to Hitler’s far more wide-flung and deadly campaign as a particularly well-analyzed genocide.  The definitive study of the Armenian murders is Akçam 2012.  The context in the history of the Middle East at the time is found in Fromkin’s book significantly titled A Peace to End All Peace (2009) and by Hofmann (2015).

Genocide began in 1895 but did not get serious until after 1914 (Melson 2015).  It spread quickly, spilling over borders into countries where Armenians took refuge.  Roger Smith says: “Scholars describe…both domestic and external genocide, and, of course, the two can take place at the same time, as they did with the attacks on Armenians….  As the social psychologists say, we learn by doing, and genocide perpetrators are no different, perhaps even quick studies” (Smith 2015:1).  The Turks were helped by the lack of solidarity among Christian communities, some of which turned on others (Gaunt 2015).  Turks also killed Greeks (Meichanetsidis 2015), though the Greeks gave as good as they got in the war of 1921-22.

German involvement was critical to the development of hate ideology, but peripheral in the genocide (Akçam 2012; Dadrian 1996; Gaunt 2015; Hofmann 2015).  Poems and interpretive memories are an important part of survival for Armenians today (e.g. Whitehorn 2015 and n.d., but much more from my personal contacts).  Last, denial by Turkey of the holocaust has become an international embarrassment, more and more peripheral to history as more and more facts come out.  It now turns out that the Turkish government hired the same public relations agents that ran the denialist campaigns against the health risks of smoking and the danger of global warming (Mamigonian 2015)!



Appendix III:  Background to Hate and Killing


A final issue concerns the degree to which hate and war are natural to humans.  Since the ancient Greeks, and certainly since the days of Thomas Hobbes, the world has been divided into those who believe humans are instinctively hateful and violent (as most recently argued by Chagnon 2013), and those who believe it is all cultural or political.  The truth may be somewhere in between.  Humans certainly evolved with conflict, which indeed may have driven their evolution of the ability to cooperate in very large groups (Bowles 2006; Turchin 2015).  H. H. Turney-High showed long ago that conflict is common among small-scale societies (Turney-High 1949).  A recent collection of papers edited by Douglas Fry, War, Peace, and Human Nature (2013), discusses the alternative views in a reasonably dispassionate way and with a vast amount of data.  The extreme views of people as basically extremely warlike (Chagnon, Turchin) are clearly wrong.  Some scholars in Fry’s book have a much more irenic view of humanity; most are aware that people are very widely bloodthirsty but point to many peaceable societies as proof that we can do better.  (Pinker and especially Turchin exaggerate the extent to which anthropologists deny warfare, and Turchin makes the frequent scholarly error of claiming Rousseau believed in the peaceful “noble savage.”  Rousseau never used that phrase, and his “savage”—his model for the wild ancestor of humanity—was the chimpanzee, which he knew perfectly well to be a violent animal.  In fact, his take on chimpanzees as our ancestors is very much like that of modern anthropologists who stress chimpanzee violence.  See Rousseau 1986.)

Recent confirmation that serious war is no new thing comes from a site near Lake Turkana in Kenya, where 27 individuals, including six children and a pregnant woman, were brutally killed and left sprawling where they fell on the edge of a lagoon (Lahr et al. 2016).  They were obviously massacred.  From comparisons with more recent hunter-gatherer conflicts, I suspect this was a fight over land, specifically the lagoon with its rich resources.  The group in question was apparently rather large and sedentary as African hunter-gatherer groups go.

Milder views of people as chronically prone to war but able to control it (Pinker 2011) appear exaggerated, but not far from the truth if toned down to fit the data.  Pinker and Turchin argue that people have become much more peaceful over the millennia, but Douglas Fry and others show this to be mostly due to Pinker’s and Turchin’s exaggeration of the extent of pre-state war, their understatement of the bloodiness of modern war, and above all their ignoring of “structural violence” (Galtung 1969; Fry 2013, passim).  When a dictator, as a deliberate political act, invokes a famine that kills a large percentage of his citizens, as Mao did in 1958-61 and as the Dergue did in Ethiopia in the 1970s, that is genocidal violence, not mere lack of food.

Most anthropologists are at pains to show that “their people” are models of behavior—a commendable practice in many ways, but not always helpful to our mission here, since today it means that anthropologists try to show their people in a peaceable light (Pinker 2011; he is correct here; for a classic case, writing off even sober and well-attested findings, see Arens 1980).  Fortunately, in the 19th and early 20th century, “bravery” and “martial ideals” were considered virtues more than defects, so ethnographers of that era pulled no punches in descriptions of wars.  (This reached a pinnacle in George Grinnell’s superb work The Fighting Cheyennes [1956, orig. 1915], a quite admiring chronicle and ethnography of warfare among that extremely  militant group.)  Conversely, however, travelers’ accounts from that period and, even more, from earlier centuries are filled with horrific, and obviously invented or exaggerated, tales of violence and “savagery”; Pinker and Turchin are taken in by some of them.

In fact, all societies from ancient times to the present have confronted violence.  The US has been almost continually at war throughout its history.  As Randolph Bourne said, “War is the health of the state” (Bourne 1918).  The usual immediate motives are land, loot, strategic advantage (including preemptive strike), and sheer culture and custom, as well as individual prestige and respect.  The real cause in modern societies is usually a militaristic ruling elite with a militarist ideology (typically involving honor and prestige), with the backing of a munitions industry.  Peaceable leaders do not do it.  Neither do leaders who are too busy controlling their own; the quite violent and autocratic emperors of Ming China and Yi Korea, among others, made no external war except for defense, because they simply could not afford to.

The usual targets of offensive war are smaller, weaker countries or tribes that have something the big, strong one wants (mostly land and loot) or are a thorn in the side (as ISIS is today).  Only overweening self-confidence gets countries or tribes to take on equally strong polities. Usually, leaders are sensible enough not to do that.

This rather diminishes the ability of Chagnon, Pinker, Turchin, et al. to argue that people just naturally make war.  Few really want to die young and horribly.  War requires several causes, usually at least three.  Wars were rarely started unless the leading perpetrators had a militaristic ideology, the chance of a great deal of land and loot, and a very good chance of surviving (through ordering the young, idealistic men to do the dying).  Even notoriously warlike societies like the Yanomami turn out to have multiple reasons for war, again mostly land and loot, but, contra Chagnon, not usually women (Ferguson 2015).

People do not like to kill.  Soldiers in combat usually do not fire—only about 20% in hot battles, unless they have had special training (Hughbank and Grossman 2013).  War stories, from Native American folktales to the novels of Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller, invariably contain much detail about “psyching up” to get men to fight.  Records of street gangs show the same patterns.  Even in Chagnon’s Yanomamo, people do not want to fight and will not do it without major cause (Ferguson 2015).

As to hate, some people appear to be simply prejudiced, for whatever reason (Forscher et al. 2015).  More generally, however, psychologists observe that hate comes from fear—from people who are naturally anxious and have had various types of bad experiences.  Oddly, this whole area has been poorly studied (what has been done is reviewed in Baron-Cohen 2011; Baumeister 1997; Beck 1999; Sternberg and Sternberg 2008).  Suffice it to say that hate is a powerful emotion, that it usually (but not always) comes from fear, but that culture can establish certain hatreds and bigotries as conditions for social acceptance, in which case ordinary people who have no reason to fear or concern themselves with the hated groups will hate them through pure social convention.  The end of this is that hate is far stronger and deeper than almost any anthropological account suggests or admits.  Even anthropological accounts of genocide often focus on the ordinary people caught up in the strife rather than the actual leaders and instigators.  Of course this has not been true of the historical literature, especially on Germany (and also Guatemala and Rwanda), so we have a good deal of comparative material.

The vast majority of the literature on war and violence takes either a rational-choice model that is clearly inadequate, or leaves the emotion described, sometimes examined, but not analyzed in a comparative or human-wide perspective.  I am not aware of any anthropological studies of hate across cultures.



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Floating World Lost

September 18th, 2015





Eugene N. Anderson


Published by University Press of the South, New Orleans, LA, 2007

Copyright held by University Press of the South;

any reproduction of this work, or part of it, requires their written permission.



For my children:

Laura, Alan and Tamar, who were there

Amanda and Robert, whom I wish had been.




Acknowledgements:  I remain always deeply grateful to the people of Castle Peak Bay, especially Choi Kwok-Tai, Cecilia Choi, and Chow Hung-fai, and to Marja L. Anderson and to Laura, Alan and Tamar.  A long list of friends and scholars who contributed to this effort includes Hugh Baker, Stanley Bedlington, Paul Buell, William Chan (special thanks for identifying the fish), Louis Cheung, Wolfram Eberhard, George Foster, Hill Gates, Greg Guldin, Ho Kaak-yan, Dell Hymes, William Jankowiak, Graham and Betsy Johnson, Hiroaki Kani, Arthur Kleinman, Rance Lee, John McCoy, James and Helen McGough, Jack Potter, Edward Schafer, G. William Skinner, Ambrose Tse, Barbara Ward, James and Rubie Watson, Arthur Wolf, Yan Yunxiang, and others.  David Akers-Jones, James Hayes, David Robertson, and Major and Mrs. A. M. McFarlane provided much help in the field.  Derek Davies and Nick Ludlow helped with photography.  Last but not least, research was supported by the U. S. National Institute of Mental Health, the World Health Organisation, and the University of California.  This book draws on an earlier work, The Floating World of Castle Peak Bay, about half of the present book being a reprint of that effort, and I am grateful to the American Anthropological Association (which published the earlier book) for granting permission.  That book was dedicated “to the boat people and those who have studied them,” and I wish here to make special note of the late Barbara Ward, superb ethnographer and wonderful colleague.









Castle Peak Bay, in the Western Territories of Hong Kong, was once home to a teeming population of fishermen and cargo carriers who lived on their boats and rarely came on shore.  They made up a separate community, calling themselves seui seung yan, “people on the water.”  They, and the shore-dwellers around them, considered themselves to belong to a separate ethnic group, defined by residence on the water more than by language or culture.  They dwelt in boats, or in pile houses built over the water.  They were part of a vast array of boat-dwelling people who wandered widely over the rivers and seas of China.

Most human cultures are divided into subcultures, which may be defined by class, caste, occupation, or anything else important.  The boat way of life was based on a subculture was defined by ecology.  This book explores the structure of this subculture, and the practice of life by the people who were the bearers of it.  The subtitle Variations on Chinese Themes speaks to this focus.  I describe the ways in which boat life varied from life on land, and then explain what this all means for the study of Chinese culture.

Today, the boat community is no more.  The boat families moved on shore and merged with the general Cantonese population of Hong Kong.  The bay itself no longer exists.  It was filled in, providing level space for high-rise apartments.  Descendents of sea captains now live twenty floors above the rocky fill, and commute to jobs assembling electronics or programming computers.  The bay, formerly isolated, has become part of the vast urban agglomeration that is modern Hong Kong.

It has been the lot of most anthropologists to see their communities change.  Some communities even disappear.  Few ethnographers, however, have seen the disappearance of even the physical setting of their field experiences.

In 1965-66 and again in 1974-75, my family and I lived at Castle Peak Bay, studying the fishing community.  I return to Hong Kong every few years—most recently in 1999—and revisit the fate of the world I once shared.   Every year, more bays are filled, fewer boats go out.  The same transformations have now taken place in nearby parts of Guangdong Province.  Even more remote areas are seeing the fishermen come to shore, often encouraged or forced by government programs.

In Hong Kong as a whole, virtually no one still lives on the water.  Even by 1974, most had already gone on shore to work in local factories and shops.  Since then, fishing has succumbed to pollution and overharvesting.  Lightering—carrying cargo from large ships to shore—has disappeared with the construction of deepwater container port facilities.  A tiny group of people is still employed in fishing, local cargo carrying, and ferry work.  The floating restaurants of old are now tourist venues, piered to the sea floor and staffed by people of land origin.

This book, then, records a vanished way of life.  Boat-dwelling fishermen still number in the millions in China, southeast Asia, and elsewhere, but the boat people of the Hong Kong area had their own special ways of being human.  I became deeply involved in these.

A political scientist reading one part of this book dismissed it: why bother with a vanished way of life?  A student recently commented on one of my classes that the class wasted his time with discussions of “extinct, out-of-date societies.”  Such comments (even when phrased in a tactlessly biased manner, as in the latter case) require an answer.

The first part of the answer is that the boat people have much to teach us.  Their knowledge of fish and fishing was unsurpassed.  Their society was well-run in spite of lack of government and police.  Their social values and ethics were striking and original, and suggest to me important possibilities for the human future.  I have drawn at length on their social theory.  Their songs were beautiful, their food was exquisite, and their boats were superbly engineered.  All this they managed in the face of incredible poverty and uncertainty.

Simply knowing that humans could create so much beauty and happiness under such conditions is perhaps the most valuable lesson the boat people have to teach.  Any creation of the human spirit deserves serious consideration, simply because we are all human, and we need each other.  We need to know and understand.  Quite apart from the scientific merits of cross-cultural comparison, the human value of appreciating human achievement needs to be served.

Above all, the boat people recall to us the ancient virtue of humility.  The boat-dwellers created lives of beauty, glory, and satisfaction in the face of overwhelming challenges.  They “raised a Heaven in Hell’s despite.”  They deserve to be remembered.

I shall generally describe the bay as it was in 1965-66.  This will be a freeze-frame—a single picture in a long record of change, flux, and uncertainty.  I shall use information from 1974-75 only to supplement the picture—to flesh out the story, and sometimes to record the beginnings of basic change.

In 1965, Castle Peak Bay spread a flat sheet of shallow water over the mudflats and shallows that separated Castle Peak itself from the mainland.  The peak, with the ridge north of it, had formerly been an island.  Tang Dynasty travelers sailed through the channel between the island and the mainland.  It had shrunk to Castle Peak Bay in the south and Deep Bay in the north.  The rest of the channel had filled with alluvium, becoming some of the most fertile farmland in China.

The bay was fringed with small, traditional-style houses and shops, wherein lived fish-dealers, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants.  The town of Tuen Mun San Hui (“fortified strait’s new market”) at the head of the bay was already invaded by a few multistorey buildings, and there were unostentatious—but horribly polluting—factories there.  However, much of the town preserved the appearance and economic structure of a Qing Dynasty village.  A Buddhist college just north of it, and a major Taoist temple complex halfway up Castle Peak, provided ties with elite religious traditions.  Far more important to the local people were the countless temples and shrines that enshrined folk deities and folk conceptions of divinity.

The bay was home to several thousand boat people.  In 1965-66, most of these lived by small-scale artisanal fishing.    The larger boats were trawlers; medium-sized boats lived by long-line fishing, purse-seining, or gill-netting; the smallest practised local hook-and-line fishing.  The largest boats might hire a few hands, but almost all boats were strictly family operations.  A big boat might hold an extended family, while a small one was normally a nuclear-family operation.  Brothers who owned separate boats typically cooperated, operating what were in effect family fleets of two, three or four boats.

Major fish and shellfish caught included groupers, soles, pomfrets, croakers, sharks, shrimp, squid, and crabs (see Anderson 1972 for the whole list).  The inordinate fondness of Cantonese for sea food guaranteed high prices, at least for good quality products, and made fishing a highly lucrative occupation for the fortunate.  However, it was difficult and dangerous.  Nets and lines were still drawn by hand.  Many boats were nonmotorized; handling the gear and rigging was a major task.  The boats were extremely well-built and seaworthy, but managing them in a winter storm on the open sea required both great strength and great skill.

Moreover, a long spell of poor luck or stormy weather could wipe out a family.  Most people were in debt to fish-dealers.  The government had introduced cooperatives that worked well and eliminated the worst of the economic danger.  However, all older fishers could remember times when debt burdens had been crushing.  Indeed, in 1965-66, many families had been ruined, and had moored their boats for good and sought shore jobs.  Elders remembered World War II as the most difficult time in their lives; many people, especially children, had starved to death.

Difficult times and demanding work bred independence and resourcefulness.  Also, fishing, unlike at least some kinds of farming, requires major decisions on a day-to-day basis.  A boat captain (invariably also the father of the family) had to decide whether to put out in rough weather; where to go; how many times to cast the gear; when to pull in; and much else.  He has to make life-and-death decisions on a regular basis.  A captain could not stay in port on every rough day, since that would court economic suicide; but going out in clearly worsening weather was even more dangerous.   He would therefore consult all adults in the family.  They would help with any decision.  This meant that women were sharers not only of all work activities but also of all major decision-making, and gave them a degree of equality and power very different from that typical of the local land-dwellers.  This, in turn, led to major differences in family and child-rearing behavior (Anderson 1970b, 1992, 1998; Ward 1965, 1966, 1969).

Inevitably, families operated as independent units.  Lineages did not exist; they could not be maintained.  Leadership in the boat communities was informal and weakly developed (Anderson 1970b).  Individuals emerged as local leaders in so far as they could resolve disputes, deal with shore authorities, and organize community activities; such people enjoyed informal power in proportion to their success in these activities.  Life on the water was thus notably libertarian–in some contrast to the more tightly organized life on shore, controlled as it was by lineage and government.

These environmental and social factors lie behind many of the cultural and religious practices of the boat people.  They faced an uncertain and risky world, a scattered population organized largely at the family level, and a terribly hard and demanding life.  Common sense would lead one to expect that religion would address those issues, and that they would find solace in active, devout religious practice.  Such was indeed the case.



Over the last several years, I have been reanalysing data from this field work.         My interaction with the boat people and their world is somewhat significant to this analysis.  Though I am rarely excited by “reflexive” ethnography, most of which strikes me as narcissism, I have to establish some bare facts at the beginning.

In 1965-66, I was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.  I spent 14 months in the field.  My interest in all aspects of Chinese life went back to my parents, who had talked to missionaries and other travelers.  I wanted to look especially at fisheries development and at knowledge of fish and marine life—what we now call “traditional ecological knowledge.”  In the field, I learned most about fish, fishing methods, fisheries development, and the fishing business, but religion came in a close second.  Boat religion was fascinating to me.  Moreover, more than any other aspect of boat life, it challenged my rather simple paradigms of social structure.  Medicine and medical problems, food, and nutrition came into the picture too, and dominated later field work.

I went into the field with my wife, Marja Anderson, who worked with me on nutrition and medicine (Anderson and Anderson 1973, 1975, 1977; Ho, Anderson and Anderson 1978).  Thanks to her tireless energy, we were able to find out a considerable amount about these matters, and also about women’s lives, so often unstudied in those days.  The first year, we had with us our baby daughter Laura.  We all returned in 1974 with two more children, Alan and Tamar.  Everyone was delighted that we had had a son.  The boat people were about equally delighted with the girls, but the land-dwellers sometimes esteemed sons well above daughters in the scheme of things.  Everyone, however, adored all three of our children.  The children themselves were happier and healthier in the field than at home, a tribute to this caring environment as well as to outdoor living and good food.

I was not a totally green hand at field work, having done short field research projects in Panama, Tahiti, and California.  However, I was inexperienced, and had not been in East Asia before.  I made the usual mistakes, and had some minor adventures.  One of the more printable mistakes I made in Cantonese was asking the “name” of a fish.  The people I questioned looked at me as if I were insane, and I quickly learned that the word for “name” (Cantonese meng) applied only to personal given names.  I had to ask:  “What fish is that?”  Also, I started off wrong by using the textbook greeting “Are you well?” (nei hou ma in Cantonese, ni hao ma in Putonghua.)  Older people were offended.  I learned the greeting was a translation from English, and was offensive to traditionalists, since the Chinese implication was “Are you all right!?”—implying that you look sick.  I learned that the proper Cantonese greeting was “Have you eaten?” around mealtimes, or “Where are you going?” to people moving around.  This last had its own pitfalls.  We had to buy water at a standpipe well.  So, when asked the question, I at first sometimes answered “I’m going to buy water.”  Again I got The Look.  It turned out that one uses the two words “buy water” (maai seui) only when getting water to wash the corpse of a deceased family member!  Just one of those idioms….

Our living conditions were not easy.  In 1965-66, after an initial pleasant but detached period in a house on land, we moved down into the midst of things.  We lived on a sampan, a small residential boat.  We never went far; the boat usually remained moored to a fish dealer’s floating business.  The fish dealer and his family became fast friends and great helpers.  In 1974-75 we lived on shore.

Sam paan means “three boards,” and a sampan is a boat built up three boards from the waterline—in other words, a very small boat indeed.  Ours was 15’ long and about 7 wide, with a cabin not quite 5’ high.  It was by no means the smallest inhabited boat—far from it.  We slept, dressed, and wrote in the cabin, cooked and laundered on the deck, but otherwise spent most of our time off the boat.  We bought food every day at the local markets, and cooked for ourselves on the boat’s built-up stern.

Both practicality and personal taste made us live strictly local style, learning from those around us how to cook, dress, wash, and care for the boat.  Marja became a superb Chinese cook.  We took baths in a basin in the cabin, heating the water over the little kerosene stove on which we cooked.  We had a tape recorder, useful for field work but also useful for playing music from home.  Marja soon adopted the loose black cotton clothes of the boat women, which proved the only garments comfortable and tough enough to be serviceable on the boat.  Little Laura put up with it all, and reveled in the constant contact with us and our neighbors.  By the time we left, her Cantonese was better than her English, but she forgot it all when we left the field.

In general, life on the boat was comfortable, and the bay was so beautiful and fascinating that we rarely found the time wearing except when we were sick.  However, we had our problems.  We were living on limited means.  We were not fluent in Cantonese.  During prolonged rains, the boat was cramped and uncomfortable, and staying clean became difficult.  June 1966 brought history-making rains and floods, and we looked and felt like drowned rats.  Typhoons passed through; one in fall of 1965 drove us to a typhoon harbor and kept us awake all night.  I had to hold down the heavy cabin hatch and other portables.  We left the boat in July 1966, just in time to avoid another storm.

Such minor problems aside, we had successful field sessions at Castle Peak Bay.  This was thanks largely to our wonderful field assistants, Choi Kwok-Tai (and in 1974-5 his daughter Cecilia), and Chau Hung-fai.  They were always ready for anything, incredibly tough under field conditions, unfailingly helpful, and full of knowledge of boat and shore ways.  The boat people themselves were hospitable and supportive, and the few who tried, rather naively and innocently, to cheat me provided more humor than trouble.  (Minor cheating was a game in Hong Kong, and we would all have a good laugh over it, whether I won or lost.)  Some land people were not so friendly, since I was identified with the despised water folk, but unfriendliness never went beyond an occasional dirty look or refusal of minor help.  In general, we were well accepted—a fact made clear by the rapid fall in prices charged to us in the markets; we were paying local-customer prices after the first few months.

The food at Castle Peak Bay was truly memorable.  In those days, the waters were clean, and rich in fish and shellfish.  Fish were kept alive in well-smacks—small old rafts with the bottoms knocked out and replaced with wire.  These floated along the shore of the bay.  Diners—most of them city folk who came out on weekends to enjoy the seafood—would shop around, buy the fish they wanted, and take it at a run to the nearest good restaurant.  That seafood was incredible.  I have never tasted anything so good since, except among the Native Americans on the Northwest Coast, who are equally blessed with a combination of superb fish and superb cooking skills.  I have since eaten in some fine restaurants in Paris, Rome, and Los Angeles, but they could not touch Muk Choi’s Garden of Delight or any of a number of other places at Castle Peak.

In 1974-75, we rented a house from an old friend, a boat person who had moved on shore some years earlier.  It was a humble structure of boards and stone, informally built.  It consisted of a downstairs room and a sleeping loft.  Almost all our living was done on the covered patio.  Here we set up our tiny kerosene stove, washed food and clothes, and did most work.  We were viewed as returning locals, and welcomed accordingly.  We were out for a shorter time, and I spent a fair amount of it doing library research or research in other settlements, so the field situation was not quite as of old; but we had close friendships all the same.

A veteran field worker, or a more industrious one, would have gotten vastly more data than I did.  Still, we learned much, and we had a wonderful time.



Then as now, I was primarily interested in human ecology:  how people relate to their physical and cultural environments.  I am primarily interested in how people understand these environments.  Thus, in Hong Kong, I studied everything from catching methods and names for fish to the relationship of boat-dwelling and boat size to kinship and family structure.  I had to know something about cognitive psychology, and a good deal about wider social relationships, including relationships of power.

I was becoming involved in what later came to be called political ecology (Robbins 2004).  Basically, political ecology is the study of how the above-mentioned relationships of people and environment are structured and influenced by relations of power—by politics.  My research was largely on knowledge—on cognition and its relationship to practice—but a good deal of political ecology emerges in the present book.  Andrew Vayda and Bradley Walters (1999) have criticized political ecology for tending to be too much politics and too little ecology; I take a holistic approach, trying to look at economics, biology, politics, psychology, religion, and other anthropological categories without prejudging which one is most important.  Perhaps, in the end, they are not separable in communities like Castle Peak Bay.  One must simply look at how people get along.

And one must look at culture, as adaptive mechanism and as expressive form.

Anthropologists agree that culture is that which is learned and shared in groups.  As such, it is shared behavior.  In so far as humans can share knowledge, it is shared knowledge; it is the set of facts, ideas, and rules that people have to have to operate in their society and to be accepted as functioning members of it.

Beyond that minimalist definition, anthropologists have seen culture as many things.  Culture has been portrayed as a ragbag of traits, “a thing of shreds and patches” (Lowie 1947:441, quoting Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado; he later described the remark as a sour comment on modern civilization, not a generality about culture—Lowie 1947:x).  Culture has been regarded as an ironclad set of unchanging rules (White 1949).  Others see it as consensus, universally shared knowledge.  Alternatively, ecological anthropologists often see culture as adaptation (McElroy and Townsend 1996).  Others describe culture as a set of rules or structures that allow people to order their lives and anticipate what others will do (Lévi-Strauss 1958; Frake 1980).  Many of us now see culture as general patterns or apparent regularities arising in and from practice (Bourdieu 1977, 1990).

Anthropologists have also differed as to what constitute the wellsprings of culture.  Marvin Harris held that culture was entirely determined by the exigencies of making a living (Harris 1968).  Boas saw culture as mainly about communication, thus focally a matter of language, art, literature, and communicative ritual.  (He never quite said this, but it emerges clearly from studying his works.)   Clifford Geertz (1973) sees culture as about constructing and sharing interpretive meanings.  Marxists, functionalists, and other theorists all have their views.

Commonly, today, culture is interpreted rather than simply recorded.  Geertz and his followers see culture as a text or series of texts whose meanings must be understood (Geertz 1973).  For them, one cannot merely list “culture traits” or cultural knowledge points.  It is the web of meanings that matters.

For the boat people, the first three theories in the list above—ragbag, ironclad, and consensus—will not stand.  Boat culture was no ragbag; it was well integrated around fishing and around Chinese traditions.  It was not ironclad; rather, it was highly variable, each family posessing its own ways and truths.  Finally, consensus would have been disastrous, since life depended on having available a cultural knowledge base that was far greater than that which one person could possibly learn, and also on every captain (i.e., normally, every head of family) being able to sail—independently—his or her ship. Some individuals were knowledgeable or expert in one thing, some in another, and the community drew on these different sorts of expertise.

The last four theories, however, all apply.  Culture was most definitely a web of shared meanings, and interpretation is necessary if one is to make sense of life on the waterfront.  Culture was adaptive, as proved by its constant reconfiguration to meet economic and environmental circumstances.  Culture included sets of rules and expectations that allowed one to behave appropriately and to anticipate what others would do.  And it most definitely guided and emerged from practice.  It could not be reduced to that set of rules; it was renegotiated daily.

Charles Frake (1980) called for an ethnography that would allow one to behave appropriately in the society in question—or at least to anticipate what others would do and would think appropriate.  His model was linguistic; he was thinking of a good language textbook, which should teach the student to use the language correctly and more or less fluently, in order to get food and shelter and friendship.

An ethnologist may need more than that from an ethnography, but certainly the ethnologist will need at least that much. If one cannot use the ethnography as a guide to how to get along in the society, or at least what to expect in the segment of society analyzed, what value can it have?  A specialized ethnography may be a guide to only one specific aspect of life (kinship, fishing, ritual…), but at least it should be a guide to something.  The result can be minimalist—a brief ethnography, an introductory language book—or detailed and advanced.

Most anthropologists hope that an ethnography will do more; ideally, it will provide insights into the human condition, enabling us to advance the general theory of society.  Cross-cultural comparison and resultant theory-builiding (Harris 1968, arguing against Frake) needs to be done, to allow us to understand the deeper roots of behavior and extracting the “story behind the story.”  It may also be desirable to critique neocolonialism or globalization or other wider matters.  Some ethnographers simply aspire to produce literary work (presumably for entertainment; Clifford and Marcus 1986).  Others, “reflexive” ethnographers, write out their own angst with the “ethnographic subjects” there only for backdrop.  These last two goals seem beyond the pale of descriptive ethnography.  The other goals are more relevant here.

Returning from the field, I wrote a simple Frakian ethnography, one that would give the rules for behavior. It would let the reader act like a boat person, or at least would let the reader know what was going on if she was watching the excitement, confusion, and activity of a Hong Kong waterfront.  No one was interested in publishing such a vast creation, or even the short and summary version of it that eventually resulted.  The American Anthropological Association did eventually make that summary available (Anderson 1970b).  The present book, however, does more and less; it adds wider and more theoretical considerations, but does not tell the reader all.  There is no sense learning the rules for a world that no longer exists.

There are, however, reasons to continue to work within a broadly Frakian mode.  Culture is practice, but not all practice is culture.  The same can be said for meaning.   Everything we notice is meaningful for us in some way, and thus saying that culture is “meaning” is not really saying anything.  Culture is adaptation, but not every adaptive behavior is cultural.  Moreover, not every culture trait is adaptive, except in the trivial sense of marking the bearer as “one of us.”  Millions of rules for ordinary behavior are purely arbitrary—even if they were adaptive once.  In the western world, sleeve buttons on coats were once for glove attachment, but this has been forgotten for so long that an urban legend has arisen to the effect that they are there to discourage the young from wiping their noses on their coat sleeves.  Chinese culture has similar “vestiges” (and similar legends to explain them!).

Frake’s approach seems the best at capturing what culture really is and really does.  Culture is the knowledge that allows us to do what we have to do, should do, or should want to do, within our reference groups.  It is the knowledge that allows us to understand what others are doing in those groups—and why we cannot always do the same things that they can do.  A good deal of cultural knowledge is not clearly or directly related to this goal, but it can still be regarded the background knowledge needed to allow us to perform.  The boat people’s fish taxonomy, for instance, not only allowed them to identify and talk about fish, it also allowed them to deal with markets and marketing.  Culture is not just knowledge or meaning; it is knowledge that is useful, or at least could be useful in the right context.

This approach allows us to speculate on how knowledge, rules, and ethics enter a culture’s repertoire, and get stored and encoded there.

In my early field work, in spite of considerable awareness of history and process, I followed the tradition of synchronic structural-functional analysis in which I had been trained.  Synchronic analysis focuses on one point in time, abstracting it from ongoing processes.  Structural-functional analysis seeks to discover social structures, and if possible cognitive structures too.  It then analyzes them in terms of the functions they perform within the society being studied.   This, of course, assumes that there are structures—social institutions that can be neatly described and mapped, like crystal patterns.  Individual dynamics, emotion, dialogue, argument, negotiation, conflict, and creativity—all the exciting actions that makes human affairs so absorbing—tend to be dismissed as “noise” in the system.  Indeed, it is “noise,” but it is what the Chinese call “heat-and-noise” (re nao)—the stimulating intensity of a healthy social scene.  It is not what electronic engineers call “white noise.”

Hewing to a structural-functional line led me to produce a rather thin, even skeletal, account of the social structure of the Castle Peak Bay community.  It was not that I was unaware of the other issues; I simply did not have a good theoretical language to talk about them.  I made use of history in my analyses, but not as much as I might have done.  I also remarked on the free-wheeling, individualist quality of boat life (as had all other writers on them), but I had no way to work it into an analysis.

Since then, like many of my generation, I have fallen under the influence of Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1990), Barbara Rogoff and Jean Lave (Rogoff and Lave 1984) and other theorists of practice, dialogue, and negotiation.  For Bourdieu, in particular, structure emerges from interacting individuals’ practice. Kabyle Berber culture as described by Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1977) is very different from Castle Peak’s in many ways, but Bourdieu’s description of the ways that culture kept re-emerging from ongoing political and social game-playing is a perfect description of life on the Castle Peak waterfront.

Anthony Giddens’ concept of “structuration” (Giddens 1984) has also provided an extremely helpful guide to my thinking.  As all these scholars point out, human beings interact and engage in political (and other social) activity in pursuit of individual and family goals.  Overarching social institutions set boundaries but are themselves constantly being changed and reconstructed.  Instead of a smoothly running machine that magically keeps itself perfectly tuned (the structural-functional fallacy), society is a shifting, constantly varying “field” (Bourdieu’s term) in which individuals seek to maximize their welfare and success within the context they perceive.

Students of Chinese religion have been quick to apply practice models (often without explicitly saying so—e.g. Dean 1993).  Several recent studies of gifts and gift exchange (Yan 1996; Yang 1994), courtship (Jankowiak 1993), religion (Weller 1987), and other social institutions have incorporated practice theory, though not always making a point of it.

In particular, ethnicity has been analyzed by countless recent writers, almost all of whom contrast the shifting, flowing nature of ethnicity-in-practice with the rigid, essentialized categories beloved by bureaucrats, racists, and many earlier-day anthropologists.

I have thus re-examined boat-dwellers’ social patterns with this in mind (Anderson 1992, 1998; Anderson, Wong and Thomas 2000).

One problem with practice theory as presently found is that it is often thin on motivation.  Writers like Bourdieu and de Certeau were interested in establishing the approach.  Bourdieu’s motivational theory was simplistic; he seems to have felt that people act only to get wealth and power.  At least, he explained artistic taste, academic life, cultural reproduction, and similar phenomena from that point of view.  This gave his work a narrowly functionalist quality; institutions served the interests of power.  Art, for instance, was about snobbery, not about aesthetic experience (see the brilliant, highly critical review by Jon Elster, 1981).  Other practice theorists have simply not addressed the question; they seem generally to be interested in describing the practice, not in constructing broader theories of what lies behind it.

This does not give a satisfactory account of life on the water, where real-world concerns were immediate and often desperate.  One had to fish to survive, and one often faced life-or-death choices.  Motivation could not be ignored.  On a more broad theoretical level, practice is not done in a vacuum, and it is not always about power or wealth.  People want many things—social connectedness and security above all, and perhaps, now and then, a bit of fun as well.

One must thus draw on the literature describing culture as adaptation (see e.g. the review by Bates, 2004).  Humans need security first of all.  They must feel safe, and able to defend their group.  They must be able to make a living—to be reasonably sure they can get food without being killed in the process.  Once this is assured, they can go about the business of eating, sleeping, enjoying themselves, and dealing with everyday conflicts and problems.  But, also, to have an ongoing society, they must reproduce.  This involves far more than sex; children need care for many years.

Culture provides a storehouse of ways for doing all this.  It provides alternatives; humans are not locked into instinctive patterns.  Above and beyond that, culture typically integrates livelihood, group defense, emotional coping, and social rules into one system.  Usually, the system is loose and flexible, able to change fast when change is necessary.  This openness and flexibility is important.  The Chinese say that the flexible bamboo survives the storm that breaks the greatest pine.

Humans are creatures of emotion, and thus one cannot understand culture in purely rational terms (Milton 2002).  It is, among other things, a way of dealing with emotions.  Ideally, it can bring forth emotional harmony and satisfaction while providing ways of dealing with emotional clashes, tensions, and problems.  In the real world, where such tensions continually arise and shift, no culture can do more than provide some alternate possibilities for dealing with them.  No group reaches Émile Durkheim’s ideal of society as emotional union (Durkheim 1995).

Thus, any strong pressure from economic, military, emotional, or social factors can dynamically deform a cultural system and its social and cognitive structures.  This has happened to the boat people, as to others in this world.  Their history is a history of adapting to continual change.


Another thing one could learn on the Hong Kong waterfront is that culture is located in individuals.  Contra the classic Leslie White (1949) position, there was no ideal Culture floating in space (mental or otherwise).  As so often, Max Weber said it best:  “Interpretive sociology considers the individual and his action as the basic unit, as its ‘atom’…. [T]he individual is also the upper limit and the sole carrier of meaningful conduct….  [S]uch concepts as ‘state,’ ‘association,’ ‘feudalism,’ and the like, designate certain categories of human interaction.  Hence it is the task of sociology to reduce these concepts to ‘understandable’ action, that is, without exception, to the actions of participating individual men” (Gerth and Mills 1946:55; “men” is used, of course, in the old gender-neutral way, to mean “people”).

Each individual had his or her own take on Cantonese boat ways, was aware of it, and could get defensive about it when challenged.  Culture was shared understandings, shared meanings, shared rules—but the sharing was never 100%.  No one knew all the rules, and no one had quite the same knowledge base or set of opinions.  The result was something of a happy anarchy.  Sometimes the anarchy was not so happy, but always it defended as preferable to a tight rule-based social order of the sort attributed (often with exaggerated, negative comments!) to the land-dwelling Punti.  Some boat people were less anarchist, and wistfully envious of the good order on shore, but they were resigned to their society’s freewheeling code.  Above all, they were aware that it was different from other codes found nearby.  Those who genuinely wanted a more “grounded” order left the boats and moved on shore for good.

Yet the realities of boat-dwelling enforced some conformity.  A good simple example of rules and practice is provided by clothing.  The boat  people traditionally wore black cotton pants and shirts, and a basketry hat shaped like a mushroom (and often called a “mushroom hat”).  Marja Anderson quickly adopted this style, for the very good reason that no other available women’s clothing would allow easy movement and stand  the hard usage of life and laundry on the water.  I did not, because ordinary California male work clothes did the job well.  The vast majority of the boat people, including essentially all the women who actually lived on board, dressed in black cottons, but a large percentage of the men dressed in ordinary western-style work clothes, as I did.  (In those days, Hong Kong made a good deal of the world’s clothing, and cheap factory seconds in western styles were always available.)  Younger boat women who did not sail the open sea often dressed in western-style clothing.  The traditional outfit was adaptive, and also a culture marker; when it was not adaptive, it tended to get sidelined, and culture was left unmarked.  This nonmarking itself could be adaptive, when one wanted to avoid the stigma of being a “boat person.”

With all this play between adaptive conformity and preferred independence, the community was tight, most knowledge was shared, and people seemed strikingly uniform to the outsider.  The differences between people and families showed up in thousands of little ways, but in no one big way.  One could make generalizations about clothing, food, kinship, morals, fishing methods, and everything else, and these generalizations would be reasonably adequate as Frakian rules. They would miss something vitally important: the role of individualism and adaptability.  But they would let a raw outsider get along on the boats without too much trouble.  We know this is so, because we did it; participant observation works!  Many land people had moved to the boats in living memory, and did a better job than we did.

Culture is not about uniformity or about set rules.  It is about making individuals (within a reference group) act similarly enough that they can get along and get their jobs done.  It comes from the need of people to work and live together.

It works partly because of the broadly imitative tendency of the human animal.  People (and other primates) like to “ape” each other. In particular, humans like to imitate their immediate superiors—their parents, older siblings, and slightly older neighbors, to say nothing of movie stars and other high-status strangers.  No doubt this tendency evolved to make mutual aid more successful in primate groups, but today it keeps much of culture alive.

Yet one cannot make too much of this, and it certainly cannot explain cultural differences.  The specifics of a culture can be explained only through examining the history of the social group that bears it, especially their adaptive needs.  They have had to face threats and dangers, and to take advantage of economic and political opportunities.  How they deal with these has everything to do with the final outcome: the pragmatic rules for acting in the everyday real world (de Certeau 1984).  Anthropologists take a holistic view, and I certainly follow that practice, but “holism” does not mean that culture is seen as some sort of harmonious whole.  To look at the whole means to look at a shifting, diverse, protean pattern; one feels like William James’ newborn baby, confronted with a “blooming, buzzing confusion.”  Imposing a bland uniformity on it would be a hegemonic act (as Gramsci saw), and no boat person would do it.

However, culture is also about maintaining solidarity in the face of threat.  The boat people had to be uniform enough to present a fairly solid front to the hostile shore-dwellers.   In earlier years, they had had to resist much worse threats, climaxing in the Japanese occupation in World War II.  This defensive aspect forced on the boat world a degree of organization and uniformity that it would not otherwise have had.

Conversely, the needs of boat life kept culture flexible and individual.  Boats and fates were different.  Every head of household was a captain whose crew was his (or, occasionally, her) family.  Every day, in this region of storms, disasters, and human troubles, their lives depended on the captain’s decisions.  Every day, livelihood was at stake.  Life was chancy in a way it was not for even the most risk-taking of land people.  Even in the United States, sea fishing is a close second to mining, and far ahead of all other occupations, in physical danger.  The boat people had no radios, no radar, no phones on their fragile wooden boats.  They had to be able to make their own decisions, quickly, accurately, and without much chance for second thoughts.  They had to run their own ships.              For this, culture was the great guide—the repository of knowledge. But it had to be a storehouse of all sorts of knowledge, including all manner of alternative plans and planning methods. It could not be a bank of cut-and-dried rules.


Cognitive anthropologists today discuss such issues in terms of “cultural models.”  Throughout the history of anthropology, scholars have proposed knowledge structures of this kind.  The tradition goes back to the original “anthropology” book, Immanuel Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1976/1796).  Kant saw anthropology in terms of what we now call social cognition.  (In fact, social cognitive psychology, like anthropology, stems from Kant’s work.)  He developed phenomenology, the study of the ways people perceive and experience the world and then organize it in their thinking.  Anthropologists and ethnologists, as well as psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers, subsequently developed more and more complex models of thought, based on Kantian ideas.

Much of the modern concern with such systems can be traced to the thoroughly Kantian writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, especially the essays collected in his book Structural Anthropology (1958).  Lévi-Strauss differentiated the “conscious models” held by the people themselves from the models the ethnographer makes of their thought.  These were highly useful concepts, applied to the boat people by Barbara Ward (1965, 1966).

For Lévi-Strauss, as for most writers, kinship systems have been the archetypal models.  Kinship systems are widely shared and widely understood within a culture.  Every English speaker, even young children and recent immigrants, knows what “father,” “mother,” “daughter,” and the rest of the common terms mean.  They know that “mother” means “female parent”—the woman in one’s lineal family who is one generation above oneself.  They also know that “mother” is supposed to be loving, nurturant, caring, and so forth.  The conscious models tend to run heavily to these role expectations and emotional cues, while outsiders’ models (especially the statistical models that Lévi-Strauss described) tend to be more formal, cut-and-dried, and rigid.  They are often more formal and neat than any conscious model would be.  As Lévi-Strauss pointed out, this is not a weakness; outsiders’ models are not supposed to reproduce the whole messy reality, but to do a particular job.  Often, they are made to facilitate quick and easy comparison between languages or cultures.  They represent reality the way an airplane model represents a real airplane.

This means that outsiders’ models (and insiders’ too, for that matter) differ, according to what one wants from them.  A child’s toy airplane and a Boeing engineer’s test model can be equally good models—in that they serve their purposes equally well.

Barbara Ward pointed out that there are many “varieties of the conscious model”—each ethnic group had its own set (including unflattering stereotypes of the other ethnic groups!), and even each individual had his or hers.  From this diversity of models, the ethnographer must come up with an overall model that works for outsiders.

The outsider may wish to understand the other culture deeply, or may wish only to know how to say “hello” and ask for food.  There are, therefore, different outsiders’ models too.

Subsequent writers on cultural models have tried to define widely-held, widely-shared structures.  Kinship systems and other semantic systems remain the archetypes (see Kronenfeld 1996).  However, everything from “scripts” for entering an American middle-class restaurant (Schank and Abelson 1977) to love and marriage (Strauss and Quinn 1997) is fair game (David Kronenfeld 1996 and work in progress).  My own work has been largely on classification systems for plants and animals, and indeed the Ph.D. thesis resulting from my Hong Kong work was a study of naming systems for fish and other sea life (Anderson 1972).

Models may be highly structured and widely-shared domains like kinship systems.  They may be areas where the vast web of connections in the brain are tighter and closer—where one idea typically calls up a particular set of others (Naomi Quinn, personal communication; see also Strauss and Quinn 1997).  A model may be a set of rules for a particular bit of behavior; it may be a particular canonical story-line or program.

The farther such models get from kinship, the more heavy water they encounter—to use a marine metaphor.

Restaurant scripts vary much more.  Schank and Abelson’s pioneer study vastly underestimated the need for improvisation and local adaptation in restaurant scripts.  There are quite different ways of entering different kinds of American restaurants; fast-food-joint etiquette is quite different from that proper to a pizza parlor, a white-tablecloth gastronomy palace, or a buffet.  But at least we can still specify these.  One could write rules for all of them, such that a foreigner reading the rules could act appropriately.

Love and marriage are different matters.  There are, indeed, broad and vague expectations that most Americans share.  My student Kimberly Hedrick (unpublished data) has found that a wide variety of ordinary Americans were familiar with the standard stories—the age-old fables once known from folktales, now from Hollywood plots.  But they did not expect any real love affair to follow those scenarios.  They referred back to the stories for orientation and sometimes for understanding, but they knew that no one really lives that way, and that every love affair is a new, unique, surprising phenomenon.

Are there, then, cultural models for love and marriage?  Yes, but they are not at all the same kind of model as that we see in kinship systems.   Knowledge of English kinship allows one to label properly, every time, everybody to whom one is related.  Knowledge of love and romance clichés does not give that much advice.  They are mere skeletons of plots—sometimes suggestive, but no more than that.  Even a wider knowledge of love and romance—knowing, for instance, all the self-help literature on “communication,” “talking about feelings,” and so forth—does not help much with the wild, woolly, and thoroughly unique ride that is a real love affair.  One has to improvise.  There are cultural models telling musicians how to improvise—every jazz musician knows a whole set of them—but a lover is often on her own.  And, even in jazz, is a model-for-improvising really like a model for how to label kinfolk?

At this point, we have come full circle, and are back to practice.  Bourdieu, a sometime student of Lévi-Strauss, reacted strongly against the latter’s structuralism.  For the Kabyle Berbers, the house had to be structured in a quite specific and particular way, but no two houses looked alike.  Politics—including kinship politics—was even more improvisational.  People negotiated.  They developed Machiavellian tricks.  They created new and fluid ways of doing business.  Kabyle Berbers—and Hong Kong boat people—treated the informal political rules (yes, there were rules) as obstacles to be avoided or finessed.

If one wishes to use kinterms or fish names appropriately, one needs a simple, cut-and-dried model.  However, if one is trying to deal with an actual living kinsperson, manage a love affair, or play politics, one needs a model that specifies not only the rules (such as they are) but also the standard ways around them.  Not only that; one needs to know a great deal about the methods in which all the above are deployed, strategized, and adapted to particular situations.  To keep with the musical parallel, we have gone from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to Dizzy Gillespie.

Cultural models thus blend insensibly into the whole web of thinking, planning, and acting.  No one can specify the point at which a bunch of ideas is organized enough to be a “model” rather than mere typical human woolgathering.  One can say only that some realms of human action are tightly organized around very well-structured sets of knowledge, while other realms must be the domain of improvisation, negotiation, and continual re-creation.  (The resemblance of “re-creation” to “recreation” is one that an English-speaking boat person would truly appreciate!)

Cultural models could include the various knowledge structures we all know:  classification systems, plans, strategies, goals, beliefs, vague ideas, tendencies, poems, songs, stories, routines, repertoires, dance patterns, canonical scripts, and so on.

Anthony Giddens (1984) coined the word structuration for the process by which negotiation of this sort leads to new structures.  Douglass North provided a broadly similar—but very differently phrased—account of how economic institutions come into being (North 1990).  Giddens sees social interaction as key.  North focuses on people’s efforts to reduce the costs (monetary or otherwise) of interaction by creating institutions that make it easier.  The boat people did not create any dramatically new social institutions, but they did create, and constantly rebuild, cultural institutions ranging from fishing methods to song styles.  Thus the cultural models were always changing, as the result of agency (Giddens 1984) taking shape in practice.

Obviously, I am creating observer’s models, though I try my best to stay close to the conscious models of my friends (see, again, Ward’s wonderful treatment of the relevant problems).  Unlike many interpretive anthropologists, I do not hope to get inside their heads.  However, unlike the more extreme postmodernists, I do not believe that all ethnography is fiction, or that cultures are hermetically sealed from each other.  I know I can still enter a boat community in southeast China and act appropriately; if I brush up my Cantonese, I can sit at a feast and talk about fish and fishing and the evils of government.

That may be a small accomplishment, but it is a real one.  It tells us that people can understand each other reasonably well, even across enormous cultural walls.  Perfect understanding is not a possibility; but, then, perfect understanding of anything—even of our own selves—is not for this world.


One example of cultural models in practice, and one very salient to the boat people, was response to oppression.  The boat people were near the bottom of Cantonese society.  This, in turn, was dominated in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s by the British colonial system.  It is not too much to speak of the “British raj,” since many British colonial administrators were reposted to Hong Kong after India and other British colonies in Asia became independent, and many South Asians followed them as soldiers or tradespeople.

The Cantonese were not exactly under the yoke of colonial oppression—they had a great deal of freedom and opportunity—but they were not the rulers of their land, nor did they have much power to make policy.  The boat people, being the lowest-ranked Cantonese in the social hierarchy, had especially little opportunity in that regard.  On the other hand, the British system protected them from the worst of the oppression they had known under Chinese governments; at least that is what I heard from all parties.

In any case, they had need of the full panoply of “weapons of the weak” and “arts of resistance” (Scott 1985, 1998).

These did not exclude the use of force.  Two old cannons lay in tidewater by our boat.  When I asked about them, I was told:  “In the old days we used cannons to defend ourselves from pirates and the government.”  The equation of those two categories was noteworthy.  All older people had tales of defense through force of arms.  Pirates were the worst and most constant problem, but Nationalist government vessels in the old days acted like the pirates, as far as the boat people were concerned.  Then came the Japanese war, when the boat people had served heroically in resistance.  The Communists who then took over most of China were sometimes supported, sometimes opposed.  Life in Hong Kong had been peaceful since order was restored after World War II, but no one really expected this to last forever.  The violent and unsettled times of old had given the boat people a fatalistic expectation of change and upheaval.

The boat people resisted prejudice and oppression by retreating into their water world.  Barbara Ward has discussed at length their common self-description “dragons on water, worms on shore” (Ward 1965).  On land, the boat people were exposed to humiliation, abuse, and exploitation.  Not many years earlier, they risked physical attack, and even in 1966 most older women and younger children would not go more than a few feet from the water’s edge.  On the water, however, the boat people were the masters.  Their consummate knowledge of seafaring and the water world made them independent and powerful.  Any land-dweller who ventured onto the water was at the mercy of the boat people, on whom he or she had perforce to depend.

Also, the boat people were essential to the waterfront merchants, who lived either by buying fish or by selling goods to the boat-dwellers.  This did not stop abuse and insults, but it kept those unsavory features of life down to a minimum.  Also, the merchants had to help in defending the boat people against serious threats.  There was no love lost on either side between the boat people and the fish merchants, but both sides knew they depended on each other.

As James Scott would expect, resistance to prejudice was normally shown through a constant background noise of criticism and restatement of core beliefs.  Usually, this consisted of a stream of sour remarks about land people and self-praise of boat people.   Most commonly, land people were said to be mean, stingy, prejudiced, unfair, and rigid.  Boat people, in contrast, were honest, open, fair, reliable, and independent.  These particular stereotypes are interesting, both because they reveal boat values, and because they contrast with the boat people’s stereotypes of other ethnic groups (see Anderson 1967 for wider discussion of ethnic stereotyping in Hong Kong in the 1960s).

Rarely, however, were these biased statements worked up into actual “arts of resistance.”  The boat people’s rich folk song tradition included only few lines on the issue.  Proverbs and verbal art also stayed close to broader ideals.  In fact, the boat people were rather idealistic and general in their verbal art; bitter commentary was reserved for ordinary conversation.

This was, at least in part, because of fear.  Until recently, they could have been in serious trouble if land people had overheard negative songs or proverbs.  Like the blues of African-Americans in the early 20th century, boat folk songs sometimes had a covert critical agenda that took some digging to ferret out.

More serious was the need to make a living.  Fishing is, at best, a chancy occupation.  Available alternatives were few, and usually not much of an improvement; cargo-carrying, passenger ferrying, boat vending, and smuggling all had their own insecurities.  The land people had the boat people in economic thrall, as will be seen.  The boat people had to protect themselves economically as best they could.  Whatever subsistence they got had to be gained from, and on, the water.

The theme of resistance occurs throughout this book, though not always stressed.  The boat people’s senses of self, their psychological integrity, depended on maintaining their sense of independence on the water.  This led to serious problems for those who had to move on shore.  They coped by swiftly assimilating to Punti society, but during the transition they often had troubled lives.

Thus the real defense of the boat people—not only physical self-protection, but defense of self-image and self-esteem—was retreat to the boats (or the pile-house communities built over tidewater).  Here, the boat people were in their own world, a world they understood and dominated.  It was closed to outsiders, and had its own ways and celebrations.  In it, they could ignore or cope with the outside.


Working with these perspectives allows me to do what I have always dreamed of doing:  Actually using the boat people’s own ideas and theories in my analysis.

However much anthropologists have been willing to learn from their subjects, they have rarely taken seriously their subjects’ views on society and culture.  There is a long roll of honorable exceptions, going back to early days.  A notable landmark was Paul Radin’s book Primitive Man as Philosopher (1957).  Radin not only documented serious philosophy among the traditional small-scale societies of the world, but he even suggested (timidly—one usually has to read between the lines) that modern philosophers had something to learn from the “primitives.”

Thus it came about that, in previous reanalyses of my boat-borne data, I have made deferential suggestions that we of the modern world could learn much from boat-dwellers’ family behavior (Anderson 1992), child-rearing (Anderson 1998), and ethics (Anderson, Wong and Thomas 2000).  I now wish to add politics and social theory to the list.  Anthropologists have been quick to appreciate the contributions of their subjects to the world’s store of art, music, economic plants, and medicinal lore; they have usually ignored the value of local social theory.  Yet, every group on earth has its theories of human interaction and group functioning.

Unlike Bourdieu’s Kabyle Berbers, the Cantonese talked about their society with self-consciousness and with an ability to pick out basic principles.  Bourdieu portrays the Berbers as uncommunicative about their social order.  They lived it, but they did not talk about it.  They did not have explicit folk theories of society.  By contrast, the Cantonese—not the least verbal people on the planet—talk much about society, both its realities and its ideals.  I suspect that the Berber are silent because of a kind of linguistic beheading; the language of learned, abstract discussion in Berberland was Latin in ancient times, Arabic from the 8th century onward, and French (in addition to Arabic) for the last century or so.  The Cantonese have always used their own language, or a closely related Chinese language, in learned discussion.

China possesses a huge and venerable literature on social questions.  Much of it was accessible even to the illiterate, because it was constantly being recycled through proverbs, plays, storytellers’ tales, and ordinary speech.  A reader of a manuscript of mine once commented on how preposterous was my claim that the boat people were aware of Confucian thought—because the boat people were “illiterate.”  Leaving aside the fact that many boat people were perfectly literate, this remark showed serious ignorance of Chinese folk culture.  The words of Confucius and Mencius were at least as familiar in old China as the words of the Four Gospels were in Europe and America a century ago. Every child who got through school memorized the Analects and the book of Mencius, and every community had enough educated people to guarantee that everyone, literate and illiterate alike, knew the more famous quotes from these sages.  Ideas of Confucius and Mencius, as well as of their most famous commentator, Zhu Xi (13th century), and their legendary rival Laozi, were common knowledge.

Confucian thought is social.  Unlike religious discourse, it cannot be dismissed as referring to another world, or to ideals impossibly lofty for this world.  The social theory of the Four Gospels is real enough, and sophisticated.  However, it is generally ignored, even by the most learned Christian writers, because Jesus is supposed to be talking about God and Heaven, not about this world.  Christian discourse has generally been about either individual morality or the abstract nature of Jesus and the Three-in-One.  No one could dismiss Confucian social thought this way.

Also well known at Castle Peak Bay were the basic tenets of Buddhism and Daoism, at least in so far as those influenced ordinary practice; the many Buddhist, Daoist, and folk-syncretist priests and temples in the vicinity made sure of that.  Much of this lore concerned the supernatural realm, not the human, but—as we shall see—the difference between these realms was not always seen as great, and discourse on the one often had much to do with the realities of the other.  Much of Buddhist and Daoist thought, like Confucianism, speaks quite explicitly to social questions.

Thus, the boat people had at their fingertips a quite impressive body of social philosophy.  They were not learned inquirers into the details of Mencian or Daoist thought, but they knew enough of the basic principles to argue them in everyday, pragmatic affairs.   I found their social thought to be liberating, exciting, and important.  It and its Mencian, Buddhist and Daoist roots have continued to influence me since.

Inevitably, the boat people had their own individualistic take on the Confucian-Mencian canon.  Land-dwellers tended to see Confucianism—via the thought of Zhu Xi and the Neo-Confucian tradition—as imposing rigid rules on society, especially the family.  The boat people did not see things that way.  They saw the Confucian tradition as imposing a set of general guidelines for social interaction:  be fair, be honest, defer to elders, be faithful to friends, and above all be responsibly independent.  They were aware of the many statements in the Analects and especially in Mencius that question authority or limit its scope.  They were quite aware that Mencius had not only advocated overthrowing bad rulers, but had defended this idea in public discussion with dukes and kings.  They saw the Confucian code as creating a social world that could dispense with government—a world in which internalized morality, enforced by informal means, could take the place of formal authority.  They were quite prepared to live with formal authority if it brought them benefits and was not too corrupt, but they reserved the right to rebel—or at least to pull up anchor and sail for better shores—if formal authority did not deliver.

Buddhist and Daoist ideas were interpreted similarly.  The relevant teachings counseled good behavior: probity, integrity, fidelity, honoring commitments, helping, and not imposing one’s will on others.  They held much wisdom anent getting along with the supernaturals.  They also taught independence and self-reliance, and strengthened the concept of a moral order as opposed to a forcibly imposed one.

Following Mencius, the boat people said that humans are basically “good,” in the sense of “eusocial.”  A person who did well by his family and neighbors was only doing the natural thing.  However, again following Mencius, they saw good upbringing as necessary too; like modern psychologists, they recognized that both genetics and environment are necessary to create the adult.  A bad person was clearly a badly-raised person.

This is, of course, not to say that the boat people were angels.  Like most  people and like all cultures, they had ideals and standards that were higher than anything they could practice.  Ideals were for emulation; one tried to be good, but recognized that the flesh was weak and that everyday needs meant frequent compromises.

In fact, a combination of high ideals with relaxed realism about practice was itself a part of the moral code.  Some ideals (such as utterly peaceful behavior) were only for the most self-sacrificing.  Other morals, such as sexual fidelity, were for ordinary good people, but the lack of them was not grounds for absolute ostracism.  Yet other moral stands, including honesty in financial dealings and generally peaceable behavior, were required of everyone, and failure to conform means expulsion from the community (or worse).

Similarly, the extension of a particular moral varied; treating everyone with equal warmth and friendliness was a high ideal; treating everyone so unless they were downright offensive was an expectation, but one very often honored in the breach; treating one’s own nearest and dearest with warm friendliness unless they very seriously offended one was an absolute standard.  Respect for this threefold division was one of the lessons I learned on the waterfront.

In short, I learned to see culture as a matter of rules.  These included explicit ideals, explicit rules for actual practice, vague rules of thumb, and areas where limits were set on possibilities but free play was expected within those limits.  I learned to see cultural knowledge as something that was learned and deployed for pragmatic reasons—not because it was “the culture.”  I learned to expect improvisation.

From this, I can here go on to speculate, more generally, about cultural systems.



Practice is what an ethnographer sees and records.  Structure, however, is real too.  Practice builds on it, and, over time, builds it (Bourdieu 1977; see also Bourdieu 1990; Piaget 1963; Rogoff and Lave 1984).  Cultural structures, systems, models, are dynamic things.  They never stand still.  Interaction is the direct means by which they form and re-form—a perception first (and best) enunciated by Wilhelm Dilthey (1985), but followed up by his student George Herbert Mead (1962), and subsequently by many others.  Jurgen Habermas’ work on discourse, interaction, and negotiation in politics (Habermas 1984) and especially by Emmanuel Levinas’ interactive morality (e.g. Levinas 1969) have influenced this book, as well as discussions with David Kronenfeld over the years (see Kronenfeld 1996).

Interaction between adults changes cultural institutions as people feel needs so to do.  Interaction also changes culture when the rising generation learns from their elders.  The young never quite reproduce what they hear; they must adapt, meeting new challenges and creating new ways of doing business.  Even if the objective situation does not force such a change, the need of young humans to rebel is certain to make itself felt.

Some cultural structures are hard, solid, firmly fixed, and almost changeless over time.  Basic kinship systems, basic grammar rules (the ones learned by age 10), basic terms for everyday objects such as body parts and rocks, and basic structures of food are particularly inflexible.

On the other hand, some things change with revolutionary speed.  Women’s fashions are particularly notorious for this, though they have certain underlying continuities and follow at least some rules (Richardson 1940).  Sexual behavior, gender roles, and related matters have changed profoundly in the United States since I first went to Hong Kong.  Political and economic life has altered, being progressively distorted by the growth of giant corporations, the progressive squeeze on natural resources, and the rise of state power, not only in the United States but throughout the world.

One can study structures of thought and action in such arenas only by keeping a very dynamic view of structure.  Kinship systems may seem frozen in beautiful crystalline arrays, if one looks at the short or even medium term; political systems are more like whirlwinds, created and maintained by dynamic forces and subject to sudden and dramatic shifts.  The wind-shear that creates whirlwinds has its metaphoric analogy in the political strife that creates political action .  Wind-shear, and human competition over resources and power, are always with us, providing underlying structure; the ways they play out in whirlwinds and politics are impossible to describe or predict accurately.

Language is the classic place to find fairly permanent structures.  Grammatical rules (the basic ones being firmly set) and vocabulary (all found in the dictionary) are combined to produce an unbounded set of new sentences.  These sentences, in turn, range from dully predictable (“How are you?” “I’m fine”) through moderately new but still conforming to a model (“I’m basically OK, but I have a headache that’s killing me, and I’m taking aspirin”) to completely new and weird (the famous example is Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” [Chomsky 1957]).  Grammatical structure is preserved as sentences become more and more original, but meaning becomes more and more a factor of individual agency until eventually it is so idiosyncratic that communication fails.

Even kinship systems are subject to continual negotiation, but in regard to behavior and usage more than in regard to the basic structure of the system.  The boat people did not know all the words for different classes of kin, and did not usually behave according to “proper” Neo-Confucian principles, but they did all agree on and use the basic kinterms, and they did all agree on the basic expectations of support and deference that went with these.  Similarly, English has added “sibling” as a routine, universally used kinterm within my lifetime, and “parent” became standard usage only a generation earlier.  The people I called “parents,” and others of their generation, still spoke of their “fathers and mothers” or their “people” or “folks.”

We can establish a continuum, from kin terminology to local politics.  Lévi-Strauss concerned himself mainly with kinship terminologies and secondarily with other long-lasting systems, while his rebellious student Bourdieu concerned himself largely with local (and, later, national) politics.  Our theories first shape our field work and then are shaped by it—yet another example of interaction affecting systems of thought.

In realms where stability lasts over generations, we can speak of “tradition” and of “cultural models.”  In realms where change is faster than generational succession, we are better advised to speak of “rules of thumb.”  People learn from each other how to act and what to expect, but they cannot transmit much of this to the rising generation.

Music provides a good example of structuration.  Psychologists have written:  “The emergence of the human mind can be thought of as the magic of the symphony, with the biological substrates analogous to musical instruments, the information-processing operations analogous to the musical score, and the orchestration of these production components and the modulation by the social context as analogous to the conductor and musicians and the influences of the symphony hall itself” (Cacioppo et al 2004).  The anthropologist may add that culture determines what kind of score is found (concerto or Daoist ritual), how much the rules can vary with practice (singing-school rigidity or jazz improvisation), and how expert the musicians are (folk amateurs or New York Symphony).

For the last century or two, in Hong Kong as in the west, every generation has insisted on having its own music, different enough from the last generation’s to drive Mom and Dad into spluttering fury.  Yet the standard scales, and the basic structure of a tune, have persisted, in spite of several desperate attempts to displace them.  Chinese music maintains its systems; the west maintains its major and minor modes.  Twelve-tone music, Indian ragas, and the more African elaborations of the blues each had a season in the sun, but it was not a long or hot season.

Consider the evolution of one type of western music.  Scottish music clings to the pentatonic scale, the “Scottish snap” (syncopation on the lead notes of certain subphrases), and a whole set of grace notes, but otherwise has evolved from song to fiddling to rock band to concert music.  In all these cases, we see a basic structure that goes on and on and serves to define a tradition, and, building on it, an infinite and kaleidoscopic variety of practice and innovation.

Jazz melodies, chords, and note and chord progressions are fairly set.  On this minimal framework, jazz musicians built infinite variation.  The variation, in turn, is usually created by applying a few relatively simple rules and devices.   However, a very great or very insane jazz musician will break out of the mold, and do completely “impossible” and “illegal” things, to the frequent delight of audiences.


The questions to ask of any cultural system are, then:

What is the consistent, slow-changing, structured base?

How important is it relative to the rest?

What is built on top of it—a small, compact improvised system, or a huge loose one?

In this topwork, how does trivial, relatively rule-bound variation blend off into the wild and new?

At a deeper level, cultural structures have to build on biological capabilities.  Relatively specific neurobiological programs can usefully be called biological primes.  Humans naturally recognize close kin (as do all mammals), and tend to give them special care and attention but avoid having sex with them.  Humans clearly have some innate programming for language, though whether this involves a Chomskian “language organ” or a more general capacity for higher-order planning of symbol strings (coupled with throat and tongue adaptations) is a moot question.  Humans have an innate ability to classify things (Atran 1990; Berlin 1992), though, again, no one knows whether this is a true “classifying organ” in the brain or just a highly adapted ability to see detailed similarities and differences in things.  (Kant’s arguments about the latter were central to his invention of anthropology; see Kant 1978.)   Basic emotions and motivations are biological primes.

Individuals must deal with the world by using such biological primes to start off their processes of thought and action.  However, no one acts because of genetic orders, except in simple matters like breathing and eye-blinking.  Action requires building structures of thought on the biological bases.  Pace the sociobiologists, humans do not have instincts, above a very lowly level.  Human genes specify abilities to learn and adapt—not locked-in plans for behavior.  The genes guide us, vaguely, toward certain broad enterprises or courses of action, but mainly they guide us in learning how to deal with all manner of different, unexpected challenges.

Once individuals have developed thoughts, they interact.  This can lead to cultural construction; culture then systematizes widely-shared thought-patterns into cultural models.  Cultural models are most likely to occur where biological primes provide a reasonably specific ground, as in kinship, language, and probably music.  However, cultural models are also universal and intricate in the realm of religion, whose biological base is at best dubious and murky.

Thus, we can add yet another question to those above:             Do biological primes underlie a cultural institution, and, if so, how did people get from genetic plan to cultural rule?


Predicting practice is difficult; predicting it from structure is particularly so.  On the one hand, much of the practice that practice theorists have identified is merely a set of short-cuts and approximations (and even sloppy attempts at) more structured things.  On the other hand, practice, in a given situation, may simply take existing structures of the relevant system as one input—with the other inputs being anything and everything else, such as hunger or the weather.  Moreover, the boat people not only varied such things as religious ritual and kinship behavior according to immediate situational factors (rain, poverty, political worries, anything), but they would very often vary them just to be different!  Being known as an Individual was a point of pride on the waterfront.

To do this, however, one had to know something about the underlying structure, and one had to know when to stop.  Getting too far from the canonical ritual made it ineffective, and one had to know what could be varied and what could not.  Burning at least three sticks of incense, for instance, was mandatory in essentially every ritual.  The gods would not even recognize it as a ritual without that.  In kinship practice, one could get away without knowing the term for mother’s father’s elder brother, but everyone had to know the term for father’s elder brother, and had to know, also, that it was the proper polite address for any unrelated male friend of one’s father’s generation.

Other matters, however, were loosely structured simply because there was no close structure known, or because the cost of getting the requisite information was much greater than the benefit from having it.  Much interpersonal behavior with strangers, much casting of nets in new places, was done quite improvisationally, because one had to try in the absence of good information.



The problem of cultural models is made more interesting and complex in the present case by the reality suggested in the subtitle.  The boat people of Hong Kong were quintessentially Chinese.  They spoke a Chinese language, ate Chinese food, dressed in Chinese style, and certainly thought of themselves as Chinese.   In many ways, they fit the classic stereotypes that Chinese have of themselves and that Westerners have of Chinese:  family was extremely important, tradition was strong and lively, Confucian and Mencian taglines graced numerous occasions, group welfare was explicitly held more important than the welfare of individuals.

Yet, their culture was different—to many, astonishingly different—from other stereotypes of China.  They lacked lineages or large-scale family organizations of any kind.  They had relatively free, egalitarian marriages, usually contracted by—or at least with the knowledge and consent of—the couples getting married.  Their women were strong and independent.  Their men did not till the soil.  They had no fixed address.  The stereotype of Chineseness includes obedience to law and order, but the boat people were a rough lot, in both speech and action.  Some even slid over into piracy (Murray 1987, Antony 2003; the latter book is a superb source for negative stereotypes held by land people of the boat-dwellers).

Above all, they were strongly individualistic.  If there is one thing agreed on by all stereotypists, it is that the Chinese are communitarian, Americans individualistic (see Bond 1986; see also Turiel 2004 on the problems of such stereotyping).  Some celebrate the Chinese for this; Tu Wei-Ming, in particular, has devoted his life to a brilliant and insightful exposition of a Neo-Confucian (or Neo-Neo-Confucian) position (see e.g. Tu 1985), while many Americans yearn nostalgically for community (see Turiel 2004 for review), sometimes citing the Chinese as exemplary.  Others find it problematic; some East Asians are critical of the patriarchal family, and Chinese-American novelists such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan have provided nuanced but essentially negative views of the the family-and-community world.  Asian-American family therapists Stanley Shon and Davis Ja were worried enough to write at length on how to mollify patriarchy and Westernize the family in immigrant Asian communities in America, to provide what they believe will be better family environments (Shon and Ja 1982).

Yet, at Castle Peak Bay, we lived with thousands of Chinese who were actually more individualistic and independent than Americans we knew.  This was not a difficult call or hard to assess; the gap was impossible to miss.  Most of the older boat people resisted the very idea of government, let alone communitarianism and conformity.  They had lived under Nationalist, Japanese, Communist, and British regimes, and they knew the workings of different forms of government very well indeed.  I once asked a group of men:  “Which of those governments did you find best?”  An elder in the group said:  “The Nationalists—because they couldn’t control us.”  The rest agreed.  This was only one of hundreds of remarks, by dozens of people, putting opposition to authority in the most thoroughgoing terms.

They set a high value on independence, ranging from the freedom to sail and fish wherever they pleased to the ideal of being (and being known as) a Real Character, as a unique and distinctive individual.  Unlike Americans, they did not set a high value on cultural conformity (cf. Turiel 2004, only the latest to note the contradiction of Anglo-American “individualism” with slavish conformity in matters of popular culture).  In fact, they set a low value on it, except for the basic morality of mutual aid and mutual support that served as the foundation of their social philosophy.  It was no accident that most of their songs were improvisational rather than learned by heart.

Families were a partial exception; the patriarchal family was alive and well.  But even there, patriarchy was observed to varying degrees.  One could observe a range from families almost as patriarchal as the stereotype (a stereotype that many land families actually approximated) to families where everyone had a voice, where punishment of children was unknown, and where everyone seemed to cooperate happily in spite minimal order-giving.  Children had to defer to adults, and adults barked commands in proper sailor fashion, but in most families no one ever seemed to lean on anyone else (Anderson 1992, 1998).

All observers not fooled by the “tribal” myth seem to agree that the differences between Cantonese boat people and Cantonese land people were due strictly and solely to ecological adaptation, and could be predicted therefrom (Anderson 1970b, 1972; Antony 2004; Ward 1965, 1966; and many references in all these sources).  Independence came from boat-management, just as food—although typical Chinese food—ran heavily to fish and shellfish.

However, the differences, ecological in origin though they might be, had gone on to become markers of a true subculture.  Thus, they were more standardized and generally shared than individual environmental adaptations would have been.  On the other hand, many of the adaptations disappeared rapidly when the boat people moved on shore.  I would guess that their descendents still lack lineages, but have otherwise been absorbed into the Cantonese mainstream.

Sailors who manage their own boats and have to be highly mobile simply cannot be as communitarian as rice cultivators.  Even on land, lineages routinely disappear in Chinese communities that lack large-scale landholding with intensive agriculture.  The patriarchal family, in so far as it produced the stresses and strains immortalized by novelists and sociologists (see Chapter 5), could not possibly have existed on the boats; people had to be mutually supportive, and had to be free to make split-second decisions.  When a father washed overboard, his wife or sons could hardly stand around waiting for a command decision on what to do.  Wives who were not free and equal managers of the boats were not fully effective in the fishery.  Defiance of government was natural for people whose livelihood depended on free travel, and often on “free trading” (what some would call smuggling).

Thus, Chinese culture proves highly changeable, according to immediate ecological needs.

What, then, are we to make of cultural generalizations and stereotypes?  Can an ethnographer state rules in such a universe?  The short answer is yes.  However, the rules have to be properly qualified, and grounded in more basic realities.

Lineages provide the clearest example.  All the local land-dwelling Cantonese had lineages.  None of the boat people did.  In the New Territories, this was a perfect open-and-shut matter.  (It was not in some other areas; at least some boat people nearer Guangzhou had lineages [Wu 1937], and many land-dwelling Chinese in other parts of China lack lineages.)  The explanation is simple and straightforward:  lacking land to administer, resources to manage, and even the possibility of having lineage halls or keeping records, the boat people neither needed lineages nor could maintain them.

Matters of individuality and family relationships are far more difficult to define.  The difference between land people and boat people was not open-and-shut.  There were gradations; in fact, the reality was a continuum.  Richer and more settled boat people often emulated the land-dwellers—arranging marriages, developing patriarchal relations with children, and working with government.  However, just as often, successful individuals simply used their money to maintain themselves in an even more flamboyantly individual and free-spirited lifestyle than they had had before!  Many of our friends and acquaintances boasted to us of doing exactly this.  Conversely, many far-from-affluent people had thoroughly conservative personal lives.

Particularly interesting was the ways that Neo-Confucian philosophy was used to justify individualism.  Tu Wei-Ming would have been fascinated to hear how the boat people could quote Confucius and, especially, Mencius to justify their lifeway.  Mencius’ writings include many passages about individual conscience, defiance of tyranny, and the individual and internal locus of morality.  Older and more experienced boat people knew these by heart.  Teik-Aun Wong, Lynn Thomas, and I (Anderson et al. 2000) have discussed at some length the ways in which philosophy can be bent to differing interpretations, according to the bias of the interpreter.

What are we to make of such matters?  How can anthropologists interpret and understand such subcultural and individual differences?

Many Chinese of the old school saw these boat people lifeways as deviant in the bad sense.  The stereotypes of boat people heard by Ward and myself, and found by Antony (2004), Kani (1967), and others, in traditional Chinese literature, speak to that.  For many land people, the boat people were just plain bad Chinese.

Many American anthropologists today might see the boat people as proving that culture is a mere invention of ethnographers, and that individual agency is all there is.

As the subtitle of this book suggests, I prefer to see the boat ways of life as variations on Chinese themes.  Culture is certainly real.  The boat people did conform when it was ecologically rational.  They had long ago discovered the most efficient clothing style, and they had all kept to it within recent memory.  They all ate Chinese food, drank Chinese alcohol, and spoke good if distinctive Cantonese.

Their ways of varying from more typical Cantonese patterns were all not only ecologically driven, but were also found, in a kind of latent or seed form, in mainstream (hegemonic?) Cantonese culture.  Other Chinese see the Cantonese as rough, independent, spontaneous, and prone to idealize an “original” character; the boat people merely took this a few steps farther.  And the boat people were certainly not the only Chinese in history to find in Confucian (especially Mencian) and Daoist thought a charter for independence and even defiance of government.  China’s literary history is studded with thousands of highly original individuals, many of whom justified their stubbornness in the same terms and from the same passages.

We are dealing with variation at several levels.  There were some open-and-shut differences between land and boat society.  Other differences are only differences of degree, or present a continuum from a land extreme to an occasional boat extreme.  Then, within the boat world, there were differences from community to community.  Finally, families and individuals all had their own interpretations and their own practice.

Of course, all this is deadly to the classic stereotypes, whether positive (as in Tu Wei-Ming’s writings) or negative.  Most Chinese do indeed act and think in a relatively communitarian manner, privileging society over the individual, as literally thousands of sober studies and analyses have demonstrated (Bond 1986 provides good, balanced reviews of some of them).  However, this communitarianism does not even begin to exhaust the cultural repertoire.  It is merely an aspect of the culture that happens to be preferred at one time and place.  Changing circumstances can cause a totally different interpretation of the culture, especially if already present in a latent or local form, to take over rapidly and dramatically.  (The “sexual revolution” in the United States in the 1960s was not a sudden new thing appearing; it was merely the elevation of a previously minority lifestyle to cultural dominance and hegemony.)

If one wishes to stereotype, I would suggest that Chinese culture really is defined and described by an individual-in-society perspective; sometimes the individual side comes out more strongly, sometimes the social side.  But this makes the cultural model so general and broad that it is no use as a stereotype.  One can generalize about subcultures and situations, but, even then, one must properly qualify the generalization.  Practice need not follow belief and ideology, and no two people think or act quite alike.

I have elsewhere pointed out practical applications of this (Anderson 1992, 1998).  Family counselors need not go outside Chinese culture to find egalitarian family models.  Educators need not go outside Chinese to find individual-tailored, nonpunitive, empowering education strategies.  Tu Wei-Ming need not worry about a tradeoff between Confucianism and individual rights; he can draw on an authentic and ancient Chinese tradition that combines them harmoniously.


A culture, then, is a set of plans for acting, not a rigid crust.  It is a set of useful ideas to draw on at will.  It is a tool kit, not a tool.  It has a structure, but the structure is that of a rather messily arranged toolbox.  Everything is in there, somewhere, but perhaps not in perfect shape and not in the expected spot.  Claude Lévi-Strauss’ image of the bricoleur—the shade-tree mechanic—is deservedly famous.  Not only the traditional consultant, but everyone, has to be a shade-tree mechanic when using his or her cultural tool kit.  The boat people found it necessary to draw on the shipboard tools—the fishhooks, spars, rigging-mending equipment—rather than the plough or the bricklayer’s trowel.  (And France’s counterpart to Home Depot calls itself the place for bricoleurs.)

One must, also, imagine a tool kit that blends at the edges into other, slightly different kits (Vietnamese, Thai…).  Moreover, the tools have the useful property of expanding or shrinking at will.  As every AI expert would agree, cultural tools are more like computer software than like hardware.  They can be stored in zipped files when not needed, or expanded by all sorts of patches and supplements and individual tinkering.

Or, to return to another metaphor, culture is indeed a “thing of shreds and patches.”  But the shreds and patches are woven into a wonderful patchwork quilt—one with the miraculous quality of changing to fit the needs and tastes of anyone who lies under it.  Somehow, it keeps us all warm.



A final note on cultural modeling, to remind us to be sober and modest, is the question of ethnographer authority.  Throughout the history of anthropology, and especially in the last couple of decades, scholars have questioned the right of ethnographers to produce “the” account of “their” people.  Who am I to talk about the boat people?  I spent something over two years in Hong Kong, including nine months living on a sampan, but I am, obviously, not a seui seung yan by birth.  I have no right to speak in an authoritative or authorial voice.

This book is not in any way “the ethnography” of the Hong Kong boat people.  It is a personal text, an account of one man’s experience in a few boat communities.  It is not intended to be a definitive or canonical text.  On the other hand, I know a great deal about the boat world, and I was there during a critical time: the period of its decline and disappearance.  This gives me not only the right, but (I think) the obligation, to record what I know of the brilliance and troubles of the bay’s last years.

I offer, then, what is, and can only be, a personal view, the view of a sympathetic and experienced outsider.  I was not there long enough to become an insider, but I was there too long to be a coolly “objective” outsider.  Thus, I cannot pretend to speak ex cathedra on boat society.

I tried my best to remedy the lack of boat people’s own voices by recording the boat people’s songs in some detail (Anderson 1975), and by recording life accounts (Anderson 1970b:226-248).  Unfortunately, in those days, publishers were not interested in such materials, and I did not follow up as I should have done.

I have also tried to stick as closely as I can to factual matters that could be objectively verified:  fish species, dollar amounts, number of people on a boat, actual behavior at religious ceremonies.  In this book and in my previous publications, I have used the boat people’s own concepts, ideas, and often exact words.  In particular, I have tried to keep interpretation as close to my boat friends’ own words as I could; I am too uncomfortably aware of my own limitations to indulge in Geertzian flights.  This has gotten me criticized in the past for not imposing enough “theory” (whatever that might mean) on the “raw data.”  Today, I hope that the many critiques of the “authoritative voice” have made us more sensitive to the aridity (if not immorality) of presenting ex cathedra theory and interpretation in one’s own authoritative voice, while silencing one’s subjects and denying them even the exiguous existence of “aggregated statistical data.”

I wish I could present my friends as living, breathing human beings.  The generation of boat men and women who remember the old ways is now as old as I am, and—to my knowledge—none has stepped forward to write the great novel or great memoir we need.  My own few words can be no more than a stopgap, while we await that hoped consummation.







The Cantonese fishing people of coastal Guangdong Province maintained until recently a highly distinctive and highly traditional form of life.  For centuries, they have been regarded as a distinct minority within Cantonese culture.  Until recently, most of them lived entirely on their boats; virtually all the rest lived on huts built over tidewater.  They lived by fishing, shellfish and seaweed collecting, cargo-carrying, and small-scale trade.  Their speech often differed slightly from that of land neighbors (McCoy 1965).  Their clothing and foodways also varied slightly from land norms.  Last, but not least, their religious practices differed substantially from those of the land people.

The lifeway of the boat people is dramatically different way of being Chinese.  In current usage, they are typical “Han” Chinese, though the Cantonese traditionally called themselves “people of Tang” rather than “people of Han.”  The terms refer to the Han and Tang Dynasties; the Chinese Empire took its mature form in Han (206 BC-220 AD), but the Cantonese feel they were not really Sinicized until Tang (607-960), although Guangdong was actually conquered and occupied under Han.  (And Han tomb models of boats show the boat people were living then pretty much as they are now.)  The “Tang” label is so persistent that Grant Street, the main thoroughfare of San Francisco’s Chinatown, is known throughout the Chinese world as “Tang people’s street.”  (This is T’ong Yan Kai in Cantonese.  Usage has changed, and now Cantonese, along with others who traditionally speak languages of the Chinese family, tend to call themselves “Han” Chinese.  On the ethnically diverse history of south China, see Eberhard 1942.)

The boat people fit squarely into that universe.   They merely presented a set of variants, bearing a Wittgensteinian family resemblance (rather than a simple set of changes in one pattern).  Each family had its own way of being Chinese and of being seui seung yan.  Also, each family changed and adapted over time, so today’s range of knowledge and practice might be varied tomorrow as circumstances altered.


The land people called themselves Punti (pun tei), “locals,” meaning Cantonese-speakers in contrast to the Hakka, Hokkien, and other non-Cantonese groups .  The boat people were generally not considered  Punti, because of their lifestyle.  However, the boat people were Cantonese-speaking locals, and were thus Punti on the dotted line. I avoid the word because of these confusing webs of meaning.

In imperial times, boat people were legally constituted as a separate ethnic group.  They were subject to discrimination; until late Qing, they were not allowed to sit for the Imperial examinations.  They were not allowed to move on shore, though they could, in many locations, build houses on piles over tidewater.  This had been done for centuries at Tai O, on Lantao Island, across a narrow strait from Castle Peak.  Castle Peak was following suit in the 1960s, with a rapid rise of handmade shacks built over the mudflats.

Boat people probably provided many of the sailors, and much of the expertise, that made China a great sea power in dynastic times.  Contrary to a myth of China’s maritime insignificance, Gang Deng (1999) has shown that China was a leader in seafaring, marine technology, and exploration, especially in early Ming but also at other times in history.

In spite of this, land-dwellers have generally regarded boat people with prejudice and contempt.  Boat people suffered discrimination in Imperial times and subsequently.  Antony (2003:12) summarizes the traditional stereotype of boat culture:  “It did not share in the traditional Confucian values of honesty, frugality, self-restraint, and hard work; rather, it espoused deception, ambition, hedonism, recklessness, and getting ahead by any means.”  Of course, the boat people reversed this; they had the exactly same stereotype, but with themselves as the honest workers, the land-goers as the devious amoralists.  Boat people frequently expressed this to us at very considerable length.  The one place they agreed with the old stereotype was on “recklessness.”  The boat people admitted they were more risk-taking, less cautiously routine-bound—but, instead of “reckless,” the words they used were “courageous,” “free,” and “on our own.”

For decades or centuries, the boat people have been claimed as more “aboriginal” or “tribal” (in some sense) than the land people.  This belief was shown to be false decades ago (Anderson 1970a, 1970b, 1972; Ward 1965, 1966; both these authors review a great deal of earlier work), but it still surfaces on occasion.  In fact, the boat people clearly have some “aboriginal” brackground, but non-Han ancestry is general in China’s far south (for a qualified view of the boat people from this perspective, see Ho 1965).  Linguistic, historic, and cultural evidence suggests that southeast China was largely Thai—with many other linguistic groups, such as Yao and Miao—before, and for a long time after, the Chinese conquered it in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-221 AD).  For instance, the delayed transfer marriage still practised in the Guangzhou area (Stockard 1989) is a Zhuang custom (Jeffrey Barlow, unpublished ms.; the Zhuang are a Thai-speaking group now dominant in much of the Guangsi Zhuang Autonomous Region just west of Guangdong).  It has probably been retained by former Zhuang who have become Cantonese, rather than having been borrowed by Chinese migrants (see Stockard 1989).  In Cavalli-Sforza’s studies of human genetics, southeast Chinese were found to sort genetically with southeast Asians, not with northern Chinese (Cavalli-Sforza 2001).  This being the case, contrasting “aboriginal” boat people with “Han” land people is completely wrong.

Often, unfortunately, “tribal” claims for the boat people are coupled with the use of the highly offensive ethnic slur “Dan” (or Danjia; Cantonese Tanka; see e.g. Siu and Faure 1995; Ye 1995).  This is supposedly a “tribal” or “ethnic” name of the boat people.  It goes back to imperial times, but it seems purely an outsiders’ term with an insulting connotation.  It is not always insulting, and lately it has been rehabilitated by boat people from Tai O and elsewhere, following the rehabilitation of “Black” and “Chicano” in the United States.  This fascinating bit of sociolinguistics was conveyed to me (in an email of May 15, 2002) by a young Hong Kong sociologist, Ho-fung Hung, who studied Tai O and its recent conflicts and activist politics (Hung 1998, 2001a, 2001b).  There are several folk etymologies purporting to explain why the word tan, “egg,” came to be an ethnic slur word for Cantonese boat people:  Their boats look like eggshells, “Tan” was a “tribal” name, “tan” is their pronunciation of some other word (various words are suggested), and so on.  These speculations are no doubt as valid as most folk etymologies.  The boat people referred to themselves as seui seung yan (Putonghua shui shang ren “people on the water”; seui seung yan was pronounced soi song yan in Hong Kong boat dialect) or by similar descriptive phrases.  In English, the people in question have always been called “boat people.”  In the 1970s, this term came to be used for the Vietnamese refugees who fled by boat from Vietnam.  Many of these came to Hong Kong, and obvious confusion followed.  In this book, of course, the term “boat people” applies to the boat-dwellers native to the Hong Kong area, not to the Vietnamese.

In fact, there was continuous movement from land to water and from water to land.  The water people were never a separate group.  My interviews and life histories revealed that many people traced their descent back to shore-dwellers who had taken to the boats during periods of unrest over the last couple of centuries—often within the last two to three decades.  World War II, in particular, drove many land people to the boats, where life was safer than on shore.  Conversely, boat people have been moving onto shore for millennia, often in substantial waves, when opportunity or local decree encouraged them (see Antony 2003 for the most recent historical treatment of these millenia-old patterns).

They did, however, maintain a separate lifestyle with many cultural features with linked them with other boat people in China, and differentiated them from the land-dwellers.  Most of these features can be understood as adaptations to a seafaring, boat-dwelling life (Antony 2003; Ward 1965, 1966).

However, successive governments, both local and national, constructed them as a separate ethnic group—greatly oversharpening and exaggerating a real subcultural difference.  The boat people became a “separate tribe,” as if they were as culturally distinct as the Tibetans or Mongols.  The only real difference, howeever, was that the boat people lived on boats (or pile houses over water) and worked at water occupations.  Even such clear cultural markers as lack of lineages, special accents, and independent ideology were not hard-and-fast distinctions from the land world; some land groups lacked lineages and had similar accents and attitudes.  Costume, folk songs, and a few other such usages did set the boat people apart, but not very dramatically.

Yet the boat people received prejudice; often they had been forbidden to live on land or—locally at least—to sit for imperial examinations.

They came to see themselves as “dragons on water, worms on shore” (Ward 1965, 1966).  The double terminology is critical here:  they were held down, victimized, and unable to control their destinies when on land, but on the water they were unquestioned rulers.  Land people could travel on water or ship cargoes only through boat-people agency.  On the water the boat people were fully in control of the human or social side of their lives, though the weather and seas were still out of their control.

Thus, much of boat culture and discourse was about control and its negotiation.  A sense of control over one’s life is a powerful human need (Anderson 1996), and the boat people had it on water, lost it on land.  Their lives had to deal with that constant negotiation of a major, basic human psychological mainstay.

The boat people of the central Guangdong coast formed a large social network, united by constant shifting back and forth.  Until the rise of the Communist government, local and national borders meant little to them, and even after 1949 it was always fairly easy to weigh anchor and move.  The Hong Kong border was permeable.  Tens of thousands of boat dwellers had fled at one time or another from the unrest and poverty that were endemic in China during the 20th century.  Particularly large waves came to Hong Kong during the famine years of 1958-61, when millions of Chinese starved to death.  A steady trickle came through after that, until prosperity and the call of shore life made China more attractive during the 1970s.

The main source area of Hong Kong boat people, both long-established and newcoming, was Hong Kong’s immediate neighbor region:  the two-county area of Baoan (Po On in Cantonese, and so called henceforth in this book) and Dongguan (Tung Kun).

The distinctive boat-dweller accent of Hong Kong seems to be, basically, the accent of that area.  It is very close to standard Cantonese (the urban accent of Guangzhou and Hong Kong).  There are some patterned differences.  Most obvious is the substition of  –o– for –eu– (as in soi song yan, above).  “Hong Kong” probably got its English name via boat people, because it is Heung Kong in standard Cantonese.  (Poetically “Fragrant Harbor,” literally “incense port” because sandalwood was once shipped from it, Hong Kong is Xiang Gang in Putonghua.)  The boat people changed initial ng- to something like a w- (ngo “I” becomes wo).  Some final consonants were dropped or assimilated (all final nasals became –n).  As in colloquial Hong Kong Cantonese generally, unaspirated ts before vowels is sounded like English j (tsai “little one” is pronounced jai).  There were also some tonal quirks.  I have not indicated boat pronunciations in this book; I simply use standard Cantonese forms (see Anderson 1970b and McCoy 1965 for full technical descriptions).

Many boat people came from farther upstream, around Guangzhou city.  A few came from still more distant counties.  In Tai Po Kau, on the east side of Hong Kong’s New Territories, there was a large community of boat-dwellers speaking a dialect of Southern Min (Hokkien), a completely different language from Cantonese.  Their dialect was spoken from northwest Guangdong Province into neighboring Fujian.  These people kept to themselves, and had their own style of boats, their own foods and customs, and their own fishing techniques.  They disappeared as a community in the 1970s and 1980s, with their dialect and culture still unrecorded (see Anderson 1970b:257-259 for what little is known).  They constituted no more than 3% of the boat people of Hong Kong; the rest, including all those I knew at Castle Peak, were Cantonese.

In Hong Kong, the boat people were concentrated in a number of good harbors.  The biggest and most famous concentration was at Aberdeen, on the outer side of Hong Kong Island.  (The main city is on the inner side, facing the mainland.)  Others were at Kowloon Harbor, Deep Bay, So Kwun Wat in Hong Kong, and elsewhere.  Barbara Ward, the only other person to do prolonged participant-observation research on the Hong Kong boat people, worked at Kau Sai, a small settlement on the east side of the New Territories; Castle Peak Bay, a larger settlement on the west side, was a quite different place.  Outside of the British colony, there were huge concentrations of boat people all around the Pearl River estuary.  In 1966 we visited Macau, then a Portuguese colony, where we observed huge concentrations of boat-dwellers.  In 1978 I visited Guangzhou, and saw what little was left of the boat culture there; by then, most of the boat-dwellers had moved on shore there (as in Hong Kong).  Smaller concentrations existed all along the coasts and major rivers of Guangzhou and Guangxi.  Elsewhere in China were perhaps three million boat people, speaking the languages of their own areas (see e.g. Worcester 1959).  Almost everywhere, the boat-dwellers spoke the same dialects and languages as the shore people nearby.   Nowhere did they have their own language.

This is true throughout Asia; almost every country with rivers and coasts has its own boat people, all local, all speaking local languages or at least languages derived from home ports not too far away (Sopher 1965—eked out by my own observations and conversations all round southeast Asia).  The boat-dwelling adaptation is clearly something that appeals to all sorts of people; representatives of many of the ethnic groups of Asia have taken to the sea.  Some, such as the Sama (Randall 1977) and certain Bugis trader groups, have become long-distance voyagers and merchants.  Humans are usually creatures of the land, but here they have become as bound to the water as are the fish that supply much of their livelihood.

Speculations that the boat-dwellers are some sort of distinct “tribe” or “tribal group,” or otherwise have separate origins from the land people, have often been entertained (see Sopher 1965).  All the evidence suggests otherwise:  that they are simply representatives of the shoreline groups whose languages they speak.  (The Moken “sea gypsies” of the Malayan peninsula, who speak a distinctive dialect, are a partial exception; see, yet again, Sopher 1965).  The Sama have dispersed from the south Philippines to Sulawesi and elsewhere, but their origins are clear and they know their homeland.  Vietnamese boat people speak Vietnamese.  Japanese ones spoke Japanese when they existed as an identifiable group.

In Hong Kong, the boat people are clearly Cantonese in language, culture, and—usually—origin.  We talked to many who knew from family tradition that they were recently land-dwellers, only a couple of generations away from rice farming.  However, the boat lifestyle predates the Sinicization of the south.  Archaeology reveals that there were boat-dwellers as early as 1500 BC in Hong Kong (as I learned from archaeologist William Meacham, while observing with him the ongoing excavation at an obvious boat-dweller site on an isolated island).  These would probably have been Thai-speaking.  On the other hand, Austronesian voyagers from south China apparently settled Taiwan and later the South Seas (Bellwood 1997), and it is tempting to see them as related somehow to early boat people.  Doubtless these early boat-dwellers represented many linguistic communities.

Boat people much like modern ones were certainly present by Han, as we know from tomb pottery.  People throughout the Han empire had the custom—incomparably useful to archaeologists—of making small pottery replicas of the things of this world, to accompany the dead into the other one.  From this we know that the Han world had woks, pagodas, “sharpei” (sha pi) dogs identical to modern ones, and sampans almost exactly like the one on which we lived.  Even minor details of style are the same.  These models show the oldest fore-and-aft rigging and watertight compartments in the world; evidently the South China Sea was an area of maritime innovation, and the lack of subsequent change indicates early perfection rather than late conservatism.

After Han, we get occasional flashes of light in what is usually a profound darkness.  Boat people are known to have existed all over the major rivers and coasts of China from a very early time.  Their folk songs, often clearly related to modern songs, were recorded by poets.  In the 16th century, Feng Menglong recorded some boat folk songs similar to ones I recorded in 1965-66 (Anderson 1975).   Even earlier, the boat folk songs of the lower Yangzi inspired Tang Dynasty poets to imitate them in elite style.  Cui Hao (704-754) gives us an exchange between a girl and a young man, of a type that could still be heard on Castle Peak Bay in 1965.  The girl sings the first verse, the boy the second.  Hengtang and Longpole (Janggan) are near Nanjing.


“Where are you from good sir

this maid is from Hengtang

I ask while our boats are moored

perhaps we’re from the same place


My home overlooks the Great River

I travel along the Great River’s banks

I’m from Longpole too

but I’ve never seen you before.”  (Red Pine 2003:36-37).


In the 18th Century, the poet and writer Shen Fu lived in Guangzhou for a while, and had a romantic affair with a boat girl.  He describes it in one of the most exquisite and heartbreaking short accounts, in Chinese or any other language, of a lost love.  This account was published in a small book titled Six Records of a Floating Life (Shen 1983); only four of the chapters ever saw the light.  He includes some general ethnography, including the significant note that the word for “what?” was mie (Putonghua for “rice grain”).  Mi ye is still the boat pronunciation of the Cantonese mat ye? (“what?”).  The title of this book and its predecessor The Floating World of Castle Peak Bay (Anderson 1970b) are both based on Shen’s, whose title, in turn, refers both to literal floating and to the Buddhist image of this transient life of ours as a “floating world.”

After Shen, accounts get thicker, and have been synthesized in historical studies by Ho (1944), Kani (1967), Ye (1995), and others.  These are generally marred by a too-literal reading of local gazetteers and similar sources that allege “tribes” of boat people.  The boat people do not have tribes, or anything similar.  The “tribes” were probably followers of a particular local leader, or people who came from a certain area and named themselves from it.

In the early 20th century, sociologists discovered the boat people.  Wu Yuey-len (Wu Yuelin in modern transcription) and Chicago-trained Chen Suching (Chen Xujing), and later their student Ho Kaak-yan (Ho Ge’en), were associated at Lingnan University in Canton.  They carried out extensive descriptive sociology of the sort done at the University of Chicago in those days; in fact, it was excellent ethnography.  They described everything from economics to folksongs (Chen 1933, 1935, 1946; Ho 1944, 1965, 1966; Wu 1936a, 1936b, 1937).  Ho later moved to Hong Kong and taught at the University of Hong Kong, where I interviewed him; Chen and Wu stayed at Lingnan; Chen survived the Maoist era and lived to a venerable old age.  Barbara Ward carried out major research on the boat people of Kau Sai, Hong Kong, in the 1950s and 1960s (Ward 1955, 1958, 1966, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969).  The economist Frank H. H. King (1955) and the linguist John McCoy (1965) worked with her there for short periods.  Ward’s pathbreaking, brilliant, and richly theorized ethnography was tragically cut short by her untimely death, before she could publish more than a few articles.  Her interests ranged from child-rearing to livelihood to history.  She was instrumental in showing that the boat people were not a separate group but were simply Canontese on boats.  More challenging to theory was her work on the boat people’s own ideas about their social system (Ward 1966), of which more below.

Many popular writings and photographs were devoted to the boat people.  Col. V. R. Burkhardt published a long series of columns in the South China Morning Post, later compiled into three volumes (Burkhardt 1953-58), that contains much excellent material.  Less excellent were the vast numbers of photographs, film, paintings, transient writings, and other materials that exploited the “picturesque, quaint” boat people.  The old sailing junk was a photogenic craft, and became a symbol of Hong Kong.

After that, the research reported in this book is the major published material.  (See also Hung 1998, 2001a, 2001b, and references therein.  Anderson 1970a, 1972 provide full bibliography of boat people studies through 1970.)  The boat people no longer exist as a major community in Hong Kong, but many remain along the rivers and coasts in more remote parts of Guangdong.  The opportunity for studying the traditional culture is now gone forever, but opportunities now exist for studying the modern vicissitudes of those who make their living on great waters.



Like the boat people, Castle Peak Bay has a long history and a controversial past (Balfour 1941; Lo 1963; Ng 1961).  When Castle Peak and its environs were first noted, in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Castle Peak was separated from the mainland by a strait that connected the present Castle Peak Bay with Deep Bay.  Later, the strait filled, and Deep Bay became shallow.  Finally, from the 1960s onwards, Castle Peak Bay progressively shrank, as more and more fill encroached on it.  By 1990 it had disappeared.

The strait was known in ancient days as Tun Mun (or Tuen Mun, “Garrison Strait”; mun, literally “gate,” means “strait” or “passage” in Cantonese nautical usage).  This name may have been used later for the strait on the other side of Castle Peak, a still-open channel separating it from Ling Ting Island.  The area was once of the utmost strategic importance; it guarded the north corner of the Pearl River estuary, while Macau guarded the south.  Thus, in the Tang Dynasty (620-907), a garrison was established in the area. The great Tang writer Han Yu supposedly passed through the area, though details are shadowy.

According to local legend, a mysterious monk, Pei Tu (“Cup Measure”), who sailed in a winecup and could disappear at will, founded Castle Peak Monastery in the fifth century.  In fact, the monastery was founded in the early 20th century.

During the Nan Han Dynasty in the 10th century, records speak of “Tan” people in the area, using the same character as that in “Tanka” (dan jia; Lo 1963:23).  In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the area remained a port and checkpoint.  Local legends once again take us farther:  the last boy emperor of Song passed through and found brief refuge on Lantao Island, where his guardian and uncle is still revered as divine patron of the community of Tai O.  More securely attested is the passage of Jorge Alvares in 1513; this Portuguese navigator touched at Ling Ting Island and was the first European to see castle Peak.  The Portuguese fortified Lantao, but the Chinese drove them out, and they consolidated their position in Macau instead (Braga 1956).  The local gazetteer recorded that the Portuguese raided the surrounding countryside, capturing and eating children (Ng 1961).  Such claims of cannibalism occur again and again in Chinese history, with no factual evidence presented; the view of “barbarians” as cannibals merely a standard trope, as it is in European and Euro-American travel lore (see Chong 1990).

Piracy increased, notably at the fall of Ming (1644), when Ming loyalists took to the sea and harassed the coasts for years (Anthony 2003; Murray 1987).  Some were theoretically under the direction of the Ming loyalist leader Coxinga.  (The name is a European rendering of kok sing a, Southern Min for “Imperial Surname Kid,” a slangy reference to his being granted the Ming imperial surname for his services in trying to save the dynasty).  Japanese, local boat people, and shore people turned pirate were also involved.  From 1662 to 1669, the Qing government depopulated the whole coast, the people being forcibly resettled inland.  The local economy never recovered until modern times.

The British leased the New Territories in 1898.  The area remained rural and agricultural, raising high-quality rice and fruit, until after the Japanese devastated it in the Second World War.  From 1950 onward, urbanization spread explosively from Hong Kong and Kowloon.  By 1997, when the New Territories reverted to China, the southern New Territories, including Castle Peak Bay, were a vast sprawling city.  The northern New Territories were still rural, but no longer agricultural; the labor force had gone to the city or to England and Europe to work.

Much of the urbanization of Castle Peak was driven by refugees from China.  These came largely in three waves:  1949 (during the civil war that brought Mao Zidong to power), 1957 (initial communization of rural lands), and 1960-61 (famine following the failure of the Great Leap Forward).  The last of these was by far the largest as far as Castle Peak Bay was concerned, for it brought floods of desperate people, most of them boat people, to the bay.  Most of these were from nearby, especially from Po On (Bao An), the Chinese county (xian) just across the border; most of its boat people had fled, according to informants.  Many more came from Tung Kun (Dong Guan), the next one north, and from other counties around the Pearl River estuary.  Many brought functional boats and kept fishing, but most had fled in aging and decrepit craft, and had no capital.  They could only squat in houses built of scrap lumber on the waterfront, often on pilings in the water.  They were destitute, and many children died of malnutrition.  Finally, from 1965 and especially from 1970, expansion of factories and shops in the area provided employment.

The town of Tun Mun Kau Hui (“Garrison Strait Old Market”) was a gray-brick town on the old creek entering the bay.  An eastward extension, Tun Mun San Hui (“Garrison Strait New Market”), began life about 1945 on a mudflat at the head of the bay.  It grew with spectacular speed.  By 1965 it had a government clinic, a market, a school, and other amenities.  By 1974 it had expanded onto bay fill and acquired many factories and high-rise apartment blocks; by 1997 it was a huge city.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were several thousand boat people in the bay area.  No exact figures can be given, for people were always moving in and out, shifting to shore life, shifting back to boat life, or otherwise acting as a truly “floating” population.


The boat people were dependent on the natural world for life and livelihood.  Earning their income from the sea and much of their food from local land, a the mercy of weather, and required to navigate dangerous passages, they had to know a great deal about their surroundings.  This section provides a brief introduction to those surroundings.

The New Territories and Kowloon comprised a peninsula.  Most of it is low but rugged granitic mountain land.  Castle Peak is just under 2000’ high.  Overall, the coast of the region had been sinking, producing many bays and islands.  The islands are drowned mountains.  Largest was Lantao, across a strait from Castle Peak.  Most flat land is recent alluvium, deposited by runoff from slopes deforested by human activity over the last two thousand years.  In the torrential rains that follow typhoons and summer storms, topsoil washes in floods from cleared land, leaving gullies and bare half-decomposed granite.  The granitic soil, under tropical conditions, rapidly loses fertility, and becomes laterite or simply bare rock.  Attempts to reforest—usually with pine (Pinus massoniana)—were rarely successful, since even this almost-indestructible tree could barely hold on in such conditions.  Moreover, farmers regularly burned the mountains, to clear brush and eliminate snakes and other wild animals.  Where this did not go on—as in fengshui woods and forest reserves—the natural semideciduous tropical forest eventually reasserted itself.  A magnificent wood at Tai Po Kau Forest Reserve now reminds Hong Kong of what it has lost.

The peninsula is tilting slowly from northwest to southeast, so new lands are emerging from Deep Bay.  Because of this and siltation, the bay is no longer deep.

Hydrology is dominated by the distant but powerful Pearl River, whose waters pour in a vast muddy stream through the estuary to the west.  The complex pattern of islands and rivers causes strong currents.  Narrow straits constrict the flow, forcing tidewater to race through fast and powerfully.  Turbulent currents boil up where they collide, as in the “Meeting-Waters Strait” east of Castle Peak.

Hong Kong has a classic monsoon climate.  Rainfall is concentrated in summer.  Annual rainfall is 70”-80” per year, but variations are substantial.  Hong Kong (average 86”) had 35” in 1963, about 160” in 1966.  About 25 typhoons and tropical storms affect the area per year, with one or two hitting dead on, producing violent winds and rains that may deposit 25”-30” of precipitation in two or three days.  Temperatures range from freezing (Hong Kong is the only place in the world’s tropics to have freezing temperatures on the coast) to nearly 100<o> F.  Summers are unbearably hot and humid.  Storms keep fishermen in harbor; it is a time of boredom, worry, and misery from soggy clothes that never get quite clean or quite dry.  Late falls and winters are dry and clear, usually delightful, though cold drizzle may go on for a day or two.  Fish run, and there are few storms to keep fishers in harbor.  This is the time for festivals, weddings, and general enjoyment.  Spring is a time of fogs and of sudden temperature shifts as the dry north wind and wet southeast wind battle for control.  Sickness is rampant at this season, and the boat people blame this wild fluctuations in weather, as well as the relative lack of green vegetables at this time.  Early fall brings typhoons.

Farm villages, built of hard-fired gray brick with gray tiled roofs, had changed relatively little since the Qing Dynasty.

The rural lands around the bay produced, in the 1960s and 1970s, rice, Chinese cabbages, ducks, pigs, chickens, and fruit.  More specialized crops included sugar cane, sweet potatoes, eggplants, peppers, papayas, lotus, water spinach, and much more.  Geese and water buffaloes provided a distinctive local touch.  Cantonese cultivators grew the high-quality rice and many of the vegetables, but Hakka farmers in the higher and hillier areas were also important, especially as vegetable and fruit gardeners.  The more level areas were incredibly productive.  Chinese cabbage yielded eight or more crops a year; rice two or three.

Rice yields were up to 2500 pounds or more per acre per crop, a substantial yield in those days.  Good yields in the Pearl River area today are closer to 10,000 pounds per acre per crop.  But rice is no longer grown in the Castle Peak area.  Saddest of all, when I was last in the area, I was told that the distinctive, flavorful, salt-tolerant rice of the northwest New Territories had become extinct.

Thanks to all this farming, food was abundant, cheap, and superb.  Farmers took enormous pride in the quality of their meats, grains, and vegetables.  Good quality brought high price; a pound of tender, succulent mustard greens brought about four times the price of a pound of old and tough ones.  The pork and rice of the area were deservedly famous.  Eggs were fresh and came from chickens and ducks fed on natural, varied diets—often largely weeds and bugs, since these birds were the main pest control agents on the farms.



The cultural ecology of south coastal China is a complex, elaborate system, brilliantly effective at producing human food, miserably unsuccessful at preserving forests and wildlife (Anderson 1988; Anderson and Anderson 1973; Elvin 2004; Marks 1998; Wen and Pimentel 1986a, 1986b; we, with Wen and Pimentel, emphasized the benefits to humanity, but Marks and Elvin emphasize the damage to wildlife).

Farmers directed rainwater and stream water into irrigation channels—vegetables higher up, then rice lower down.  The rice requires exquisite control of water levels, so it can be grown only where water is always available but can always be turned off or drained off.  Burning the hills and fields released nitrogen fixed by legumes and other plants.  More nitrogen was fixed by blue-green algae growing in the paddies.  This nitrogen was constantly recycled through animals and concentrated in their manure, used for fertilizer.

Still lower, where water was more difficult to drain, were buffalo and duck farms.  Below them, where water never drains away, were lotus and fish farms.  Then came brackish shallows, with shrimp and oyster farms.

At every stage, composting and recycling of all wastes—from human and animal dung to old ropes and sandals—continued to enrich the system.  Over the millennia, this process has massively transferred soil and nutrients—especially nitrogen—from the uplands to the deltas.  The mountains are eroded, often to bare rock, while the delta lands build rapidly outward to sea, and become ever richer with accumulated silts.  Much of the Pearl River Estuary area is sa tin (sha tian), literally “sand fields,” but, in local usage, “polder land.”  These fields have been reclaimed from the sea, as shallows fill up with silt.  This process continues actively today.   My friend Hugh Baker, with his inimitable turns of phrase, summarized my findings by saying that “it must make nitrogen atoms unfortunate enough to be in other parts of the world feel unloved” (Baker 1989:661-662).

Inevitably, some nutrients escape this almost perfectly closed system.  These do not escape for long.  They go to feed the fish that, until a generation ago, produced one of the greatest and most diverse fisheries in the world.  The boat people were those who caught these and brought them to land—thus closing the final loop in this endless chain.

The South Chinese rice agricultural system is certainly one of the wonders of the world.  Pace Mark Elvin and Robert Marks, south China was better than other areas even in its dealings with elephants and tigers; Native Americans seem to have exterminated the American equivalents without maintaining much population density or supporting a civilization.  There are still tigers and elephants in southern China, in spite of the hundreds of millions of people, but the last American elephant died (probably by spear-point) thousands of years ago.

The South Chinese system does not, however, reflect a society of rich farmers.  It was the product of a dictatorial imperial system that encouraged farming and farm technology but discouraged radical change (whether ecological, economic, or social).  Given the impossibility of getting ahead any other way, the farmers had to work harder and harder to wring a livelihood out of tiny parcels of land—parcels that got steadily smaller as population grew.  (The system survived by the growth of land seaward, but population growth usually ran faster than land area growth.)

As pointed out by Philip Huang (1990), this resulted in something rather similar to the “agricultural involution” that afflicted colonial Java (Geertz 1963).  Lack of capital and lack of legal opportunity led to “biological” innovation rather than mechanical or technical (Hayami and Ruttan 1985).  Farmers had to develop what they could develop without much cash and without any political freedom to experiment with new political-economic institutions.  Moreover, farmers had to have many children, to provide a labor force for the farms.  The typical completed family was around seven children (our data, but they are quite representative of old China; see e.g. Eastman 1988; Huang 1990).  With so many children, a family could not save or get ahead without some special circumstance.

Moreover, the ecological damage highlighted by Elvin and Marks was real enough.  Constant burning afflicted the high uplands.  This was terribly destructive to forests and terribly causative of flooding and erosion, but it did release nutrients in the form of ash and mineral salts.  Rains washed these nutrients off the high hills.

This is not to say the system stagnated; it did not.  It steadily grew, changed, and improved.  But the changes and improvements were small, and were of a “biological” and involutional nature, so they did not greatly help the burdened peasantry.  They enabled more and more people to live, but not many lived better.  Any catastrophe (such as the Taiping Rebellion and the wars of the 20th century) pushed millions over the brink into starvation.  Millions more died of endemic diseases such as malaria and bubonic plague (Carol Benedict’s superb work on plague, 1996, now a classic of medical history).

The system was at once a masterpiece and a deathtrap.

Within it, the boat people played a key role.  They caught the fish that provided 90% of the animal protein along the coast (Anderson 1988; Buck 1937).  They provided the water transport, essential to the system at all levels.  They were, thus, one group within a tightly-locked ecological and economic system, not a separate and independent people.  Yet, they had the independence of the free drifting life.  They were fully aware of the contradiction between these two aspects of their reality, and they felt the resulting tension; this fueled their constant talk of “independence.”  Cognitive dissonance was audible in many a waterfront discourse on such matters.

As the world runs out of resources, we all will have to return to something like the south Chinese system—intensive, sustainable, self-renewing.  One hopes we can do it without the ecological devastation of the wild, the totalitarian central government, and the local problems of violence and conflict.   Realistically, we probably cannot.  If we can, it will be because we learn from the south Chinese experience.






Castle Peak Bay, as of 1965, was a triangular bay, the head being at the north end.  This end was largely mudflats.  Wrecked boats settled on it, and a typhoon shelter (a mudflat except when typhoon waves filled it, and adequate only for small craft) took up part of its space.  By 1974, all this area was filled, but the rest of the bay—from the center south—was still a fairly deepwater harbor, with boats ranked in neat rows after the day’s fishing.  A small island, Mouse Island on maps, lay in the east central part of the bay.  Much beyond it, the roadstead was too open for anchorage.  The boat people called this island “Little Ghost Island,” because they abandoned dead children on it—not from poverty, but from adherence to an ancient tradition that no one seemed to want to talk about, partly because there was a rumor that in the past the children had not always been completely dead.  By 1965, most children were buried on shore.

The waterfront was lined with settlements.  On the remote and roadless south part of the west shore, and on around to the west side of Castle Peak, only a few houses and tiny communities existed.  They were as much as five miles from a road, and were isolated and highly traditional, often without electricity or other modernizations.  By contrast, the east side of the bay, on the main road from Kowloon through the western New Territories, was densely settled.  Shops, restaurants, and temples clustered around the wharf, which extended from the middle of the east shore out a few yards into the bay.  It provided mooring only for sampans.  To reach regular boats, one hired a sampan, rowed by a boat woman (very rarely a man).  These water taxis were a highly distinctive feature of life in all the boat settlements of those days.  The sampan women were in a position to know everything about everyone, and were prime sources of gossip.

Around the head of the pier, a cluster of shops, restaurants, and daily market stalls catered to the ordinary needs of the boat people.  Above the head of the pier, on a rocky hill, stood the Three Sages Temple, the main temple for land-dwellers.  The main one for boat people was the Tin Hau temple across the bay; another Tin Hau temple, near the Three Sages, was built in the late 1960s.

Along the bay southward were the fish dealers’ huge barnlike buildings.  More will be said of them.



The standard greetings in Cantonese are heui pin tou a? “Where are you going?” and sik jo faan mei? “Have you eaten yet?”

Where did people go, and what did they do and eat there?

Well before dawn the big boats slid out of harbor.  One by one the diesel engines roared into action, or, on sail-driven boats, creaking and heavy thuds showed that men and women were hoisting the rigging and the huge five-sided sails.  The cries of sailors giving orders waked sleepers.  If the weather was fair, hardly a boat is left in harbor by 6:00 a.m.

On the boats, each person began his or her appointed tasks.  The head of the family—normally the oldest man who is still actively working—directed the whole operation.  He guided the boat around other boats, rocks, and dangerous eddies.  If the boat was big and modern enough to have a regular captain’s wheel, he was at the wheel.  The second-in-command was usually the head’s eldest son or younger brother, but often his wife or even his mother.  He or she operated the rudder.  The other adults worked with the engine or raised the sail, and put gear in order.  A child was entrusted with the necessary task of placing three burning sticks of incense in the bow for the Bow Spirit, at the side of the boat for the Sea Surface Spirit, and at the mast for the Sky Spirit.

By dawn the boat was well out of harbor.  The women prepared breakfast, the senior woman directing the others.  People drifted to the cooking area; a bowl was sent aft to the tillerman at the rudder.  Breakfast was boiled rice with soy sauce, and, unless times are hard, with steamed or leftover vegetables and some sea food from yesterday’s catch.

Then the long day began.  Fishing went on without intermission till late afternoon.  Some time between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m. (depending on season and weather), the boat was back in harbor.  The catch of the day was loaded in a rowboat and brought to the laan.  The fisherman would be paid off—usually getting very little, for the laan kept most of the money to pay off the debts that inevitably accrued, at very high interest rates, from the fishermen’s needs for loans for boats and repairs.  The fisherman would go shopping at the pier head.  The man would buy small necessities for dinner and the household, return to his rowboat, and go back to the main boat.

The women would cook dinner—rice, vegetables, sea food.  Always, some of the catch was too small and misshapen to bring a good price, and this became the featured dinner dish.  Both men and women were expert at picking out fish and shellfish that were small and unlovely but exquisite-tasting.  They were also expert at cooking them by whatever method brought out the very best flavor.  I have never had anything like the fish dishes they cooked; no four-star restaurant can touch them.  (I have given extensive accounts of local food in Anderson 1970b:33-36; Anderson 1988; Anderson 2003.)

Everyone would then relax.  They might make nets, buy snacks from rowboat-plying hawkers, or tell stories.  They would certainly talk over the day’s affairs and waterfront news.  By 9:30 all were asleep.


This was the normative day.  By 1965, it was already only a memory for many:  the impoverished refugees who had to work at odd jobs, beg, or simply sit and pray and starve.  By 1974, the vast majority of the boat people were working shore jobs, mostly in the factories that sprang up after 1960 in San Hui.  By 1999, when I last visited the area, the boat way of life was a fading, nostalgic memory of people my age.

Even in its time of dominance, it was not the universal order.  Storms kept the boats in port all too often, especially in late summer and early fall.  Emergencies—especially engine repair—did the same.  Major festivals gave people an excuse not to fish.  At New Year the boats were idled for days.  Even the industrious knocked off three days, and many of the less industrious took off two weeks.

There were also those boat people who were not fishermen.  There were cargo handlers and lightermen.  There were boat hawkers and sampan girls.  There were shoreline workers:  longshoremen, restaurant workers, entertainers, small-scale fish retailers, odd jobbers—people who lived on boats still, but did not fish.  There were even some teachers and skilled repair workers who lived on boats.

This was no new thing.  History records not only that there has been constant movement back and forth from shore to boat, but that boat people have worked longshore jobs since time immemorial.  The boat people of nearby Shanam, in the 1920s, worked largely in salt-making (Wu 1936a, 1936b, 1937) and related shore jobs.

Boat people in harbor or on shore could indulge in the greatest of Cantonese pleasures, yam cha (“drinking tea”).  This ritual, now well known in California, involves going to a restaurant to drink tea and eat snacks.  In urban restaurants, it involves whole families sitting for hours around a table, gorging on wonderful tim sam (“dim sum,” small snacks).  “Tim sam” literally means “dot the heart”; compare the English “hits the spot.”  Drinking tea on the Castle Peak Bay waterfront was a different world.  The restaurants were small, rough, and built out on piles over the water.  (Castle Peak had a “floating restaurant,” actually moored on piles, but—like other, larger floating restaurants—it catered more to tourists than to local people.)  Yam cha was largely a man’s world, and largely about drinking tea—no one could afford snacks beyond minimal ones.

The senior man of a family would have his regular table.  A senior man might have his grown sons or other family members, including his wife or other senior women, but young women and girls were not allowed.  For a community leader, his regular table was his office.  A leader would be at his table at a well-known time, and anyone wishing to speak to him would know when and where to find him.

Land and water people came together over tea, signed contracts, made deals, discussed economics and weather and pleasures, planned coming festivals.  The fishermen talked endlessly of how the fish were running, and who was catching what.  Drinking tea was thus part of work, not just a pleasure.  The Cantonese rule that deals had to be closed over drinks and food was one of those cultural rules that brooked no exceptions, and so a negotiation too small to be worth a dinner had to go on and to close over tea.

While the man drank tea, his wife went to market.  Crowds of women rode the local bus (never the fancier long-range bus, though it stopped at all the right places).  Within recent memory, shopping had been a senior man’s job, for women and young people were afraid of the prejudice and harsh treatment they got on shore.  Some still left it to the men.  Most, however, were willing to go as far as the public market in San Hui; it was safely near the bay.  However, boat women who were loud and volatile on the water became quiet and reserved.  Children clung close and tried to be invisible.  This was land people’s territory.

At San Hui, the boat people bought vegetables, hardware, clothing, and, very rarely, meat.  (More routine needs like rice, eggs, oil, and medicinal herbs could be bought on the pier.)  Such local items as papayas, roasted chestnuts, and other fruits and nuts were rare treats.

Everyone then returned to the boats, to spend the day washing, cleaning, and mending or making nets.  Children played, often swimming in the harbor.



Food was important to the boat people, not only as sustenance but as marker of social occasions and as one of life’s greatest pleasures.  The boat people ate well, and spent a great deal of time cooking, eating, and talking about food.  Like other Cantonese, they spent a good deal of their discretionary income on dining out.  This was not, however, merely for pleasure; dining had major social functions.

The ease of getting fish in those good years meant that few active fisher families lacked for basic sustenance and for high-quality protein.  Valuable fish were sold for many times their weight in rice; less valuable catches were the family dinner.

This was fortunate, for the caloric needs of the boat people were enormous.  Anyone fishing on the winter sea faced horrific conditions.  Fishers had to draw nets by hand, handle awkward rigging and rowboats, and move heavy equipment and heavy fish-baskets around the deck—all on a pitching, rolling boat in freezing wind and soaking cold spray.  Summer, with its enervating heat, frequent diseases, and constant thunderstorms, was not much better.  Under such circumstances, an adult man needed at least 5,000 calories for a long day’s work, and we saw people eat more.  I was once challenged on this by a critic who had looked up “fishing” in a table of nutritional needs and found it required only 3,000 calories.  Of course, the table-maker was thinking of recreational fishing.  I had to point out, patiently, that dangling a hook and line in a lake was not quite the same thing as facing a winter storm on the South China Sea.

One typical breakfast for an adult man facing a winter day was fat pork ribs, heavily sugared, and washed down with raw alcohol.  This tasted to the men as awful as it sounds, but it was often the only way they could choke down enough calories in the few minutes available.  Work without breakfast could easily mean death from hypothermia and exhaustion.  Lunch and dinner involved several bowls of rice, with sea food, soy sauce, ginger, and perhaps a bit of something else.

Vegetables were in short supply; they were expensive (especially in late winter) and hard to store.  The boat people knew all too well the result of going for weeks with almost no vegetables or fruits:  sores that did not heal, sore mouths, infections, and all the other symptoms of scurvy—the sailors’ eternal scourge.  Knowing nothing of vitamin C, they believed it was caused by yit hei (“heating qi”), but they knew the cure well enough; experience showed which vegetables and fruits were most effective.  They saw this as proof that the foods had cooling qi.  We noted that the foods were those highest in vitamin C content.

Serious food was divided into faan (cooked rice) and sung (prepared items to put on it).  In addition to these came ko or kuo (fruits and nuts), tim sam, noodles (min), and other snacks; children away from home were the main snackers.

Social occasions were marked by special foods, usually high in animal protein.  First in importance were the choice sea foods of the area.  These were readily available.  Castle Peak Bay had the reputation of having some of the best—the water was clean and the fish abundant.   The standard shore dinner included shrimp, crabs, and fish; the favorites among the latter were the groupers (sekpaan, Epinephalus spp.), with the pomfret second.  Other fish, as well as fish roes, cuttlefish, squid, and other sea creatures, followed in order, with the lowly sharks and rays being among the least choice.  Good seafood was kept alive in clean water.  A dead fish or shrimp was a second-rate commodity.

These foods were usually used in feasts that were primarily to entertain and interact.  Feasts for more structured occasions, especially religious ones, demanded certain specific land foods.  Chicken was the most general of these, being virtually a marker of ritual or ceremonial occasions, from weddings to ancestral sacrifices and from store openings to community gatherings.

Pork was virtually universal at all land people’s meals above the plainest level.  The boat people got far less of it (and far more sea food), but still had it on the table at every special occasion of any great importance.  However, unlike the land people, they did not so often have it at dinners that were merely fun and good fellowship.  Moreover, the land people often had large hunks of roast pork, by itself; the boat people usually stretched it by cutting it into small pieces and cooking it with less expensive vegetables.  Duck, rare and exceptional for everyone, was also rarer on boat decks than on land tables.  Finally, expensive, choice vegetables were definitely a land luxury; the boat people had few enough of even the cheap kinds.  Only at large weddings and other truly exceptional feasts did mushrooms or blanched chives or small cabbages enter the boat world.  Certain foods, such as shark fin, duck with cashew nuts, and steamed freshwater mullet, were especially expensive, and thus marked truly exceptional occasions.

A boat feast, then, was usually of sea food with chicken dishes and a dish or two of cut-up pork with vegetables.  A land feast was largely chicken and pork dishes, with some expensive sea food and some expensive, luxurious vegetables.  The actual code was far more complex than this, and one could write a book on the specifics of social-occasion marking through food in Cantonese culture (see Anderson 1988, Watson and Watson 2004).

For the boat people, fish had to be cooked a certain way.  Groupers were steamed and eaten with ginger and other flavorings.  Pomfret was steamed and usually covered with a white sauce.  Sea bass was chunked and stir-fried.  Yellow croakers went into sweet-and-sour sauce (the only time anyone made sweet-sour sauce on the waterfront, sweet-sour pork being considered uncouth).  Crabs required black bean sauce or red vinegar.   Fresh shrimp were generally simply boiled, or stir-fried with various flavorings.  People were surprisingly conservative about these methods.  A diner choosing to cook a fish in a non-canonical way had to explain why he had “wasted a perfectly good fish.”


Patterns of clothing in rural south China distinguished different ethnic groups.  The boat people wore loose black cotton pants and shirts, and mushroom-shaped hats made of hard bamboo slips or palm leaves.  The black cotton cloth was light but incredibly tough, withstanding salt water and heavy wear.  In winter, people adopted the layered look, with thin undergarments and wadded jackets.  For formal occasions, dark blue often substituted for black.

In the mid-1960s, most people still wore traditional clothing.  By the 1970s, cheap western-style clothing had become rather common.  It had to be very cheap to compete, because the old-fashioned outfits outlasted western-style garments by months or years.

Children wore brighter colors, and young ones added many protective charms, including tiny models of floats.  Most women and many men wore jade bracelets, because in an accident these would shatter instead of one’s arm bone (a religious belief, not a scientific fact; most people could recite counter-cases).


Recreation usually involved socializing, eating, drinking, and relaxing.  The young engaged in horseplay—chasing, swimming, pickup ball, and miscellaneous energetic activity.  Land people included in their stereotype of boat people an odd belief that the boat people could not swim.  Anyone who visited the bay on a warm sunny day could see the error of that.

More serious time-killing usually took the form of gambling; older women in particular played mah-jongg and related games by the hour.  A standard way of saying someone was living the easy life was to say “he/she can play mah-jongg all day.”  Mah-jongg was a noisy game, usually played on a table of thin, resonant wood.  It was an older adults’ game; playing it was a privilege of seniority.  Younger adults did not play.  No one won or lost much money; now and then someone would win HK $100, but this would be lost again in a few days.

On the other hand, the boat people were largely a sober lot.  Robert Antony in Froth Floating on the Sea (2003:140-150) provides lurid accounts of the activities of South Chinese pirates—boozing, whoring, gambling, and otherwise acting like pirates.  (Those of the Caribbean, however idealized by Disney, were, in reality, the same or worse.)  The boat people of Castle Peak Bay told the same stories of such rough elements, but they were quick to distance themselves from such lifestyles.  Their difficult life, demanding not only hard and dangerous work but also extreme thrift, honesty, and mutual aid, allowed very little recreation.  Almost all profit went to pay off loans.  True, what little was left very often went to gambling and alcohol, but that was more about maintaining social ties than about debauchery.  Tiny sums of money, a few days a year, hardly permitted debauchery.  Even the relatively well-off could not indulge often.  The boat people carefully calculated feasting and drinking, and gambling to a lesser extent, to maximize social ties.  These activities were not mere amusement.

Music delighted everyone.  Radios, festival music, instrument solos, and folksinging all made the waterfront a vibrant, wonderful cacophony that could be heard a mile away.  During the day, one was usually able to listen to several radios, each playing at top volume, each tuned to a different station—and often someone was singing over it all.

Well into the 1960s, the boat people were known for their “salt water songs” (haam seui ko; Anderson 1975; Wu 1937). These songs had been famous throughout south China for centuries.  These included some traditional folksongs and poems (with set texts), but most were freely improvised, blues-like sequences.  Singers, usually young, displayed great musical and poetic ability.  Singing was a typical feature of courtship (usually of the “light love” variety), but salt water songs also included funeral laments, marriage songs, complaints about hard life, and simple time-killing songs for dull hours on the water.

In 1965, when I began to record salt water songs, many people knew a rich selection, but radio music had already made great inroads.  By the 1970s, salt water songs were dead, and only a few people remembered them.  One of the greatest folk song forms in the world, a tradition fully comparable to American blues or Scottish ballads, had disappeared without trace.  To my knowledge, my recordings, done on a wretched old tape recorder that barely played, are all that survives (the tapes are deposited in the Hong Kong Museum).

The salt water songs were a true expression of boat culture: beautiful, intense, personal, and usually highly improvisational.  They combined classic themes and images in ever-new ways, the better to express deep truths in a language that was at once highly metaphoric and strikingly direct.  They ranged from gloriously ribald to delicately sensitive.  They treated the full emotions of the singers, revealing much that could never be spoken.  They focused boat life and experience into a single rich form.  They were one of the great achievements of the human spirit, and they should never have died.  Nothing like them will ever appear again.



Predominantly fishermen, the boat people had an amazing knowledge of marine life.  Dr. William Cheung, the Stanford-trained fisheries expert who generously provided most of the identifications for me, had kept a running record of the knowledge, and we estimated that the boat people of Hong Kong knew over 1,400 named taxa of marine life.  I recorded about 400 names at Castle Peak Bay.  These covered everything from seabirds, sea snakes, and sea turtles to shrimps, sea cucumbers and even humbler bottom fauna.  (All the names can be found in Anderson 1972; I will stick largely to English here.)

Like most people, they recognized life-form categories:  birds (jeuk), snakes (se), turtles (kuai) fish (yu), decapod crustacea (ha, including shrimps, prawns and lobsters), crabs (hai), and snails (lo).  These were basic large divisions of the animate world.

They also had a range of smaller but comparably basic divisions—small life-form categories, or merely the residual taxa that Berlin called “unique beginners.”  (No one has ever really solved the question of how to regard these terms.)  These included Cantonese categories exactly equivalent to English labels: clams, squids, cuttlefish, octopi, sea cucumbers, oysters, roaches, horseshoe crabs, starfish, jellyfish, and sea urchins.  Except for squids with a very few categories, these taxonomic units were not further subdivided.  There was only one marine type of each.  (The roach had a land exemplar, however; water roaches—seui jaat— were crustacea, Lygyda spp., but seen as marine forms of the cockroach, kak jaat.)  Porpoises and dolphins were often called “sea pigs,” which would make them another sea exemplar of a land category.

Cantonese had no categories equivalent to “shellfish,” “crustaceans,” “mollusks,” or “cephalopods.”  The boat people simply saw no reason to lump highly disparate creatures under broad headings of that sort.  English keeps “squids” and “cuttlefish” separate, as Cantonese does, though the learned scientific term “cephalopod” has gained some currency.

One category somewhat problematic to me at first was lung, “dragons.”  The boat people knew, and claimed to see on occasion, three or four types of these.  Most of these remained invisible to me, but one, the cham lung (“sinking dragon” or “deep-diving dragon”), was quite visible; it was the sturgeon.  The tentacles and distinctive scales of this strange, primitive fish made it seem more dragon than fish, though it was uncomfortably intermediate between these two categories (see Chapter 7).

In general, Chinese classification is strikingly similar to English, and thus very different indeed from many classification systems around the world.  Not only does it have more or less the same structure and categories; it is also rather complex, with many terms at each level.  It has many folk species, for instance.  This contrasts sharply with North American Native systems, including the Haida, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Yucatec Maya ones I have studied.  To my knowledge, all Native American systems are very heavy on folk generics, very light on life-form categories and folk specifics.  They are “shallow” taxonomies.  Apparently it is easier to learn a simple list of names until the list becomes overwhelmingly large (Hunn 1990).

I suspect the deeper and more complex Chinese system results from China’s long history as a mercantile civilization.  I think that this history has produced particular pressures to name certain beings in certain ways—as a similar history certainly did in Europe.  Plant names can be more easily traced than fish names in Chinese history (Anderson 1991), and thus provide a valuable comparison.  Sources from the earliest period of Chinese history show a Native American type of plant taxonomy, with many one-word terms comprising folk generics.  Folk specifics were added steadily over time, as the Chinese discovered more and more plants that were obviously related to familiar plants.  For instance, the familiar willow lent its name to the Near Eastern pomegranate, which arrived in the early medieval period and was labeled “stone willow.”  Then the Portuguese brought the guava from South America in the 16th century; the guava was called the “barbarians’ stone willow” because of its similarity to a pomegranate.  The Portuguese were “barbarians” not just because of Chinese prejudice, but also because of less-than-lovable behavior; more than a few were smugglers and swashbucklers.

Brent Berlin points out that people classify under one terminological head those organisms that appear to make up a “natural” group to members of the culture (Berlin 1992).  Berlin, like Scott Atran (1990), tends to think such groups are natural—they are typically biological groupings, given by shared evolution and genetics, and people see them as such.  Where the folk are clearly not doing this, as in classing whales with fish, it is because of understandable mistakes; numerous similarities link whales and fish.  The boat people realized that porpoises and whales are “like pigs” internally.  They classed them with fish on the basis of surface similarities, but also called them “sea pigs.”  As in the case of the sturgeon, this appearance of belonging to two opposed basic categories made these mammals anomalous, and thus uncanny (see Chapter 7).

Other anthropologists, especially those who have studied systems radically different from English or Chinese, see taxonomy as much more arbitrary, much less grounded in “real” biology (e.g. Ellen 1993; Forth 2004).  Obviously, the anthropologists’ experience matters here[1].

Looking over world systems, one cannot miss a universal tendency to “carve nature at the joints” (as taxonomist folklore has it)—to see real biological divisions.  Such divisions tend to make sense; they capture useful truths.

However, when other, even more useful truths are captured by a quite different classification system, people may ignore whatever joints nature may have.  For instance, some systems noted by Ellen and Forth class bats with birds, but class flightless birds as something else entirely.  This makes perfect sense if flight is a key characteristic but other obvious biological markers (feathers, beaks, etc.) are not.

More interesting are basic differences that these and many other systems make between spiritually powerful creatures and other, lesser ones.  We shall see below that the boat people have such a division, but they do not make it part of their basic taxonomic system.  Many other peoples do.  However, Native North American groups such as the Haida made a far more serious issue of spiritual-power classification.  One cannot understand their system without knowing both local biology and Haida religion.  This did not keep them from having an enormous and biologically very sophisticated taxonomy and knowledge base for marine life.

Even scientific taxonomists provided us with some groupings that seemed reasonable, but turned out to be genetically far off base.  Fungi were included with plants (they are genetically closer to animals).  American vultures were lumped with African ones (American vultures are storks; African vultures are close to eagles).  So, when a society finds it expedient to recognize ceremonial value, fightlessness (of birds), or stem shape (of plants) as basic, we should not be surprised, even if it means “carving nature at joints” totally different from the joints recognized by scientists or folk English speakers.

The boat people found it to their advantage to develop a classification system close to the scientific one.  This interested me, and I asked them to explain.  They said that not only do all sharks, all groupers, all squids look alike, they also act alike and often taste alike.  If you want to catch new species, you can make certain predictions based on the behavior of the ones you know.  If you want to sell them, you can expect to get about the same price, or at least be in the same pricing universe; sharks are very cheap except for the valuable fins, groupers are all valuable, squid are in between.

Broad, basic terms of the sort described above were broken down into what my teacher Brent Berlin calls “folk generics.”  These are the basic terms of reference to animals and plants:  one-word or two-word, easily-learned names that can be applied to a group of very similar organisms.  These are sometimes broken down into “folk species.”  In American English, “trout” and “shark” are folk generics.  Folk species within these categories include brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, white shark, sand shark, and so forth.  Normally,  a folk species name is made by adding an adjective to a folk generic.

Such categorization is dynamic.  Most Americans have “salmon” as a folk generic, with chum salmon, pink salmon, and so on as folk species.  These Americans see salmon as very similar, and probably very few can distinguish the species.  By contrast, the Northwest Coast Native peoples never recognized such a generic.  They have always seen the many species of salmon in their waters as totally different fish.  They find it preposterous that anyone should lump them.  This pattern has spread to Anglo settlers, who now use “chum,” “pink,” “sockeye,” and so on as folk generics, and use the word “salmon” only when referring to aggregate economic data and the like.  They laugh at tourists and other ignorant folk who cannot instantly see that a sockeye is totally different from a pink.  (This paragraph is based on my field work in British Columbia, 1984-1987.)

The boat people’s fish terminology turned out to be as neat, straightforward, and well-organized as kinship, but there were huge differences in people’s knowledge of it, leading to smaller but real differences in people’s classification systems.  Some were experts in one thing, some in another.  Trawlermen knew all sorts of small, scruffy marine items that hook-and-line fishermen ignored.

Hook-and-liners knew the fine distinctions between the many grouper species (or rockfish; sekpaan in Cantonese; to scientists, Epinephalus spp. and close relatives).  Trawlermen just called them all “red” or “green” or “spotted groupers.”  This was one case where one could see why nature was carved at the joints.  The hook-and-liners explained to me that each sekpaan has its own behavior:  its own favored habitat, depth, wariness of the hook, favorite bait, and so on.  They could give excellent species-specific accounts of these matters.  The trawlermen caught groupers in huge net hauls, and did not have any occasion or reason to know the differences between different species.

In all cases, folk generics corresponded to scientific taxonomic units, but the units varied in size.  Sekpaan corresponded almost perfectly to the scientific genus Epinephalus, but sa yu, “sharks,” corresponded to several families—all the fish we call sharks, hammerheads, and guitarfish in English.  The boat people were aware of real biological relationships, but they were not concerned with making folk genera comparable in extension.

They were equally well aware of real biological differences.  For instance, they recognized that the almost exactly similar mudskippers and walking gobies were quite different biological entities.  The hook-and-liners recognized different species of sekpaan that biologists could barely distinguish; the hook-and-liners knew, moreover, that one species occurred on very rocky and rugged bottoms, while another virtually indistinguishable one preferred pebbles and sand.  Marine biologists, if they knew this, knew it only because they had learned it from the fishermen.

Clearly, Berlin is right about at least some folk biologists.  They do know “nature” very well indeed, and know how to carve it at joints that are biologically real .

Folk specifics usually corresponded closely to biologists’ species, but sometimes a folk specific lumped a whole set of biological species, especially in the case of small organisms whose biological species look much alike.  Shrimps and small, worthless fish were the main examples.

Unlike the Maya (whom I have worked with since), the boat people had many folk generics divided into folk species.  In addition to groupers and sharks, there were species of rays, croakers, soles, seabass, and many other common types. They coined many names that were, or functioned as, folk specifics by adding adjectives to life-form categories:  “spotted shrimp,” “dragon shrimp” (lobster), and so on.

Turning a term like sa yu into a folk species term involved dropping the life-form category yu and adding an adjective, as in pak sa, “white shark,” apparently identical to the western white shark (Charcharodon carcharias).


This biologically-grounded taxonomic system was the basic system—what Berlin calls a basic or general-purpose taxonomy.  It was the one always used when what one wanted to do was simply give a name to something.  It was the system always used to supply a name when I asked “what’s that”?  (Not, you remember, “what’s its name?…”)

However, the boat people used other ways of classifying fish.  These were all ad hoc, functional systems.  They cross-cut the biological taxonomy.  I recorded the following:

–Price.  The price mattered a great deal.  So everyone knew which were the high-priced fish, and even the exact prices that the better ones brought from the dealers and in the markets.  Many were worthless, or good only as “duck feed fish.”   Some fish were good only for salting as haam yu “salt fish.”

–Catching method:  trawler fish, hook-and-line fish, gill-netter fish, and so on.

–Life cycle stages.  Amazingly common and uniform around the world is a tendency for fishermen to divide common fish into life cycle stages.  In English, for instance, salmon are fry, then parr, then smolt, then finally mature salmon.  Eels begin as elvers.  Similarly, for the boat people, tiny fry were “flowers” (fa), and there were size terms for sole and a few other species.

–Life type.  Oysters were differentiated by where they grew:  rock oysters, tile oysters, and so on.

–Metaphor.  Very rarely, a human was called a shark or a dragon.  One might have thought the boat people would more often use marine metaphors, but they did not.

–Religious importance.  Several species were san yu, “sacred fish.”  This very important category will be discussed in Chapter   .

These ad hoc functional schemes were never used to produce ordinary conversational or formal names.  They arose only in context.  On the other hand, they were important, formalized, and frequently discussed—especially the price system.

The boat people certainly recognized that the basic taxonomy was grounded in nature—in the reality of the fish and their obvious relationships or similarities.  They recognized that this was a totally different classification method from that used in the cross-cutting systems, which were based entirely on human concerns.  The boat people thus paralleled the thinking of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962) in his differentiation of “scientific” thought and “wild” thought.  Scientific thought tries to understand the nonhuman world in its own terms.  Wild thought understands the nonhuman world in strictly human terms, projecting human categories onto it, seeing it only as a site for human use-values and metaphors.  The boat people’s sharp distinction between the basic taxonomy and the ad hoc cross-cutting systems closely parallels this division.

The Yucatec Maya, whom I have studied since, have a similar distinction, but it seems less sharp.  In fact, recording the related Itzaj Maya language, C. A. Hofling and the Itzaj Maya scholar Felix Tesucún (1997) do not distinguish a basic from ad hoc, special-purpose systems.  They provide only one taxonomy, incorporating functional, human-centered categories as part of the whole system.  The human-centered terms are subcategories within a basically nature-centered taxonomy.  Since one of the two is a fluent native speaker, this must be psychologically real to the Itzaj.  It would certainly not be psychologically real for the Yucatec, who do distinguish basic from special-purpose taxonomies.  However, even among the Yucatec, the division is not as clear as among the Cantonese.

The whole nomenclatural system provides a wonderful simple case of a cultural classification system.  The terms hang together neatly, are organized in sharply defined cross-cutting categorization modes, and apply quite precisely to the natural world.  People use the terms in a flexible, adaptable, but straightforward fashion, to talk about fish.  Practice enters, especially in the cross-cutting ad hoc systems.  These change rapidly according to felt needs in interaction and discourse.  On the other hand, the basic structure of Chinese fish taxonomy has remained the same for thousands of years, as we know from classical texts.

This makes a very neat model of culture:  long-lasting structural framework, shorter-term changes and adaptations, and instant accommodation to the much more fluid, rich, complicated world of actual discursive practice.  (On the general theory all these matters see Hanks 1990.)  This may be one of the most important theoretical conclusions I learned from my boat friends.

It also makes clear the degree to which traditional people know their environment.  The boat people’s system was biologically sophisticated and knowledge-rich.  I could give only a brief summary of their incredible working knowledge even in my more detailed books, and will not even attempt it here.  Suffice it to say that one could easily fill an encyclopedia with Cantonese fishermen’s knowledge of sea life, to say nothing of ships, winds, waters, and the rest of their environment.

Comparing the boat people’s system with modern biological knowledge helps appreciate how much they knew, and also what we can learn from it, but the comparison is also interesting for what it tells us about human thought.  This being the case, we need comparisons of the boat system not only with the biological, but also with the Maya, the Haida, the various systems studied by Ellen and Forth, and, last but far from least, with classical Chinese fish lore.  Such comparisons will have to await further research.

The currently popular myth that “indigenous knowledge” is “culturally constructed,” and thus not similar to or close to modern biological knowledge, does not stand up under investigation.  Most fishermen’s knowledge of marine environment and biology was scientifically impeccable, and modern marine biologists learned a great deal from the boat people.  The boat people sometimes phrased it differently, but it could be translated into bioscientific terms with ease.  Cultural classification systems are, of course, culturally constructed (by definition), but that does not mean they are out of touch with reality.  Many anthropologists seem to think that there is an opposition between cultural construction and “reality” (whatever that is).  Of course not.  Culture is adaptive; it is the knowledge we need to live our lives.  It has to be realistic.  It is never a perfect reflection of reality; that would require perfect information, and humans never have that.  Culture provides useful knowledge, not perfect knowledge.

Yet, equally interesting, and common in China as elsewhere, is the combination of highly perceptive and expert biology with a number of beliefs that seem flagrantly and obviously counter-evidential.  Dragons and sacred fish were important to the boat people.  The boat people sometimes saw dragons writhing in the clouds of a typhoon or violent storm; fear made the vapor seem malignantly alive. Classical Chinese biology—like folkbiologies around the world—includes many other strange creatures, ranging from phoenixes to crane-riding Immotals.   The sacred fish were real enough, but were fish that seemed anomalous in some way, and thus uncanny; they were thus out of the normal realm.

Very often, such “mistakes” arise by logical extension of reasonable beliefs that approximate reality.  I have described elsewhere (Anderson 1996) how Chinese ideas of nutrition and of landscape evolved naturally from correct observations.  Such beliefs as are incompatible with modern bioscience were logically deduced from correct observations; the logic was imperfect only because the observations were limited by the investigative and theorizing capacities of a premodern society.

We need more and better analyses of how such knowledge systems arise, and how they serve to mediate between people and environment.



To live, the boat people had to make money.  Chinese society has been market-oriented for millennia, and much ink has been spilled over the question of why China did not develop capitalism before the west did.

The boat people had an ambiguous view of money.  This showed clearly in a proverb they very often cited:  “Money is like dung; honesty and goodness are worth a thousand gold.”  Money is dung—but is the measure of value and goodness, too!  The ambiguity is, however, less real than appearance suggests.  In fact, money per se is like dung; misers and penny-pinchers got no respect.  Money used for sociability, community, and mutual aid was a different thing.  Using money thus was the very soul of honesty and goodness.

The proper boat person, especially the male, thus immediately converted any spare wealth into social capital (a phrase I used in my original Castle Peak monograph, before Bourdieu made it famous [Anderson 1970b:83]; maybe I should claim credit).  He throws feasts, supports festivals, cultivates friendships, enjoys himself, and helps others out.  Such a man is gaining min, “face,” of which more anon.  Actual behavior ranged from almost complete indifference to money to grasping skinflint attitudes, but most boat people, especially leaders, stood close to the ideal.

Poor people had mixed standing.  Unfortunate or hard-working ones were pitied.  Lazy, dishonest, or incompetent ones were despised—not so much because they were immoral as because, in the words of one land-dweller, “the poor can’t help you.”

Rich people did not get automatic respect.   They would have to deal with gossip to the effect they got their wealth dishonestly, especially if they did not spread it around.

The ideal, then, was to get money industriously; grasping or too-clever tactics were acceptable.  But, however the money came, one should share the good fortune with as many people as possible, and in as helpful a way as possible.  Helping with religious festivals was perhaps the most prestigious.  The believers saw these festivals as the best hope for guaranteeing good weather, good health, and good luck to the whole community.  The skeptics saw that at least the festivals brought the community together as nothing else could.

Traditionally, the boat people of the western New Territories made their living on the water and from the water.  Most of them were fishers (for full detail on fishing, too specialized to cover here, see Anderson 1970b, 1972).  The rest made their living as cargo-carriers, longshoremen, fish market workers, and other shoreline occupations.  A large number, often women or older people with limited options, made their living carrying passengers in sampans.  Many others lived as boat-based vendors.  They rowed among the moored fishing boats during the evening, selling everything from vegetables and oil to firecrackers and incense.  Like vendors in Elizabethan London, they had beautiful, musical calls to advertise their wares; these calls were among the most characteristic and nostalgic sounds of quiet evenings on the water.  Cries were more numerous and varied in the past, said the fishermen, who added that they deeply missed those old sounds.

At Tai O, but not at Castle Peak, some boat girls made their living by singing songs and otherwise entertaining young men.  Sex was not necessarily involved, nor was it excluded.  No one considered these girls to be prostitutes, and no stigma attached to their occupation.  Quite the reverse; by singing folk songs and sometimes classical Chinese poems, they brought highly valued cultural delights to the waterfront.

Within recent memory, smuggling and piracy had also been important occupations (Antony 2003; Murray 1987).  Piracy was long extinct in 1965, but smuggling opium and running refugees out of China were still side occupations for a few fishermen.  I had no opportunity to investigate this, for obvious reasons, but I was told by reliable friends that it was rare at Castle Peak.  Most such activity was concentrated in the bigger, more urban ports.

At Castle Peak, all these nonfishing boat people, whatever their occupation, lived on sampans or on stationary craft.  At Tai O, most boat people lived on houses—built and maintained like boat cabins—on pilings over tidewater.  The tidal “streets” left between rows of houses became mud at low tide, neither navigable or walkable.  These streets were known as chung (no character known), a word that sounds to me suggestively like the Thai equivalent klong.  (There is a theory that klong is cognate with jiang, the traditional Chinese name of the Yangzi River.  Central China still has some Thai speakers, and, as noted above, the Hong Kong area was probably Thai-speaking—in the broad sense of the word “Thai”—within early historic times.)

Life on the old boats was wonderful, vibrant, and fascinating.  It was even beautiful, for the boat people kept their boats clean, varnished, and shipshape.  The old craft were striking enough to show up in every tourist photograph of Hong Kong—even long after they had disappeared except as photographers’ props!  Many of the furnishings—jars, tackle, pans, altar sculptures—were true works of art.

By 1965, unsuccessful fishermen and poorer refugees from China were moving out of the fishery to work in the factories, shops, and cafes that were opening in San Hui.  No one we talked to did this voluntarily; all were forced into it by being unable to raise capital to maintain a boat.  After that time, decline set in, until the fishery ended.

In 1965 and 1966, the fishery still employed the largest number of people of any activity around the bay.  Some 400 species of marine life were more or less commonly found, and another several hundred potentially occurred somewhere in the area.  I recorded about 100 species commonly taken and sold at Castle Peak Bay.  Most important commercially were groupers, soles, croakers, goldenthread, and shrimp.  Pomfret, crab, and flathead made up a more specialized group of species.

Huge old hand trawlers—magnificent sailing-junks from another era—dominated the skyline.  The newer, sleeker, diesel-powered trawlers, net-hauling booms lowered for fishing or raised out of the way, moved around them like wolves among bears.  Trawlers drag huge nets over the bottom, or close to it, and catch mostly trash fish and larger but less valuable species; the slow hand-trawlers specialized in catching vast masses of tiny sea life used for duck feed.

Below and around and among these were the small gill-netters that stretched long curtains of nets from the water surface, blocking the paths of migrating schools of fish.  They made most of their money in spring, when the yellow croakers (Pseudosciaenia crocea) ran north to breed in the Yangtze area and the China Sea (on this fishery, see Chu 1960).  By 1975, the yellow croakers were declining, victims of pollution and overfishing.  Gill-netting was a dying art.  Sweet-sour yellow croaker, one of the superb signature dishes of Castle Peak Bay restaurants, was almost a thing of the past.  A few purse-seiners, similar to gill-netters but using smaller nets that surrounded fish, worked the shallows; they caught small amounts of small fish.  This was a chronically low-paying fishery; purse-seining paid much better in the eastern New Territories.  (Barbara Ward’s community, Kau Sai, in the east, was largely a purse-seiner port).

Smaller still were the hook-and-line boats that specialized in catching high-quality larger fish for the fresh-fish market.  Some of these boats were no more than sampans, but they had cabins and housed families.  Many of these were not mechanized.  The ancient five-sided mat sail, amazingly adaptable for sailing close to the wind, held its own among the aging bus engines and other retooled motors that drove most of the fleet.  One reason was that the engines constantly broke down, and the trouble and expense of repairing them ruined many a family.  Therefore, less affluent or more traditional families avoided them.

In the fresh fish market, hook-and-line fish took pride of place, since net-caught fish were dead on arrival.  This allowed the tiny hook-and-lining sampans to make a living.  What they lacked in catching power and range they made up in value of product.   Some species fetched many times as much as others, and fashions tended to change; the fishers had to keep up on fickle tastes.


The number of people on a boat was a function of its size.  The hand-trawlers had, by my census count, up to 47 people living on them.  I heard of junks with 60 to 80 residents.  Often there were passengers as well.

One other type of boat was the houseboat.  In addition to old wrecked trawlers and other craft still used for housing, there were many houseboats, some large enough to serve as schools and meeting halls.  They had large square cabins, and could not travel; they were anchored in place, except when ponderously towed to shelter during typhoons.

One important type of houseboat was the live fish boat.  Several of these lined the southeast shore of the bay, where they sold live seafood to gourmets.  Tied to the boats were small, low barges with the bottoms replaced by chicken wire; sea water circulated freely for the fish, shrimp, crabs, and lobsters.  (Such boats are known as “well-smacks” in England.)  The live fish boat owners lived in their small houseboats, surrounded by these well-smacks, and bought the fish from specialized small fishermen (mostly hook-and-liners) for resale to the connoisseurs.

Life on the boats was not necessarily poor or uncomfortable.  Medium-sized ones had chickens and a dog or cat.  Big ones might add ducks, geese, and even a pig for New Year.  Flowering plants and medicinal herbs in pots graced the stern, and many sterncastles were magnificent floating gardens.


The fishermen sold most of their catch to the fish buyers.  Here and elsewhere, when talking about sales and economic interaction, I use the term “fishermen,” because dealings with the buyers and similar powerful shore folk were invariably carried out by the senior men.  The women had a full share in decision-making and fund allocation on the boats, and did their share of the fishing; indeed, the boat world was the least patriarchal in Hong Kong.  But land people, especially big businessmen, were dangerous; women avoided them.

Castle Peak Bay was especially interesting as a last holdout of the Imperial Chinese merchandising institution of fully private fish-buying.  Elsewhere in Hong Kong, and of course in China, government had stepped in to market the fish.  Only at Castle Peak did the fish buyers still control the industry.

The fish buyers’ dark, barnlike structures lined the southeast part of the shoreline.  The sheds, and by extension their owners, were known as laan (“pen,” and by extension “dealing place, auction shed”).  The backs of these structures projected over the water, raised on high pilings.  Boats came in and offloaded fish in baskets, which were carried up flights of steps (underwater at high tide) to the main shed floor.  The other end of the laan opened on the main road. These dealers—there were 18 of them in 1965, fewer in 1974—bought fish directly from the fishermen, packed and graded them, and resold them to middlemen from the cities, who came out at evening to buy lots of fish.  These they would put in baskets and leave on the curb, there to be picked up in the wee hours by the dealers’ trucks.  These city buyers, in turn, sold the fish to retailers in the urban markets.  Caught between the powerful laans and the sharp urban retail dealers, and forced to drive trucks in the wee hours, these city buyers did not have an easy life.  The laans took 6% of the city buyers’ price for themselves, remitting the rest to the fishermen—but only after debt repayments had also been extracted.  Debt repayments were calculated such that the fishermen’s usual margins were barely enough to buy fuel and food.  Anything beyond that required borrowing still more from the laans.

Laans preferred loyal and honest customers, and gave much better terms to such, to hold them.  On the other hand, they quickly stopped all credit to deadbeats, driving them out of the fishery.  The laan owners knew the credit-worthiness of every established fisher family on the waterfront.  Newcomers had a hard time of it unless they could establish a reputation.  Conversely, a fisherman with a reputation as both a good fish-catcher and a thoroughly honest man could get special terms from the laans.

The laans were cordially hated by the fishermen, who uniformly accused them of colluding to fix prices.  They also supposedly gave short weights; a proverb said that “a laan’s catty is eighteen ounces.”  (The normal catty has sixteen ounces.  This proverb was not restricted to the waterfront—it was a “frame text,” and producers all over Hong Kong used it to describe purchasers of every stripe.  But it was not a hollow figure of speech.  I personally saw some rather shady weighing carried out; see King 1955 for a study of pricing in a more free-market boat community).  Laans often sold fuel and other needs, and, like many other merchants on the bay, they charged top prices[2].   Also, the laans were not friendly to boat people.  In 1965, one lost his temper and said “I can whip you dirty Tanka like dogs.”  The fisherman sued him for abuse, and won, but that was something that could not have happened even three or four years earlier.

Moreover, the laans were the fishermen’s source of capital, and charged high interest rates—theoretically 20% per year, actually higher, though terms were flexible (they did not want to put fishermen out of business permanently).  In practice, fishermen in debt to laans almost never escaped.  The interest rates were too high, the capital needs too great and too oft-recurrent.  Engines, in particular, constantly needed fixing, and the boat people—unlike some groups I have worked with—were not “natural-born” mechanics.  They tried to repair their engines, but rather than working with the cool efficiency of the people I know in south Mexico, the typical fisherman sweated, cursed, cut corners, became angry and threw bolts, tinkered without much enthusiasm, and eventually had to buy a new engine.  Even without this, expenses constantly added up, and prices stayed low.

A fisherman could not normally change laans.  The laans had a strict rule that they would not pick up another laan’s fisherman, unless said fisherman was thrown out by his usual laan.  Since no laan would do this unless the fisherman was a deadbeat, fishermen did not switch laans.  Once in a great while an extremely lucky and honest fisherman could get away with a switch, but normally this was impossible.

The fishermen therefore pressured the government to put in a free auction market, which was done around 1970.  By 1974 it was in full operation, but was not as revolutionary as hoped.  The laans gave slightly lower prices than the market; however, they made up for it by giving easier credit to well-known clients (known to be good risks) than the government loan programs did.  Moreover, the laans were only too happy to loan money for weddings and other festivals, which the government found too frivolous.  Therefore, at first, many fishermen stayed with the laans.  This slowly changed, but before the laans could die out, the fishery ended.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the British colonial government became convinced that producers’ cooperatives were the best way to develop small-scale rural production in the colonial world.  Producers would join coops, pay a small fee for handling fish, and also pay 6% of their income into the general fund.  They could then borrow such money as was available, and pay it back at low interest rates.  Gradually, coops could get larger and better off, if managed well.  Throughout the British Empire, they became something of an article of faith, but, alas, the sun set on them when it did on the Empire itself.

In Hong Kong, the movement to cooperativize farmers and fishermen was most identified with G. A. C. Herklots, a biologist and agronomist.  Herklots had written a useful book on fish, which we used in the field both for reference and to study boat people’s ability to recognize the fish from the black-and-white drawings (Herklots and Lin 1961).  Among other things, Herklots saved many lives by managing to grow vegetables while interned in a Japanese death camp in Hong Kong in World War II (Herklots 1972; Herklots and Lin 1961).  By 1965, many farmers and fishermen were in savings-and-loan coops for developing production, and in “better living societies” (coops for developing housing and other amenities).

Such activity was only beginning at Castle Peak Bay.  The government had been slow to move in, and the laans were implacably hostile.  Fishermen who went with the coops found the laans stonewalled them when they requested credit.  This kept the coops poor (very few fishermen could join), and thus kept the threat credible.  By good fortune, we were in Castle Peak Bay when things turned around.  Thanks to a great extent to the tireless and self-sacrificing work of Choi Kwok-Tai, at first clerk and later director of the cooperative office at the bay, the coops finally turned a corner, and acquired enough successful members to have significant money to loan.  Fishermen—again, only men engaged in coop business—rapidly turned away from the laans.  Between coops and the new market, the laans found themselves badly squeezed, and they were a shadow of their former selves in 1974-75.  Even the advantage of providing loans for festivals was not so significant, for secularization and declining fish catches were combining to reduce festival activity[3].

Fishing was a living; the Hong Kong market was almost infinitely large, exports were developing by 1974, and Cantonese love good fish better than all other foods.  However, fishing did not pay well.  In general, a fishermen either caught great amounts of poor-quality, low-priced fish (hand-trawlers, purse-seiners), or small amounts of high-priced ones (gill-netters, hook-and-liners).  A top-value grouper weighing a kilogram brought as much as a ton of fish sold for duck feed.  Only the power trawlers had the chance to make a real killing, as when one man got impossibly lucky and caught a whole shoal of shrimp at one shot—“netting” $30,000 Hong Kong dollars, almost all of which went to pay off his debts.  But even the power trawlers barely survived, because of the high costs of fuel and engine repairs.  Also, China charged taxes and license fees for fishing on their waters (or fines for poachers—poaching was common), and these could be substantial.  Above all, repaying the laans for loans took most of the profits, unless one was in the coop.

Worse was the steady decline of the fish.  Pollution and overfishing eventually destroyed the Hong Kong fishery.  From 1965 to 1975, the loss was spectacular; the bottom had dropped out of the fishery.  Local seas were virtually sterilized by chemical wastes from industries.  Migrant schools—even the vast runs of yellow croakers, streaming north in millions to breed near the Yangzi mouth—had been fished to extinction by boats all along the China coast.  The high-seas fishery had been exhausted everywhere within reach of Castle Peak boats; fish for the markets of Hong Kong now came from farther away, from the waters reached by the huge, powerful boats out of Aberdeen and out of Guangzhou.  By 1990, there was virtually nothing left in the waters once plied by the Castle Peak fleet; a few boats caught minnows in the polluted waters.  The few surviving Hong Kong fishermen ran out to deep water, in the South China Sea and beyond, there to catch fish that sat on ice (or, at best, stayed alive in dirty tanks on board) for hours or days before reaching the restaurants.  This, of course, caused sorrow among old-time gourmets.  There is certainly no comparison between the fish of Castle Peak Bay in the old days and the so-called “fresh” fish of modern Chinese restaurants.

The lack of fish conservation stood out as an anomaly in rural Hong Kong.  Management of the rice agricultural system was incredibly careful, precise, and fine-tuned (Anderson 1988; Anderson and Anderson 1973; Marks 1998).  The system was sustainable over the long term (though probably not indefinitely), and involved conservation and recycling of a highly sophisticated order.  It was very hard on the forest environment and the large animals therein, as Robert Marks (1998) and Mark Elvin (2004) have pointed out, but otherwise it was a model of sustainable agriculture, and as such has much to teach the world (Anderson 1988).  A fully integrated part of it was the exceedingly sophisticated management of pond aquaculture and of oyster-farming in shallow bays.  So, fisheries management and conservation was no new or radical idea.

In Malaysia in 1970-71, we studied an area where Chinese fishermen had parceled out the shore and shallow waters, and enforced their community fishery space with savage thoroughness, burning boats and killing fishermen who poached (Anderson and Anderson 1978).  The Malaysian government ended this system—it was too violent, as well as being too much an independent and uncontrolled regime in a centralizing nation—but did not substitute anything effective in its place, so the fishery collapsed.  However, the system worked very well indeed for a long time, showing that Chinese fishermen are no less able than others around the world to establish sea tenure.

Why, then, did the south Chinese boat people not do this?  The answer is simple:  their drifting and politically powerless life.  Under modern governments as under the Qing Dynasty, they had had no political power, no way of establishing ownership, and no way of enforcing communal tenure.  Moreover, they had had to move at a moment’s notice from port to port, depending on the political situation.  Subjected to erratic clearances from the shoreline in Qing (Antony 2004; Murray 1987), and to chronic violence and governmental change in the 20th century, they had rarely had opportunities to develop stable communities, let alone conservation.  Even the stable communities, such as Tai O, had limited power over their own resources.

As I slowly accumulate more ethnographic experience, I wonder more and more at the ability of some writers to generalize about the environmental wisdom—or any other attribute, for that matter—of “the Chinese,” “indigenous people,” or even “all humanity.”  Examples like the present one show that the same people, under different conditions, can be superb (though never perfect) managers, indifferent managers, or not managers at all.  I have found this range everywhere that I have worked.  The huge literature on fisheries management, ranging from ethnographies (such as Maria Luz Cruz Torres’ superb Lives of Dust and Water, 2004) to conservation and comanagement work, documents similar things all over the world.  Moreover, many boat communities—Tai O included—depended on fish runs.  Vast fish schools migrated from the South China Sea along the coasts and up the rivers.  No one community could exert any meaningful control over these.

Formal national and colonial governments failed because they did not really care deeply about the boat people; because they were ideologically committed to other styles of governing; and because they too faced instability and violence.  Still, one must fault these governments for their indifference to conservation.  China’s Communist government has drawn down the conserved and accumulated wealth of thousands of years, wasting it in a few decades.  China faces a bleak future (Brown 1996; Chetham 2002; Edmonds 1998; Smil 1984).  Capitalism in Hong Kong proved no better; the market never internalized the costs of pollution, resource depletion, and destruction of producer livelihoods.  A truly free market should do these things, but somehow no market is perfect enough.

At any time, the barest minimum of investment in fishing regulation and pollution control could have saved a fishery and a way of life.  Hong Kong’s relentless commitment a chimerical “free market,” and China’s Communist commitment to maximizing immediate production whatever the future cost, were equally effective at wasting a multi-million-dollar resource that could have been saved for a trivially tiny sum.  Thus does political correctness, capitalist or communist, destroy everyone’s benefit, sooner rather than later.






The household of the boat people was, of course, the boat.  When the boat people used the term ka (jia, “household”) it was the boat and its occupants that they meant.  The live-fish boats and the huge old trawlers often had an employee or a few employees, on board, but in other cases the occupants of a boat were close familial kin.

Boats of friends and relatives anchored or moored together.  As Ward (1955) found in Kau Sai, the question of which boats moored together was an important consideration.  The boats did not anchor randomly in the harbor.  They formed neat rows, neater in fact than village streets, and the patterns of anchoring were significant.

Most boats were isolated by water, but they moored near friends and relatives.  Some boats tied up to each other, so that groups became, in effect, one enlarged household.  Brothers, in particular, not only moored together but warped in so that the decks became one single living space.  When five or six trawlers were thus joined, the space was as large as a suburban house lot.   Father-son groups also fused this way, and so, less often, did uncle-nephew groups, brothers-in-law, and other close kin by birth or marriage.   At a festival, boats from outports gathered at Castle Peak, and long-lost kin came together; the united deck space might include 20 boats—true family fleets.  After their father’s death, brothers usually “drifted” apart eventually, but they reuinted at such occasions.  However, no fleet was more than two generations deep.

In the everyday unions of two to six boats, women cooked together; men ate together and discussed fishing and fishing grounds and financial details far into the night.  Children formed one playpack, swarming over all the craft.  The boat people, agile sailors, climbed with ease over and among the gunwales, rigging and tackle piles, barrels, and other impedimenta, or leaped small gaps between craft.  Important business transactions took place over dinner on the boat of the eldest man—the father or oldest brother.  The boats went out to fish together, and often fished close to one another, ready to help in an accident.

As a man’s sons grew up and married, he was expected to help them obtain boats.  This involved considering not only finances, but labor power.  A hook-and-liner could break off on his own as soon as he married.  (Single-person management of a boat was essentially impossible.)  A trawler needed a larger crew; a son had to have enough sons of his own to run a big boat, or an elder brother might split off with his younger brothers for crew.  Labor power, as well as space, determined the fact that small boats held nuclear families but big ones held extended ones (statistics are found in Anderson 1970b:88).  Only the smallest trawlers held nuclear families, and then only as a temporary expedient—at least, so the families hoped.

Families on the largest boats consisted of parents, children, sons and their wives, and grandchildren.  After a father’s death, brothers stayed together on the same boat only long enough to marry and branch out on their own.  Polygamy was theoretically possible, but found on only about 6% of boats, and never involving more than two wives.

Boat families were large in the old days.  Crew members were precious, and, as one person put it bluntly, “it costs less to raise crew members than to hire them.”  In 1965-66, the average family had five children, and the average completed family had about seven.  By 1975, this was falling fast; many young families were stopping at two, and few indeed were having more than four.  I was watching a demographic transition happen before my eyes (as I have since done, again, in southern Mexico).


The wider circle of kin remained important to boat people, though apparently less so than to the land people in the huge lineage villages nearby.  Boat kin beyond the immediate family tended to wind up in different ports, far away and out of touch.

However, kin ties were as strong as the exigencies of a “floating life” would allow.  Kin in general were hingtaai (xing di, “older and younger brothers”).  This phrase meant, metonymously, all kin.  No one used the formal Chinese words for extended families or kindreds.  Relations within the kindred were, indeed, like those between siblings—close, warm, and supportive.

Unlike the land people, the boat people had no lineages (tsou, Putonghua tsu; see Ward 1965, 1966; in some other parts of south China, however, boat people did have lineages; Wu 1937).  Within sight of some boat settlements were the huge lineage villages of the New Territories, famous throughout the anthropological world as perhaps the largest, deepest, and most formalized kinship groups found at ordinary-folk level (see Baker 1968, 1979; Freedman,1965, 1966; Potter 1968; Watson 1975; Watson and Watson 2004).

The boat people gave as reasons the facts that they had no land or equivalent estate to administer; no place to put lineage halls; no fixed address to call home; and neither a reason to group hundreds of kin together nor a way to do it.  Some mentioned also that they were generally illiterate, and so could not keep records.  (Being illiterate, they had not read the British Africanists, and so did not know that many lineage-based societies are nonliterate—the elders keeping track, in their heads, of thousands of kin.  Ancient China, before writing became common, was such a society—though its lineages were simpler than, and different in structure from, the huge lineages that grew up with widespread writing, printing, and middle-class society in and after the Song Dynasty; see Chang 1986.)

The basis of the great lineages is communal estate-holding—especially land, but also other wealth (Baker 1979; Cohen 1976; Pasternak 1972).  The foci of such great lineages are their ancestral starting-points and ancestral halls.  Lacking all the above, and lacking any need for lineages, the boat people did not bother.  Other Chinese fishermen often lack lineages (e.g. Diamond 1969), and, as all social historians of China know, north China lacks the huge, deep lineages of rural Hong Kong.  Indeed, even the other minority ethnic groups of Hong Kong tend to have small, shallow lineages.  Pasternak (1972) provides a land-based tale of lineage loss due to land ownership changes.  He called it “agnatic atrophy” (Pasternak 1968, 1972).  It may have been the original state of his sample village, rather than a derived condition, but, in any case, it was clearly more functional than historic—more a matter of present needs than of historical contingency.  As noted in Chapter 1, many boat people trace their descent to recent land-dwelling families that gave up their lineage identification to go on the water.

The Chinese fishermen we studied in Penang, Malaysia, maintained their ancestral lineage connections only if they were politically and socially active, and then they would pay a fee to join a “lineage association”; ordinary fishermen did not do this, and their lineage connections gradually declined into forgetfulness.  We were watching agnatic atrophy in process.

The limits of the family—the hingtaai unit—are therefore impossible to define.  A family blends off into a realm of forgotten distant cousins.  The patrilineal ancestry will be remembered as far as living memory goes.  An elder will remember his grandfather, perhaps his great-grandfather.  Beyond that, there is only haze.  Only one man in my sample knew much about his patrilineal family six generations before, and that only because his ancestors had left the land for the water in that generation.  Matrilineal kin are even more quickly forgotten.

Therefore, hingtaai rarely included anyone beyond one’s grandfather’s brothers and their children, and even they were usually a rather shadowy lot.  Father’s brothers, by contrast, were intensely involved in one’s life, and mother’s brothers often were.  The boat people were strongly patrilateral, but lack of lineages and closeness with in-laws made matrilateral kin more important than they were among many land-dweller families.

Ancestor images (or tablets, for a few highly literate families) were thus not stored in a temple indefinitely, let alone in a lineage hall (as among the land people).  The ancestors were commemorated on the boat shrine until no one was left alive who remembered them.  Then they were “sent to the sky”:  the images or tablets were ritually burned.  Memory of them faded out in another generation or two.  We later found the same thing in Malaysia and elsewhere; it is, in fact, a general rule for Chinese families that are not closely enmeshed in lineage affairs.

A consequence of this was that boat knowledge of Chinese kinship terminology was limited to these close relatives.  More distant relatives have their own names in Chinese, but the boat people simply extended the terms they knew.  If they needed to be more accurate, for ritual purposes (usually at weddings or funerals), they consulted an expert; a few elders knew the entire system, and shared their knowledge at need.

The Chinese kinship system is the limiting case of a descriptive system.  There are separate terms for father’s elder brother, father’s younger brother, mother’s elder brother, mother’s younger brother, father’s father’s elder brother, father’s father’s younger brother, and so on, for a total of well over 100 terms (see e.g. Feng 1948).  The boat people knew terms for lineal kin, brothers and sisters of direct patrilineal kin, and usually brothers and sisters of matrilineal direct kin too.  They knew terms for in-laws only for the spouse’s immediate nuclear family.  Beyond this limited circle, they knew few or no terms.  Two factors made this simplification desirable.  First and most obvious, the boat people lived in a world of small linear families, not the world of huge lineages where one dealt routinely with distant kin.  Second, the boat people tended to assimilate any distant relative to close-relative categories, as a conscious or “preconscious” way of building solidarity.  The Chinese saying “all men are brothers” was  well known, and considered highly relevant, on the waterfront.

Actual terms of address and reference were not the formal kinterms.  Hingtaai, the formal term for one’s older and younger brothers, was almost always used to mean “relatives,” not brothers.  In ordinary address and reference, brothers were taai lou “big fellow” and sai lou “little fellow.”  One’s son was sai lou tsai “little fellow-let”.  One’s wife was addressed by her familiar name and referred to as lou p’o “old woman”; husband was “old man.”  And so on.  Meanwhile, as in almost all societies around the world, respectful kinterms were liberated for use to any respected adult.  A man of one’s father’s generation was politely called “father’s elder brother”; of grandparental generation, “father’s father’s elder brother”; and so on.  See Anderson 1970b:94-96 for fuller account.

More equivocal was mui tsai “kid sister” (mui “younger sister,” tsai affectionate diminutive particle).  This could be an affectionate term for an unrelated girl or a very unrespectful term for a female servant or slave.  In Hong Kong, as in Imperial China, girls, often boat girls, were still (illegally) sold to wealthy people as “maids”—de facto slaves.  On the waterfront, however, mui tsai was affectionate enough that in the 1960s our little daughter was kuai mui tsai “kid sister foreign devil” (lit. “ghost kid sister”) to everyone.  By the 1970s language was more polite but less colorful.


A proof of this desire to be solidary with one’s immediate world was the network of fictive kinship.  Sworn blood brotherhood (of the sort widely found in China) was one form of this, though it was fairly rare.  More often, was contract (k’ai) kinship, an equivalent of godparenthood in the United States or compadrasco (coparenthood) in Mexico (Foster 1961).  Among the 47 families of my 1965-66 sample, 12 individuals had k’ai relatives, and three of these were in one family.  Most were boys.

Usually, a child would get a k’ai ye (godfather) or k’ai maa (godmother) if the child’s health or other fortune was poor.  The child would then inherit his luck or good fortune from the k’ai parent instead of his or her own parent, whose fortune was presumed to be incompatible with the child’s.  This did not mean the parent’s or child’s fortunes were necessarily bad.  Fortunes could be both perfectly good, but mutually incompatible—as blood types can be, in biomedicine.  The reasons were usually, but not always, astrological.

The k’ai parent would, therefore, be someone with notably good health, or luck, or astrological compatibility.  Such matters were beyond the knowledge of most fishermen; spirit-mediums diagnosed the need, and selected possible k’ai parents.

However, normally, friends and close associates of the child’s parents received the call.  The institution thus formalized and secured links of mutual aid.  It was not so explicitly an institutionalization of this as compadrasco is in Latin America (Foster 1961 and my own experience), but it certainly had the same effect.  For the fishermen, contract parenthood was symmetrical in Foster’s terms; it was always contracted with social equals.  Among the land people, it was usually asymmetrical; more powerful people, and even gods, were called.  In the Chinese Malaysian community where we did research in 1970-71, though the people were fishermen, contract parenthood was not only usually asymmetrical, it was usually religious; gods were the main k’ai parents, with Kuan Yin being by far the most popular.

Once a spirit medium or similar authority suggested contracting fictive kinship, the family selected a likely candidate.  Then the child’s mother went to the woman of the selected household to negotiate.  If all went well, the families worshiped ancestors together and drew up the contract.  For the boat people, a verbal contract sufficed.

Unlike a Latin American compadre, a k’ai parent had little formally to do.  He or she had to give the child lucky money at festivals, and offer presents and receive respect at the child’s marriage.  The child had to pay respects, and mourn as regular kin did at the k’ai parent’s funeral, then continue to worship the parent’s soul (usually by leaving a tablet in a paper-goods shop to receive prayers).

The contract relationship was a mixed bag.  It was not quite real kin, and seemed somehow to compromise family.  A symptom of tension was the use of k’ai taai (fictive younger brother) as a term of abuse, an obscene term for a passive homosexual.  This was a deadly insult.  In actual reference to fictive kinship, one spoke only of father, mother, son, and daughter, not of siblings, so this particular kinterm had no legitimate use.


Since the lack of lineages and need for support heightened the importance of affinal kin, it follows that marriage was the consummately important social act (in more ways than one).  Typically, a family would seek a spouse for their child from the circle of neighbors, good friends, and coworkers.  More than in fictive kinship, parents explicitly wanted to shore up social linkages by thus formalizing them.  There was rarely a shortage of candidates.  Exogamy did not extend beyond the family line, many different families lived close together, and the boat people moved around enough to have friends in many ports.

Marriage among the boat people was so far from the traditional Chinese model that half the marriages in our immediate experience were contracted “for love” (though parental approval and help was always sought eventually).  Moreover, many of the marriages “arranged” by parents, in the classic Chinese form, turned out to have been suggested by the young people in question!  The parents duly formalized the negotiations over dowry and other payments.  Even genuinely arranged marriages—arranged, that is, without the couple’s suggesting them first—rarely involved strangers.

Still less were valued sons and daughters married off to children or aged rich men.  Such things had, indeed, happened in the past, when families had been reduced to starvation and had had to marry off a daughter or send her off as concubine or as a servant to be married off by her masters.  But by 1965 everyone was well enough off to avoid such dreaded circumstances.  The endlessly repeated literary and movie cliché of the bride who meets her husband at the wedding, only to find that he is a child, an ancient, or a madman, was far from boat experience.  Still farther was the concept of “minor marriage”—marrying young children to each other and raising them together (A. Wolf 1995; M. Wolf 1968, 1972).

Given the free and easy lifestyle of the boat people, and the completely accepted institution of “singing girls” at Tai O and elsewhere, virginity was by no means required or universal.  It was theoretically preferred.  I have no reliable data on how common virgin brides actually were.  My data on the sex lives of the boat people are extremely extensive and extremely unreliable!  Among sailors, whether in southern California or in southern China, jokes, insults, teasing remarks, stories, gossip, wild generalizations, and rank speculation about sex, and about individuals’ sex lives, are the classic theme of conversation over a drink or two (or more).  Castle Peak Bay certainly fit (and overfulfilled) that stereotype.  Unfortunately, the resulting excruciatingly detailed and extensive picture was only accidentally in contact with reality.  Not only did people exaggerate, dissemble, and invent; they had an elaborate tradition of erotic folklore to draw on.  Many stories told as fact could be traced to Chinese novels and classic short-fiction collections.  Even without running down specific stories, one could easily find in such literature the rules for insults, boasts, and other relevant folk forms.

We did get enough reliable data to know that sex was fairly free, uninhibited, and joyous among most couples, including at least some unmarried ones.

A double standard existed; men often visited the Tai O girls after marriage, but wives were expected to remain faithful, and usually did so in our experience.  One couple close to us produced a son when the man was 58; his wife was substantially younger, but still well over 40.  We were aware this man was not averse to a visit to Tai O on occasion, also.

Once a young person finally decided to settle down and commit to marriage, the search for a suitable partner was usually not long or difficult.

Some people said that arranged marriages were the rule until recently.  Rich boat people, in particularly, supposedly contracted economic relationships such that the bride and groom were strangers.  We knew of cases of runaways (see above), including some in which brides fled from arranged marriages that did not work.  However, boat society has always been free and open, with love liaisons not involving marriage being well known (recall Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life; Shen 1983).

Mothers usually negotiated arranged marriages.  Men would lose too much face if the negotiations fell through, so they did not deal with such matters.  Here, as in many other cases, women were by no means unaware of the power this gave them, and sometimes gloated openly about it.  We recalled the equally neat trick by which women convinced men that higher-status people ate last—thus insuring that the “low status” women and children got the food when it was hot and freshly cooked.  The men were rather ruefully appreciative of the dodge.  They worked similar tricks on the land people, using “low status” to excuse a number of irregular behaviors.  Truly, low status has its rewards, especially if the low-status individuals can outsmart the higher ones, as James Scott reminds us (Scott 1985, 1998).

The boat people did not usually use go-betweens, since there was not enough money to reward them.  Sometimes, a relative served as go-between, or at least alerted a family with a marriageable youth of the existence of an available and desirable potential mate at such-and-such a port.

Chinese traditional families were supposed to take horoscopes into account in deciding whether a match was suitable.  Nobody at Castle Peak seemed to take horoscopes very seriously.  Wolfram Eberhard (1963) found that in Taiwan people tended to use horoscopes as excuses to set up, or break off, engagements, when the real reasons were personal.  I suspect the boat people did the same, but people we knew simply did not take the horoscopes seriously enough for this to become an issue.

Within the boat community, almost all marriages linked families in the western New Territories ports.  People married fairly often within the Castle Peak community, but were just as apt to find spouses in Tai O or other nearby ports.  Much more rare was a marriage to Aberdeen or any other more distant bay.

The boat community was almost strictly endogamous.  People tended to marry individuals from the same general category of the boat world.  Trawler boys usually married trawler girls, and gill-netters married gill-netters.  However, this was very far from a strong rule—merely a result of differential knowledge and networks.  More serious was a tendency for people of similar economic status to marry.  A marriage of rich and poor did not seem a good bet for lasting success, according to waterfront opinion, borne out by alleged cases.

A few marriages of boat girls to land-dweller’s sons had recently taken place.   Only one land woman had married a boat man, and she promptly left him—the life was too hard.

Once married, a girl moved to her husband’s boat or house.  She then became part of the family.  She was still something of an outsider, however, till she bore a son, and thus contributed to the patriline.  This was less an issue than among most Chinese (including the fishermen we studied in Malaysia; see also M. Wolf 1968, 1972), but was still a very serious matter.  However, a wife who bore only girls was thoroughly accepted after a few years, though the family would always be somewhat regretful of lacking a son.

After marriage, relations with in-laws were close, often coming to approximate parental relations even for men—let alone for women, who, in China’s patrilineal and virilocal world, almost always came to live with their husbands.  Exceptions occurred when women had large, independent money pools—something that normally could happen only if the woman in question had been a successful singing-girl.  The close, supportive ties of in-laws were a point of difference from the land people, who found in-laws a frequent cause for tension and distancing (see e.g. Baker 1968, 1979; Freedman 1966).  In fact, we knew several cases in which a man’s closest friends, coworkers, and allies were his wife’s immediate kin.

The stated ideal of boat families—described to us repeatedly, in rather set terms, by dozens of people—was for everyone to get along.  In-laws in particular had to be supportive and warmly helpful to each other.  Clear lines of authority should be maintained, but an elder should listen calmly, respectfully, and attentively to everyone’s opinion—expressed in due order of seniority, and with due consideration and temperateness.  Everyone was supposed to be even-tempered, calm, and thoughtful.  Aggressive and impatient behavior endangered everyone on a boat in rough waters, or even in the harbor.

Some families really did live up to this irenic ideal.  We had tea every morning (in 1965-66, and frequently in 1974-75) at a tiny café-cum-residence near our boat.  It was the home of a widow—of land origin—and her boat-born daughter-in-law.  (The latter’s husband usually worked outside the home).  The two women were both gentle, affectionate, retiring souls who adored each other and adored the daughter-in-law’s children (who were, indeed, model children by any standards).  In the hundreds of hours we spent absorbing tea, we never saw anything but affectionate and gentle behavior in that household.

However, families with such close relationships represented one end of a continuum, the other end being represented by dysfunctional families with considerable fighting, abuse, and even illegal violence.  In between were the normal families, usually harmonious but often argumentative or burdened with one or two distant and suspicious members.

Some families even exemplified the tense, distrustful relationships between in-laws described by Hugh Baker.  The lack of lineages and lineage villages, however, meant that in-laws were never real enemies.  They often were real enemies in the old walled lineage villages that Baker studied, because lineage exogamy forced men to find wives in other villages, and neighboring villages were almost always competing over land.  This often led to violence.  Wives were suspected of, and sometimes clearly guilty of, helping their natal families in enemy towns.

The dynamic was exactly the opposite among the boat people.  One needed all the helpers and allies one could get.  One never knew when one would need to be rescued in a storm, helped with a large catch of fish, or helped with a quick small loan to fix an engine.  One did know that all these needs would arise, sooner rather than later.  Therefore, the pressure was all on the side of being as solidary as possible with in-laws—and with anyone and everyone else nearby.

At first, though, the plight of a new daughter-in-law was hard, often very hard.  As junior woman, she had to do the heaviest and dirtiest work, and patiently accept criticism from her husband’s mother.  As noted above, in-laws were much closer on the boats than among many land people, but this was still no enviable situation.  It was the subject of several of the boat folk songs (Anderson 1975; Wu 1937).

However, the tendency to marry among close friends and neighbors usually reduced the tensions innate in the Chinese family between an in-married girl and her parents-in-law (cf. Baker 1968; M. Wolf 1968, 1972).  Therefore, the classic Chinese drama of the wronged and abused daughter-in-law played itself out only occasionally among the boat people.

Still, it did happen.  Brides fled back to parents to escape impoverished, wastrel, or abusive husbands.  The boat people of Castle Peak Bay being a notably non-abusive lot, all the runaway cases known to us involved economic problems.

We heard of at least one case of attempted suicide—a more socially tense case involving a girl from a poor family married into a rich one and thereafter insulted and hounded.  Suicide of a daughter-in-law is probably the commonest type of suicide in China, and occurs as a trope throughout the history of Chinese literature.  Such a suicide is not just a tragic act; it directly damages the abusive offender—usually the husband’s mother.  Not only do abusive individuals lose face; the unfortunate girl becomes a “wronged ghost,” haunting those that have driven her to death, driving them to madness and misfortune.

A woman’s lot was hard work, but fairly equal partnership.  On the fishing boats, she was high in the command chain, and she had to manage boats and haul nets or lines with the men.  If not in a fishing family, she would still be actively engaged into economic activity; no one could afford a nonworking wife.  This gave her considerable power and independence.   She could not be relegated to the shaky status of fishing wives in some parts of the world (Cruz Torres 2004).  Even among boat families that had forsaken the water to live and work on land, women had to work—not only around the house, but usually for cash—to make ends meet.  They had to have decision-making power, and they had it.  The Confucian ideal of women obeying “fathers when young, husbands when married, and sons when old” had less to do with reality than in some, probably most, Chinese spheres.  In particular, obeying sons when old was conspicuously absent; sons deferred to mothers throughout life.


Each boat family was theoretically an independent and sovereign unit, regulating its affairs with little interference from anyone.  Even brothers could only suggest, advise, and agree.  Only a father with a fleet of sons could genuinely command other boats, and even he had that right only as long as his sons allowed it; very often, they did not.  All they had to do was sail to another port, or even another side of Castle Peak Bay.

On the boat, there were strict rules of authority, which made life very much easier.

First, each boat had one senior man who served as captain.  This was the eldest man on board, unless the eldest was too old and frail, in which case he would give over command of his boat to a son, or live on a son’s boat with the son as commander.  Since the eldest son would normally have long ago gone his own way, the caretaking son was often a younger one.  The transition from captain to elder was a gradual one, managed with a minimum of friction, but—be it noted—not totally without friction.  A man who was losing control and wanted to maintain it would try hard, sometimes tyrannizing his sons, who would in turn try to maneuver him—usually with great tact and gentleness, but sometimes with blunt frustration—into giving over command.

Occasionally, the strict seniority rule was broken by an older brother deferring to a younger and more assertive or competent one.

Second, other adult men and women advised, in order of seniority and gender.  A son listened to his mother until fully adult, after which the mother was supposed to defer.  As long as the father was alive, father and mother stood together in authority, but once a father died, his widow was supposed to defer to her son, unless he was still quite young.  This was, of course, the classic Confucian pattern, and it was universally followed.  However, it provided plenty of room for play; how old is “still quite young”?  And a mother with strong character made her will known quite emphatically, no matter how old her son was.

A wife, especially a captain’s wife, had considerable real authority, and many of them “twisted their husband’s ear” thoroughly.  (The idiom, of obvious derivation, is the standard Cantonese phrase for the condition.)  A man with an ear-twisting wife got compassion and some sympathetic joking from his peers; most of them knew how it felt.

Third, a captain was expected to listen to advice and counsel from other adults, and take it when it was good.  They, in turn, had to respect his final decisions, as well as commands that he had to make without consultation when faced with the need for immedate action—a daily event on the open sea.

Fourth, women controlled cooking, child care, and related aspects of home life.  They did not take the lead in off-boat matters (politics, economic transactions, and so on), but they provided advice and back-up assistance.

The women’s status hierarchy, like the men’s, was a matter of seniority, but here confusion reigned.  Theoretically, an older son’s wife ranked above a younger son’s wife, but if the older son’s wife were (herself) younger than the younger son’s wife, or (much more serious) if the older son’s wife had not born a son and the younger son’s wife had, a real problem in rank presented itself!  Such contingencies virtually guaranteed that the couple in the anomalous position would get their own boat.

On a large fishing boat, the senior man would be stationed at the wheel or on lookout on the cabin roof.  The next senior man (the oldest son, in the normal situation where the captain was the father of the family) would take the wheel when the senior man was otherwise occupied.  Otherwise this second-senior man would be managing the rudder, rigging, or fishing tackle.  The third man would be in charge of the engine.  The fourth would be the usual manager of fishing tackle.

The senior man’s wife would direct cooking and mending; the next woman in line would do the least unpleasant cooking and cleaning operations; and so on down to the youngest adult woman, who would swab decks, do heavy laundry, haul water, and help fish.  Children and oldsters would be mending nets, washing vegetables, and looking out for younger children.  Everyone knew his or her exact place and task responsibiilities, and if there were any question, a council of seniors would resolve it.  Sometimes this council was convened when a family fleet moored together in the evening, and brother captains discussed the issue.

Boats, whether in Newport Harbor or Castle Peak Bay, have to be managed with exquisite and thorough order and care.  Loose lines of authority, poor task management, and shirking were immediately disastrous.

On the other hand, inflexibility was even more rapidly fatal.  Discussions over dinner were an institution never ignored.  Consultation, along proper lines of authority, was not only real but universal.  People followed the Confucian virtues of harmony, cooperation, and respect, not only because they came from a Confucian tradition, but—much more importanly—because they lived and moved in the world that produced Confucius and his ideas.  China had changed in the 2500 years since the sage taught, but some aspects of it had changed very little.  The need for a household to regulate its affairs stood high on this list.

Naturally, this allowed much variation.  Some boats were run in a quite patriarchal and authoritarian style; others were so democratic that we wondered how anyone ever decided anything.  The vast majority were somewhere between these extremes, but the spread was great, and no obvious central peak presented itself.

As people became too old to work, they slowly faded from the world of the living.  Death, like maturation, was a gradual process.  Command devolved increasingly on the next generation.  The elder slowly sank into quiet.  He or she did the shopping on shore, takes care of young children, tells stories, dreams, and waits patiently for the afterlife.





Child-rearing on the boats turned out to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking things we studied.  Having children of our own, and spending two full years in local households with local families, we had a unique opportunity to observe.  Our two older children were old enough in 1974-75 to be real field workers, and both were (and still are) first-rate observers and judges of humanity.  They were well accepted into local playpacks, and became treated more or less like any other neighborhood kids.

This was one of the areas where one could learn important data from a society now gone.  The distinctive family behavior on the waterfront challenges stereotypes—both Chinese and western—of “the Chinese family.”  In household behavior as in much else, the boat people had a quite distinctive way of being Chinese.  I have told the full story elsewhere (Anderson 1992, 1998), but some repetition will be useful here.

Much of the literature on Chinese families presents a picture characterized by authoritarian patriarchy, distant and stern communication, and silent obedience alternating with wild break-out.  Chinese novels often present this picture, from Cao Xueqin’s great 18th-century novel Hong Lou Meng (translated as The Story of the Stone; Cao 1973-86) to Ba Jin’s 20th-century classic Jia (“The Household,” translated as The Family, Pa Chin 1964).  Western accounts are usually conformant to this image.  Some even stress violent wife and child abuse and other pathologies, maintaining they are typical and inevitable consequences of the patriarchal family (Eastman 1988 is particularly dramatic, but there are many other examples, both Chinese and western).

As one might expect from all that has gone before, the boat people were as far from this stereotype as one could be and still remain identifiably Chinese.  The patriarchal Confucian family was alive and well, but in a very open and even nurturing form (Anderson 1992, 1998).

Picking up from the last chapter, I can begin by continuing the account of child-rearing on the water.  Children slowly and gradually got more rights and more responsibilities.  Every new task responsibility meant more freedom, authority, and ability to act independently.  This process started when toddlers were old enough to help mend nets.   It ended only when a man finally took over from his aging father; the two could be 60 and 80 years old by this time.  The man would still be learning from his father.  Thus, there were no sharp breaks: no initiation rites at young adulthood, no sudden changes at marriage.

An eight-year-old could mend nets or bring water and bait.  A twelve-year-old did simple fishing.  A sixteen-year-old boy would get a chance to steer the boat, while a girl would be cooking.  Usually, children were ordered to do something; parents expected them to know, from helping and from observation, how to do it.

The plan produced the most problem-free adolescence I have ever seen.  Teenagers had a physically difficult and demanding life, but at least did not have to face the trauma of being child and adult at the same time.  They moved rather tranquilly up the ladder of command, pushing to have more authority, but aware that they would get it only when they could do more responsible tasks.

Boys got more freedom, less discipline, and better care than girls.  They also got less work; girls had to help fish and manage the boat and had to help with women’s tasks.  The disparities were not as great as in many or most Chinese communities (see e.g. Croll 2000), but they were certainly real and obvious.  Some parents dressed boys in girls’ clothes to make them less attractive to deities that might want to steal them.  Boys got more good luck charms to wear:  tiny models of life-saving floats; sea horse eyes; jade bracelets; tiny strings of old coins.  Boys were more outgoing; girls turned inward and expressed less emotion; this was the expectation, generally fulfilled, though to varying degrees.

Education was intensely moral.  Actual verbal instruction was heavily focused on moral training.  Learning about fish took place within this moral discourse.  From birth, a child learned that he was part of a wide family group, and that his or her will was more or less subservient to its collective interests.  Most of the people in the child’s world taught this more or less consciously.  Mothers passed babies around to be held by everyone.  All the women and girls on the boat or in the household “mothered” all the children.  From toddler age, children are involved in playpacks that included everyone in the extended family, and, on shore, in the whole neighborhood.  Except on the smallest and most socially isolated boats, the child has close relationships with many persons, but no single outstandingly close one-to-one relationship.

Life on the boats, or in any traditional Chinese household, cannot center on the will of the baby.  A mother nurses when she has time, not when the baby is hungry.  She, or any other caregiver, dresses, washes, puts down for sleep, gets up, plays with or quiets the baby when time is convenient—not when the baby wants it.  The baby soon learns to be philosophical about all this; crying does no good, and smiling or cooing does rather little.  This does not mean the baby gets little care; quite the opposite.  Usually, several female caregivers are around, and the father and his close male relatives often do their share.  The baby most often cries in a desperate and totally futile attempt to be left alone.  Wu (1937:812), describing the same syndrome, reported that boat children were “spoilt.”  Wu’s value-judgement shows that a traditional Chinese male was as surprised by the high level of caregiving and low level of punishment as we were.  The actual effect of this system is not to “spoil” the child but to teach him or her that his or her will is subservient to that of elders.

The pattern continues with age.  Boat children could not develop exploratory and independent abilities early; they would fall overboard and drown if they did.  They could also get caught on fishhooks or other deck gear.  They were thus tied to the mast and kept as quiet as possible.  Caregivers discouraged early walking.  Someone was always around to pick up the child.  When a child fell overboard—which happened often, in port; people were more careful on the open sea—everyone within 50 yards, whether related or not, instantly went to help.  (A strange story among land people held that boat people would not save a drowning person.  This was no more true than the other common tales told about the boat-dwellers.)

Mothers nursed babies for about two years, never less than eighteen months and sometimes up to four years.  Caregivers fed children solid foods from eight months on.  Children did not feed themselves until three or four.

A distinctive and vitally important feature of child-rearing among south Chinese was the meitaai or “carrying belt.”  This was a square of cloth that held the baby to the mother’s back.  It was tied on by ribbons, starting from the four corners, and tied together in front.  This left the mother (or other caregiver) free to do anything and everything, while producing no special strain on her.  Babies were carried in the meitaai until three or four.  All south Chinese used this device, but the boat people used it much more than the land people, since they needed to keep the child immobilized as much as possible.

The meitaai gave the child a tremendous sense of security and reassurance.  A baby or toddler crying inconsolably would always quiet down immediately if backpacked.  This was true even when the crying was due to real hurt, physical or psychological  Weaning from the meitaai was, strikingly and very obviously, more traumatic for the child than weaning from the breast[4].  Thus, severely troubled children were sometimes backpacked when they were six or seven years old.

Girls recently weaned from the meitaai almost always got toy meitaais, which they used to carry dolls and stuffed toys.  By the time they were five or six, they often had a real baby—a new younger sibling—to carry.

The age from three to six was traumatic and difficult; the child was weaned from breast and meitaai, but had no freedom yet.  Crying and aggressive behavior increased.  By six, however, the child was undertaking the simpler adult tasks.  Boys began to fish; girls began to care for siblings.  With this came a vast increase in freedom and opportunity to learn, explore, and interact with the wider world.  Crying and aggression dropped off, in proportion to the steady increase in rights and duties and in playpack involvement.  With age, playpacks got larger, more diverse, and more cheerful.  The playpack, inevitably mixed-age because older siblings are taking care of younger ones, became a major focus of socializing and learning.

Playpacks were not very gender-segregated.  Boys and girls played with dolls, girls and boys explored and scuffled.  Both improvised elaborate games with bits of string and wood and paper.  Somehow almost everyone managed to find a kite to fly in spring.  Teasing and taunting were common, and, in all innocence, boys and girls alike used the rough waterfront language in perfectly ordinary settings.  Children knew an amazing range of songs, rhymes, chants, and other folklore.  All this is lost without trace; we could not record it, partly because the subjects would never hold still.

Many boat children were notably less aggressive, less noisy, and generally better behaved than most land-dwelling children of the area.  This was especially true of the recent refugees from mainland China, a very traditional population.  However, a substantial minority of the boat children were toward the other extreme; they resorted to begging, yelling insults, and otherwise acting bad, as long as they were out of parental control.  This earned them the sobriquet of “water rats” from the better behaved.  Overall, one can see, in this range, the independence and individual difference so visible also in adults.

The boat people reacted with horror and with immediate community intervention to threats of genuine abuse.  Senior family members stopped it in no uncertain terms.  Failing the availability of senior family members, bystanders would quietly, tactfully distract and calm a parent who appeared to have lost his or her temper to the point of physically harming a child.

By the age of eight or ten, a child rarely needed punishment.  The message of overwhelming family dominance had penetrated.  A simple verbal command almost invariably received rapid compliance.  If it did not, a most impressive verbal fireworks display could result, and no one ignored that.  Physical punishment, reserved for the most serious cases, consisted of a light slap, or in extreme situations a light but painful spanking across the backs of the calves with a flat board or thin stick.  Parents inflicted this for only three situations:  fighting, extreme insubordination (very rare), or dangerous neglect of a younger sibling.  Girls got more punishment than boys, partly because of patriarchal bias, but partly because girls usually did most (though far from all) of the sibling care, and thus were at risk of committing neglect.  If a girl neglected a baby brother, she was in real trouble, worse than anything that happened when she neglected a baby sister.

We saw such punishment about once a week, and in an average day our research and marketing rounds took us past hundreds of households, where life was mostly lived in the open.  The lack of conflict was striking.  Moreover, such conflict and parental problems as occurred were concentrated among certain families, mostly boat people who had failed at fishing but had not fully moved onto shore, and who lived in wrecked boats in the typhoon shelter.  One group in particular made up something of an outcast colony, and had continual (though usually minor) problems with children.

The land people, though somewhat stricter than the boat people, followed the same principles of childrearing.  Far from the beatings alleged in some Western literature on China, corporal punishment was almost unknown at Castle Peak, beyond the spanking on the backs of the legs previously noted.  British colonials frequently commented to us on how amazing it was that “Chinese children are so well-behaved” when they were so “spoiled” (and sometimes added it was proof that the Chinese were an inferior race, naturally docile).

In fact the secret was the deliberate ignoring of the infant’s will, discussed above.  The land people saw this as simply part of socialization for civic life.  The boat people, with their value on independent agency, saw a contradiction, but dealt with it by saying that young children had to be restrained or they would have accidents, such as falling overboard.  Thoughtful parents went on to say young children did not have and should not have much agency, and, in any case, they were part of the family, a structured world where order had to reign.  The famed independence of the boat-dweller had to be earned, by growing in responsibility over the years.  With independence as a promised reward for clear evidence of responsible behavior, children were motivated to take on more duties.

It is not hard to see how such a child-rearing method produced well-behaved young without harsh discipline.  This was especially true on the boats, where a child had no escape.  Land people had to be more disciplinarian because their children roamed the whole neighborhood in playpacks.  But even the land people of Castle Peak Bay were, by Chinese or world standards, gentle parents.  They made up in constant supervision what they lacked in harshness.  Adults or older children were always around, and would discipline any local child that was out of line, sometimes even perfect strangers.  This certainly had much to do with maintaining tranquility and keeping children socialized.

Some particularly articulate parents put the matter in philosophical context.  The independence of an adult had to be won.  It was not something that came with the turf (as it does for many American teenagers).  It came only with demonstrated competence and responsibility.   The road from restrained infancy to free senior adulthood was a gradual progression.  Each stage had to be won by demonstrating the ability to handle more duties with responsibility.

Crime and trouble were not teenage specialties.  Crime was very rare at Castle Peak in any case, but when it occurred, adults were the ones involved; some families were pirates by trade and tradition.  Teenage gangsterism was, however, not unknown (and not even rare) at some more urban ports.

Few children got to school in 1965, but the number was rising, and by 1974-75 all children got primary education.  Some were beginning to go on, and boat people in more urban ports were beginning to go to college.  A government survey of 187 Castle Peak children in 1964 showed most had no schooling, and very few girls got to school at all.  By 1965, people recognized the need for education.  A rapid increase in the numbers took place.  The major reason to move on shore was to get access to schools, and those who moved on shore took in countless related children whose parents were still on the boats.  Bright girls sometimes got to school instead of duller brothers—a really dramatic new turn.  At this time, school was cheap or free, but parents had to buy uniforms, supplies, and books.  We knew families in which everyone went essentially without food for days in order to buy these for the brightest children.  Those bright ones had hope; their siblings had nothing but hunger.

Cultural reproduction thus took place through a variety of informal channels, and occasionally the formal one.  Most education was through practice (cf. Bourdieu and Passeron 1990; also Chaiklin and Lave 1993, Lave 1988; Lave and Wenger 1991; Rogoff and Lave 1984).  Children learned not through formal instruction but through watching and involvement—what Barbara Rogoff now calls “intent participation,” a process which “involves observing keenly and pitching in to shared endeavors” (Rogoff 2004).  She defines this as “horizontal and collaborative….  Experienced people guide while participating, and learners take initiative….  Motivation revolves around the chance to contribute to important activities….  Assessment occurs during shared endeavors, to aid learning.”  This description of learning among the Maya of Mexico is perfect for the boat people of Hong Kong—and, for that matter, for the Maya that I too have lived with in Mexico.

Going beyond that literature, I speculate that the boat people are typical humans in their embedding of instruction in a moral framework that stresses the virtue of the learning.  People want to learn only when they think the data are important socially.  They must be emotionally involved in the process, and they must think it is in some sense “right” or valuable.  So, when the boat people went on shore, they immediately dropped the old knowledge, forgetting even what they knew; it had ceased to have meaning for them.


For a few decades in the late 20th century, a debate arose between those who felt emotions were innate and shared by all higher animals and those who saw human emotions as complex, basically learned, and subject to heavy cultural conditioning.  Most earlier psychologists fall into the former category.  Many anthropologists fell into the latter.

Freud and other early psychologists introduced many new ideas that made emotions look less than simple and straightforward.  Freudian theory forced social scientists to look at even the simplest emotions as highly conditioned by early experience.  By the 1930s, anthropologists were studying “culture and personality” (Wallace 1970), basically the interactions of innate feelings with cultural norms and structures.

A later generation of anthropologists, often those trained by such culture-and-personality theorists as Beatrice and John Whiting, concluded that the feelings might not be innate.  They held that some, or even all, emotions were culturally constructed.  Richard Shweder (1991), Catherine Lutz (1988), and their associates were leaders in this field.  Lutz argued for the utter strangeness to westerners of the Micronesian emotion of fango.  However, she weakened, if not destroyed, her case, by doing a perfectly good and clear job of explaining it.  It turned out to be much like ordinary familial love as practiced in the world at large.  (It seems to me to be a social construction of parent-child love.  Having done field research in Tahiti, I have some experience with the closely related Polynesian concept of arofa.)

Others drew from other theoretical perspectives.  The Polish linguistic anthropologist Anna Wierzbicka argued for the uniqueness of such cultural states as Polish feelings of nostalgia (Wierzbicka 1999), but her description makes it sound like other cultures’ ideas of nostalgia.  Sociologist Rom Harré insisted on the fundamental difference of French, Spanish, and English emotions (Harré 1986), but his evidence is not convincing.

Time seems to have softened radical claims.  Few if any cultural anthropologists believe now in purely innate feelings unmodified by culture.  A few biological anthropologists probably still do, but certainly the evolutionary psychologists and those influenced by them have moved beyond such a position (Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby 1992).  On the other side, few have followed the extreme social constructionists.  Most scholars now allow innate feelings to exist.

To make a long story short, the intermediate position turns out to be correct.  Clearly, people do have deep innate feelings.  Rage, affection, loyalty, fear, interest, and parental affection are shared with all mammals and are clearly genetically specified in a reasonably tight way.  Feelings like guilt and disgust may require human intellect, but are arguably panhuman.  However, humans are thoughtful animals, and highly social ones too.  So one expects to find differences in the subtleties and in the cultural interpretation of emotions.  Shorn of their extreme rhetoric, Shweder, Lutz, Harré, and others certainly show that people in different cultures, and for that matter different individuals within the same cultures, have different phenomenological worlds.

Psychologists have long studied the interaction of emotion and reason.     From the 1950s onward, Albert Ellis had built up increasing mountains of evidence for the success of rational-emotional therapy (RET; Ellis and Blau 1998).  This method depends on the recognition that people are creatures of both reason and emotion, and that human action involves integrating these.  Many life problems come from mistaken cognition leading to misdirected emotion.  Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy (Beck 1999 is perhaps the most anthropologically interesting, if not the most focal, of his many books) and several variants of it essentially follow Ellis’ perception.

Experimental psychology followed in due course, teasing out the neurological pathways that link emotion and reason.  It turns out that these are closely integrated in the brain (Damasio 1994).  Social perceptions, and all normal social functioning, depend utterly on successful performance of this integration task.  It also appears that some degree of feeling—“emotions” in a very basic sense, or at least moods and animal reactions—influence all cognition, even the most apparently neutral (Zajonc 1980).  A constant low-level play of interest and disinterest, evaluation for good or ill, and responses of affection or fear color all thought.  Reactions thus involve cognitive evaluation of situations, but also emotional reactions to them, combined in often predictable ways; fight-flight response, for instance, turns on evaluation of a threat and of how best to cope with it (Bandura 1982, 1986).  The situation at hand is evaluated in the light of prior experience; one flees, cowers down, or fights back.

Culture and individual cognition can thus influence emotional states, and the experience of emotion.  Mental action is a constant, shifting, rich fabric in which knowledge, feeling, and will are interwoven and color-mixed as in a Chinese textile.  However, predictable basic human reactions provide the warp, supporting and defining the whole.  Culture weaves patterns over the warp strings, and holds the fabric together.


All this is preface to a consideration of some claims made by western observers about Chinese emotional states.

First, westerners, and some Chinese as well, often claim that Chinese are among the peoples who are so intensely social that they do not experience the world the way “westerners” do.  According to a stereotype that goes back to the ancient Greeks, “Asians” are group-oriented, in contrast to the individualistic, freedom-loving peoples to the west of them.  These western individualists were first the Greeks, then “Europeans,” finally the ambiguous and unbounded “westerners.”  In the modern version, as espoused by scholars such as Richard Shweder, “Asians” are group-oriented, think mostly of the welfare of the collectivity, and do not stop to analyze and think independently about their cultural rules.  “Westerners” are “individualists,” verbal, self-conscious, self-analytic, and well-contained.  (See Shweder 1991 and references therein; see Anderson 1998 and Anderson et al. 2000 for China citations. For the general case of Western and Chinese stereotypes of their culture and of Chineseness, see the very important historical study by Lung-Kee Sun, 2002.)

My professor in these matters, John Pelzel, a superb teacher, used to say (in lectures, 1961) that, according to this view, westerners are like steel-plated balls, while Chinese were like amoebas, extending pseudopods till “there is more of them in the pseudopods” than in their own selves.

An interesting question is just who these “westerners” are.  The term is very general, but in most cases the scholars obviously mean urban, university-educated Americans and West Europeans.  Small-town Midwestern Americans, or East European villagers, might make a very interesting comparison set.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Chinese, in general, are indeed more strongly social in their values and behavior than such urban educated western folk, and are less self-consciously individualistic.  Michael Bond (1986), for example, assembled many data-rich papers that prove this beyond reasonable doubt.

However, the contrast between “westerners” and “Chinese” is clearly overdrawn in much of the literature, as Sun (2002) shows in extenso.  The Hong Kong boat people prove that Chinese can be reasonably individualistic.  They do not, to be sure, inhabit steel-plated balls, but neither do westerners outside of cultural psychology books.

Scholars of such matters would do well to consider Chinese literature.  On the one hand, it almost uniformly describes highly prosocial values, and reflects a patriarchal order.  This order seems alien and oppressive to most westerners.  However, it also seems oppressive, though not alien, to the Chinese writers themselves.  Modern novels, in particular, usually criticize it.  Their criticism proves they take it seriously.  (See, for instance, the writings of Lu Xun, Ba Jin [Pa Chin 1964], or Maxine Hong Kingston.)

Yet, on the other hand, Chinese literature reflects an emotional world strikingly familiar to the western reader, once he or she adjusts to the unfamiliar order imposed by kinship and family structure.  The most revealing single example is Cao Xueqin’s great 18th-century novel The Story of the Stone (Cao 1973-1986).  Cao describes in exquisite detail the lives of teenagers growing up in a particularly strict Neo-Confucian family.  They have to conform to norms particularly rigid even by traditional Chinese social standards.  Yet, they are all individuals, and they are all highly self-analytic and self-conscious.  They experience a whole range of emotions familiar to American readers, including the desperate urge to rebel against family strictures.  They resemble American teenagers closely enough that anyone spending time with a group of bright American young can soon find close matches for Cao’s characters.

One might also consider the relation between rhetoric and reality.  Certainly, Chinese rhetoric, from classical literature down to village discourse and beginning school classes, favors the Confucian position.  Obedience, prosocial behavior, conformity, and hierarchic relationships of deference receive constant attention.  But historians know that when a government continually passes laws against some particular behavior, that means the behavior is commonly problematic, not that it is eliminated.  Many Chinese literary works, notably Wu Chingzi’s novel The Scholars (Wu 1957) and Pu Songling’s short stories, dissect the enormous disparity between rhetoric and behavior.

A reader of these or any of thousands of other Chinese novels, stories, plays, operas, and poems cannot escape feelings of great familiarity.  China certainly produced its share of dour advocates of conformity.  However, it also produced its share of selfish and amoral people.  Perhaps most interesting, it also produced prosocial but highly independent thinkers—classic “individuals” as idiosyncratic as anyone westward.  One recalls literary figures such as Mencius, Tao Yuanming, Li Bai, Zheng Xie, Yuan Mei, and countless more.

Even the hypersocial preachers of conformity and dogma often turn out to be rather misconstrued.  Zhu Xi in the 1100s taught, and to a great extent originated, the strict Neo-Confucian rules that often seemed (in future centuries) to be an enormous leaden weight on Chinese civilization.  Yet Zhu himself was a loner and outsider, rulemaking from a social-critical position based on Mencius’ rebelliousness.  He spent a good deal of his life in a hut perched partway up a thousand-foot sheer cliff in the remote mountains of Fujian.  One wonders what he would have thought of the rules’ latter-day petrification.

Ethnographies of China that focus sensitively on feelings (e.g. M. Wolf 1971; Gates 1987) seem, in general, to conclude that the human feelings of Chinese in Chinese families seem to be what one would expect of ordinary people subjected to such realities.  The differences between Chinese and American life are clear and sometimes deep, and usually in the postulated directions.  Chinese family structures have their effect on human relations.  On the other hand, humans are indeed siblings beneath the epidermis.

Rhetorics of conformity and individualism may also outrun people’s realities.

Chinese of the old school—including literally everyone in Castle Peak—loved to justify anything they did by recourse to the words of Confucius, Mencius, Zhu Xi, or any other ancient authority who might be relevant.  Doctors quoted ancient medical works, educators quoted old education manuals.  However, we noted that people justified quite different, and even opposite, courses of action by recourse to the same sages, and even the same passages.  Clearly, more directly relevant reasons had some bearing here.

Conversely, Americans love to justify anything they do by some directly functional reason, especially an economic one.  However, much of what is so justified is so far from economically sensible that one must look for other reasons.  One often finds that the reason is sheer cultural tradition.  For instance, Americans continue to wear Northern European clothing styles in southern California; the Native Americans sensibly went almost naked in that hot land.  Frequently even the American pretense of “rational self-interest” breaks down, and Americans admit that they are seeing an admittedly awful movie, or following an admittedly ugly and uncomfortable fashion, solely because “everybody’s doing it.”

Chinese concepts of intelligence foreground not only intellectual competence, but also “interpersonal intelligence” and rote memory, while American folk concepts of intelligence feature verbal skills more than Chinese concepts do (Sternberg 2004:335).

One should not confuse the rhetoric of folk explanation with the reality of emotional and intellectual experience.


Another problem concerns privacy and space.

A small fishing boat provides a minimum of space and privacy.  Even on shore, a fisher family’s simple home is little better.  A one-room hut, designed like a boat cabin or built as a square block, jams up against many others on a crowded shoreline.

Humans are amazingly social creatures, but such conditions tax their abilities to get along.  Formerly, some authors suggested that humans are territorial, or cannot tolerate crowding, and I found in Hong Kong an ideal test of that theory, since obviouisly people were forced into a minimum of space (Anderson and Anderson 1973).  The boat people had it easy.   In 1965, when recent refugees from China jammed the city, I visited a room in the oldest part of Kowloon that had 57 people living in a space of approximately 750 square feet.  They had decked the room into two storeys (each about 4 feet high) and they slept in shifts.  Yet they got along.  In Malaysia, fisherman friends of mine who had gotten relatively affluent built large houses—and used the opportunity to bring all their families in.  The result was as much crowding as in any hut.  They were proud of it.

Yet, inevitable stresses occurred.  Children played noisily.  Competition for scarce deck space was inevitable, as people worked on critically important projects—net-mending, trap preparation, bait-cutting.  Cooking filled the air with smoke, which dispersed on an open boat but was difficult to bear in a small house.  The bathroom of a boat was the starboard side of the sterncastle—a hole allowed wastes to escape—and small boats had no way for bathing or defecating individuals to hide completely.  No one looked; people condemned any staring.   Sex could hardly be private on a rocking boat.  Couples were very quiet, often sitting up (in the position of Tibetan yab-yum figures) to avoid noise.  But, inevitably, a small boat would sometimes shake and creak, conspicuous in the still night.  People studiously ignored this, or sometimes teased a particularly amorous couple.  Privacy was respected as much as possible, but no one was under the illusion that total privacy was possible.

Beyond these, rules for respecting space and privacy were clear and sharp (Anderson 1973—I have benefited since that date from discussions with Rance Lee, Robert Moore, and Ambrose Tse):

First, functional subdivision of space.  Sleeping space was inviolate.  Other activities have their defined areas.  Socializing was in neutral space:  front room of a house, center or aft deck of a boat.

Second, time was loosely structured; people worked around each other, negotiating.

Third, people tolerated almost any amount of noise.  The bay was quiet, but life on shore, especially in the towns, was very noisy.  People adjusted, learning to sleep through everything from crying children next door to firecrackers at New Year.  Thus, the constant pressure to “quiet down,” typical of American towns, did not occur.

Fourth, children could be disciplined by anyone, as noted above; this was necessary for close-quarters living.

Fifth, emotion was warm and passionate, but kept quiet except in its proper—usually private—place.  People did not tolerate either coldness nor promiscuously open emotionality.

Sixth, family and public rules of deference, respect, and leadership (discussed in the preceding chapter) clearly had much to do with living in close quarters.

These and other mores allowed people to live together in harmony and cooperation, and to enjoy social life without undue stress.  The rest of the world could well learn from these simple rules.


Another question currently debated is that of maternal sentiments.  Is mother love a human universal?  Do the Chinese feel it?

Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992) denied the existence of innate feelings of mother love or motherly attachment, seeing these as pure cultural construction.  (No one seems to have even considered fathers.)  Scheper-Hughes saw mother love as a western bourgeois idea.

Darwinian theory requires us to think seriously about this.  Even before Darwin,  scholars observed that raising children is so difficult and demanding that essentially no one would raise a child without a powerful innate drive to do it.  In view of the fact that the human population is six and a half billion and increasing at an explosive rate, it seems rather strange to conclude that parental love is a fiction.  Moreover, the western bourgoisie are almost the only group in the world who are at “zero population growth.”  One would expect that if mother love were a western bourgeois notion, only the western bourgeois would go to the trouble of raising children; surely no one else would.  As Nasir ad-Din Tusi put it in (or about) 1235 C.E., long before Darwin:  “An example of natural love is that of the mother for the child:  if this class of love were not innate in the mother’s nature, she would not give nurture to the child, and the survival of the species could not conceivably be effected” (al-Tusi, tr. Wickens, 1964:197).

Feelings, however, would naturally be expected to vary in strength between individuals.  On the genetic level, Darwinian theory leads us to expect variation in all genetically guided traits.  At the phenotypic level, Scheper-Hughes is surely right (and has a long line of forebears) in maintaining that poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, chronic sickness, and general desperation often play against any maternal instincts, hardening many women toward their young.  Bowlby’s attachment theory, and other attachment-through-experience theories, add that mothers who have little contact with their children, such as the elite mothers of Europe in ancien regime days (Hrdy 1999), have little chance to bond and thus to develop full maternal sentiments.

Arthur Wolf, who has written some of the best, most thorough, most insightful, and most psychologically informed ethnography of China, has argued that “maternal sentiments” are not strong in at least some parts of China, and may be nonexistent for many women (A. Wolf 2003).  This conclusion is based on his research on minor marriage:  giving of child-brides or even infant-brides, to be raised by the child-husband’s family.  Working in a part of Taiwan where minor marriage was common, he found that mothers usually gave up their daughters without undue stress or apparent emotion.  From this he concluded that mother love in humans is at best fickle, if it exists at all:  “…bearing a child, nursing it, and caring for it are not alone sufficient to arouse maternal sentiments….  [other authors] may be wrong in arguing that maternal sentiments are ‘a major component of human nature’” (A. Wolf 2003:S40; the scare quote is from John Bowlby, who argued for strong attachment between mother and infant; Bowlby 1988:165.  It is well to remember Bowlby’s point that bonding depends on good circumstances around and after birth.)  Wolf argues that even well-to-do women gave up babies, apparently only for calculated financial advantage, and appeared to do it without concern:  “To be confident that Taiwanese women did not find giving a child away particularly distressful one would need to have observed their concurrent behavior.  I never had an opportunity to do so because by the time I arrived in Taiwan in 1957 adoptions were not common and no longer handled in the traditional manner.  But I have talked to many women who gave their daughters away, and my impression is that this was not a wrenching experience” (A.Wolf 2003:S39).  Wolf was dealing with memories of a long-distant past, and apparently did not make detailed psychological enquiries.

Wolf takes a consciously strong position, stronger even than such questioners of mother love as Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992) and Sarah Hrdy (1999).  Unlike Scheper-Hughes, who documents the horrific lives of her apparently uncaring mothers, Wolf (like Hrdy) dismisses poverty and harsh life as an explanation.  Wolf and Hrdy maintain well-to-do women were just as guilty—a claim for which one might wish for some direct ethnographic evidence (Hrdy cites only historical records, many of them polemics of exceedingly dubious veracity).

To be sure, many well-to-do women gave up girls in old China and Europe, and Croll shows that many well-to-do women abort girls today.  However, the vast majority of abandoners were either desperately poor or in danger of becoming so.  Wolf (and Croll) somewhat downplay the uncertainty of life in the old days.  Unlike East Asia today, East Asia two or three generations ago was a land of falling economies and falling expectations.  The poor could not afford to give dowries for their daughters, and might let girls die if they could not—as the boat people did—reform the dowry rules.  Even the rich feared the effects of multiple dowries—on top of revolutions, market crashes, wars, famines, and epidemics.

A classic European stereotype, common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, alleged that the Chinese, like other “inferior races” suitable for colonial takeover, were deficient in human feeling, notably mother love.  Writers such as Arthur Smith (1894, 1899) held forth on the callousness and cruelty of the Chinese.  The 19th century authors (Smith is typical) spoke more of infanticide, extremely common in those days (and far from unknown today; Croll 2000) and almost always directed against girls.

Infanticide (usually or always female) and selling off of excess girls had been done in the past, to the enormous heartbreak of the parents, who did it only under family pressure (in cases we knew; see below).  Selective neglect of girls existed in the 1960s.  Girls got less food and more trouble.  However, in many families, a promising girl got more care than a not-so-promising boy.  By the 1970s, girls got full care.  The economic situation had improved; easy access to education had guaranteed that a girl could potentially be as productive as a boy (or more productive if she were brighter).  Gender differences had by no means disappeared, but they had become less obtrusive; they were no longer dangerous to health.

The horror stories of “typical Chinese” callous infanticide and neglect of girls (Croll 2000; Smith 1894; Wolf 2004) certainly did not apply at Castle Peak.  Children were universally loved and valued.  Some families were certainly better and more caring parents than others, and indeed a few parents (there as elsewhere) beat or starved or abused their children, but literally no one among the thousands of people we knew exhibited the callous attitudes that westerners so love to attribute to all Chinese (see e.g. Eastman 1988; Smith 1894).  This is not to say that the sober data recorded by Croll are incorrect—they are, alas, all too true.  Patriarchy was alive and well at Castle Peak.  However, the flamboyant stereotyping by writers like Arthur Smith take the worst of Chinese behavior as the rule.

The Cantonese boat people (and even the Castle Peak Bay land people) may, however, have been unusually far in the other direction (see further discussion in Anderson 1992, 1998).  Certainly, intensive ethnography of some other Chinese communities shows far more severe attitudes toward women—especially in-laws—and children (see e.g. Gates 1987; A. Wolf 2004 and references therein; M. Wolf 1968, 1972), and ethnographic novels like Ba Jin’s, provide an insider’s view that is no less revealing.  Marja Anderson and I ourselves studied a Chinese community in Malaysia that was much more like those harsh communities than like Castle Peak Bay (Anderson and Anderson 1978).  Perhaps significantly, it was largely Hokkien, thus linguistically and culturally closer to the communities known to Gates, Smith, A. Wolf, M. Wolf, and others.

Like minor marriage, infanticide was essentially a way of dealing with the fact that girls marry out, and require dowries.  The parents must not only pay to raise a girl who will never do much for them, but must then pay to get her married off.  Many families cannot afford this, and many more could do it only at the price of substantial economic stress.  They thus kill the girls if they are desperate, or, if less desperate, sell them or adopt them out.  This gave rise to the muitsai (“little sister”) system, in which the girl goes out as a servant or concubine.  More charitable (at least in theory) was minor marriage.

Wolf is, of course, aware of the social-structural and economic reasons for these practices, and his nuanced and comprehensive ethnography is the antithesis of Smith’s crude racism.  He is careful to add European data to show that Europeans too (at least in the past) got rid of children at a high rate[5].

Scheper-Hughes allows poverty and hardship as causative of lack of maternal feeling, but still insists on the reality of the lack.  She appears not to have interviewed her cases according to standard psychological or psychotherapeutic interview methods.  Comparable research by trained psychotherapists known to me (who would wish anonymity here), as well as my own research in clinical settings, in the United States and Canada, indicates that many women do indeed so respond to poverty and substance abuse.

However, concealment or even suppression of real and intense feeling is also common, apparently much commoner than actual callousness.  Often, such hiding of emotion is related to extreme depression.  Therapy can release the hidden emotion in a dramatic, explosive way, as I have repeatedly seen in both clinical and nonclinical contexts.

The sort of brutalization described by Scheper-Hughes makes people withdraw more and more from relationships and emotional engagement, because of fear and stress (Bandura 1982, 1986 explains the general case).  Maternal attachment is probably the last to go, but it too must go eventually, in a few cases.  It is possible that the Taiwanese mothers of whom Wolf speaks were brutalized much more than they cared to admit.  It is also possible that hiding emotions had simply become second nature to them.

Barbara Tuchman (1978:51-52) has commented on the apparent lack of deep attachment of elite parents to their young in medieval Europe—though her claims are somewhat belied by the assumptions of maternal love in medieval literature such as the Lays of Marie de France.  Medieval fathers, though not mothers, tended to be absent much of the time, and often had little chance to bond with children.  So they may indeed have had little parental concern—and of course they were the ones writing the books (with rare exceptions, such as Marie).  On the other hand, Tuchman’s book and other sources document great kin solidarity in those times.  It extended even to adopted, illegitimate, and distant relatives.

In short, the picture of attachment is not simple; attachment varies with personal and cultural conditions, as Bowlby discusses in detail. Bowlby does not have the last word on attachment, but his findings from thousands of data points gathered by meticulous and psychologically informed research can be qualified only by superior data.  On the one hand, it now seems that bonding is a slower and chancier process than Bowlby thought (see esp. Hrdy 1999).  On the other hand, an absolute lack of maternal feeling in a large percentage of otherwise normal women seems beyond Darwinian possibility, and is certainly beyond ethnographic demonstration.

There certainly was a horrific prevalence of female abandonment, infanticide, and neglect in eastern Asia.  Elisabeth Croll, one of the best and most seasoned ethnographers of that tragic region, has summed up the facts (Croll 2000).  Croll establishes that many families, even in the affluent and secure present, still allow girls to die.

However, the questions of who makes the decisions and how the mothers feel remain to be answered.  Marja Anderson and I had many conversations with women who had given up young daughters, and a few with women who had seen their daughters summarily eliminated.

Usually, the boat people strongly oppose the open expression of negative emotions, particularly grief, and most particularly grief over a hopeless situation.  They have an extreme aversion, backed up by sanctions, against expressing such emotions openly.  However, boat people, in many situations, do feel it appropriate to open up.

Our interviewing was informal, private, detailed, sustained, and gentle.  We provided a calm, quiet situation and got the women to talk—minimizing actual questions.  This eliminates the possibility that we led the women into emotionality by our questioning pattern.  Actually, we tried with considerable success to get women to talk on their own, without questions intruding.  We also were privy to several interactions in which we did no questioning at all.

In such situations, after several minutes to hour, all women without exception would become highly emotional, and these interviews almost invariably ended in sobs.  These women, especially those involved in infanticide, had clearly never even begun to resolve the grief and pain.  They kept silent, dealing with it as best they could.  One saw why silence about grief was so necessary in old China.  No one could have borne the suffering otherwise.  Explicit statement of this truth is, in fact, a standard trope in classical Chinese literature.

We observed one dramatic, and thoroughly public, confrontation between a mother and her adult daughter whom she had given up shortly after birth.  Being public, this had to be managed through improvised folksong, the appropriate vehicle for expressing grief (e.g. at funerals and wakes, as well as situations like this one).  It went on for about two hours.  The singing broke into rough chanting, alternating with weeping and sobs.  Quite apart from the emotion of the two participants, the watching crowd all clearly recognized the emotions as normal, and empathized thoroughly; many of the women joined in the tears[6].

In these cases, the decisions to give up or kill girls had been made by the family as a whole—which usually meant, in reality, the husband’s parents.  They would persuade or force the husband and wife.  Some wives and mothers stood steadfast, but more often economics intervened; one had to face the fact that keeping one more child could mean that all went without, and all were in danger of dying.  We knew families where this was a genuine and serious concern.  They usually kept all the children anyway, and took their chances—but that was in the expanding Hong Kong economy of the 1960s and 1970s.  Even so, we saw children die of malnutrition.

One can only conclude, from this and other evidence (including the comments by other scholars appended to Wolf’s article—those by Chinese scholars in particular), that maternal sentiments are usually real and powerful, in China and elsewhere.  People bear what they can, and often bear in silence.

George Bonanno (2004) has recently reviewed a vast amount of evidence and concluded that people may feel grief very deeply and yet survive through sheer grit:  “Resilience to the unsettling effects of interpersonal loss is not rare but relatively common, does not appear to indicate pathology but rather healthy adjustment, and does not lead to delayed grief reactions” (Bonanno 2004:23).  Even post-traumatic stress disorder is much less common than the incidence of traumatic stress would lead us to expect.  Yet, Bonanno makes it clear that for these resilient copers the grief and suffering are real.

One might expect that parents would engage in psychological distancing if they expected the child to die.  Scheper-Hughes found this in Brazil, and I have observed at least the attempt to do it not only in Hong Kong, but also in Mexico and elsewhere.  However, parents’ success at this is generally (though far from always) poor.  Folk wisdom in Mexico holds that women have to tough it out (aguantar) as best they can, and for their own sakes and others they need to hide emotion.  The fact that hiding is deliberate, forced, and difficult is universally recognized in folksongs and other popular culture (Anderson 2005).

Certainly, culture can fine-tune or even create emotions.  Human feelings are subject to all manner of modifcations, cultural and otherwise.  The point here is not that culture is irrelevant or that emotions are some essential quality in the human animal; extreme innatism simply does not stand up under research.  However, it seems doubtful, if only on Darwinian grounds, that any large segment of the human race is without parental sentiments.  Certainly, we never encountered Chinese mothers lacking in maternal concern.  No doubt some Taiwanese women stifled any feelings thay may have had; perhaps some were indeed without feelings.  Taiwanese society is different enough from Cantonese that it may be less emotional, more disengaged—but the many ethnographies of Taiwan, including those by Wolf and his group, do not seem to show this.

People are tough.  They survive.  Hurts can be stuffed down, even more effectively than Freudians and Bowlbians knew.  Chinese mothers, and many more in this imperfect world, must often make horrible choices deliberately and with clear eyes, and keep their mouths shut about the consequences.  So does an animal that coolly gnaws off its leg to escape a trap.

I wish all social scientists knew Bertolt Brecht’s long and wrenching “Ballad of the Infanticide Marie Farrer.”  It ends:

“…her sin was heavy, but her pain was great.

Therefore I beg you not to fall in scorn;

We all need help from every creature born”  (Brecht 1947:26, my translation more or less following H. R. Hays’ on p. 27).















The boat people moved in a wider world, in which political identifications of various kinds cut across the boat-land distinction.

Whether maritime or land-based, a person from the Castle Peak area identified himself or herself as a Ching Saan yan, a person of Green Mountain (Castle Peak).  The area so labeled was defined by marketing structure.  As William Skinner pointed out (Skinner 1964-1965; see also the papers in Skinner 1977), China’s market geography was and is a complex set of polygons, each polygon fitting with its neighbors in theoretically neat tiling-patterns.  These polygons are centered on marketing areas.  They form a nested hierarchy, from local markets to national capitals.  Hugh Baker (1979) pointed out that, in reality, the polygons were often more like circles, separated by splinters of unused and uninhabited land; these slivers served, quite literally, as grounds for competition.  Villages tried to expand cultivation into these debatable zones.  Before the 20th century, neighboring villages often fought over the right to expand into such borderlands.

People marketed at a certain town, and within its sphere they contract marriages, transact business, find cooperation and sociability, and organize festivals.  Skinner’s use of “marketing” as the defining term betrays a certain economic determinism; a sociologist might speak of “interaction.”  But “marketing” was the Chinese term, too, as the name of San Hui (“New Market”) makes clear.  San Hui was a typical “standard market town,” center of such an area.  As such, it could supply everything that anyone needed daily or weekly, and almost everything that ordinary people ever needed.

Above it in a hierarchy of markets was Yuen Long, the central town for the western New Territories.  (Skinner’s student John Young, 1974, provided a superb study of its marketing functions.  This book must be read by anyone interested in Chinese marketing in earlier times.)  Yuen Long supplied the few things that ordinary people occasionally needed but that San Hui was not big enough to provide.  These included special government services, full emergency medical care, major manufactured and crafts goods, and such specialized services as poultry-castration (only on market days!).  As a large town, Yuen Long was part of a rotating series of major markets.  It was, if I remember aright, a “1-4-7” town:  major markets were held, in a huge open space at the edge of town, on the 1st, 4th, 7th, 11th, 14th, 17th, 21st, 24th, and 27th days of the month.  The nearest towns would then be a 2-5-8 and a 3-6-9 town.  Thus, a triangle of coordinated markets was established.  The poultry castrator, and other specialized vendors of goods and services, traveled around the circuit, resting or going to ordinary everyday markets on the zero days.  Such towns supplied things that ordinary people needed only once or twice a year (as well as all the ordinary needs).

Still higher on the scale of markets was the great Kowloon-Hong Kong metropolis, valuable to Castle Peak residents as a place for rare, exotic recreation and as a place to sell fish.  In the 1960s, many people had never been there, or had been only once.  Travel was much more common by 1974.  Such great centers had not only daily and yearly needs, but everything anyone might ever need.  To the goods and services available at lesser market towns, they added the goods and services that a normal person needed only once in a lifetime, and goods and services that special people (big businessmen, political leaders, and the like) needed more regularly.

Below San Hui in the hierarchy came local markets like the bay pier.  Here, one found items like rice, oil, salt, and tea, as well as incense and religious services, restaurants and cafes, and fish dealers—in short, the things that everybody needed every day, but nothing much beyond that.

Smallest in the marketing hierarchy were the informal daily gatherings of people at crossroads, to trade or haggle over a few vegetables, fish, or herbs that their gardens had provided, and to sell home-made snacks.  Pedlars brought folk medicines and cheap cloth.

The local markets defined three sharply separate subsections of the Castle Peak residents:  the east bay, the west bay, and the San Hui area itself.  The fishermen almost all lived in the east bay, focused on the pier.  Boat people in the other two areas had given up fishing.  They found work in the factories and service jobs around San Hui.  By 1974, the factories were booming; the bay had already been half filled.  Public apartment housing had been constructed on the former tideflats.  Private houses decorated the higher ground.  All the unfortunates living in wrecked boats or shacks in the 1960s were now well housed, usually in the new public housing, and well employed.  One exceptionally bright girl we befriended when she was a starving child in 1965 was a waitress in a restaurant in 1975, and moving up toward better opportunities.

The outcaste community described in the previous chapter had also disappeared by 1974.  Its people found homes on land, and joined the factory and service workforce.

Within the fishing community, boat type influenced sociability.  Trawlers socialized with trawlers, hand-liners with hand-liners.  Religious associations, coops, and informal leadership groups cut across these lines, and everyone met in the shops and restaurants of the pier area.

The boat people were highly mobile, and had constant interaction with people of Tai O, Ma Wan, and a couple of dozen other small or large ports of the western New Territories.  If the fishing were good or if relatives were there, a family might temporarily move to one of those ports.  Land people were more apt to have ties with other land communities, and with the larger centers, Yuen Long and Kowloon.

A community was thus less a matter of physical residence than of social interaction, and social interaction was defined, in large measure, by marketing and commercial links.

However, this did not quite exhaust the structuring of community.  Skinner tended to see religious structures as simply mirroring the marketing ones.  Some did, notably the cult of the “Earth Gods” (spirits of the locality) and, of course, the gods of the towns themselves.  However, other cults cross-cut the marketing grain, and provided another way of linking people.  At Castle Peak Bay, not only the local boat people but all the boat people from Kowloon westward came to the Tin Hau temples.  Land-dwellers from wide-flung areas came to the Three Sages Temple near the pier, and land-dwellers often worshiped Tin Hau, also.  Devout or desperate worshipers traveled farther afield, to famous temples at Tai O, Kowloon, and elsewhere.  Conversely, urbanites came to the great Taoist and Buddhist establishments in the area—but locals rarely did, for these were more sophisticated temples, for the well-educated.  Religion also integrated boat and land people, and was the only institution that did so (see following chapter).  Thus, religion served to weave the social strands into a fabric, by integrating people otherwise separated by ethnicity and market boundaries.  Judging from my experience and reading, this finding holds true throughout China.

In addition to the impersonal ties of marketing and temple membership, the world outside the family was bound by a spiderweb of friendship links.  The Cantonese word p’ang yau, generally translated “friend,” actually means “acquaintance.”  At Castle Peak, at least, it meant anyone that one knew well enough to engage in conversation without some special occasion to serve as an excuse.  By contrast, “friend” is hou p’ang yau (“good acquaintance”).  These are people with whom one trades, has tea, celebrates birthdays, talks endlessly, plays mahjongg, and generally enjoys good fellowship.  Friends were expected to look after each other; mutual aid and care were universal.  Borrowing was usually from kin, because neighbors might not be neighbors long in this mobile world, but still a great deal of borrowing and mutual favor-exchanging took place between unrelated friends.

Acquaintances and friends could be quite shameless about asking for favors, but this was reasonable in the “floating world.”  The asker knew that the chance might never come again.  The person asked knew that he or she might desperately need the other’s aid in a day, or a month, or a year.  One needed all the contacts one could get.  One never knew whose boat would be the nearest when one’s own boat wrecked.



Leadership in the boat community was a matter of some ideological ambiguity.  In nothing did the boat people agree more totally and thoroughly than in their rejection of all top-down control.  They resented government, police, and domination by local powers, whether legal (town officials) or informal (fish-dealers, local rich folk).

Of course, necessarily, they did not live as anarchistically as they talked.  They submitted to the British government, because it generally facilitated their life and fishing, rather than interfering with those.  They recognized that some sort of government was necessary to maintain markets, mark harbors, and so forth.  But they did not submit quietly or eagerly.  They talked nostalgically of unsettled times in the 1930s and late 1940s when they were outside effective control by any government.  They justified such opposition by quoting the more libertarian passages of Mencius.  That philosopher justified rebelling against evil rulers, and argued for liberty of conscience to a degree very rare in world literature.

Often, the boat people sounded strikingly similar to China’s home-grown anarchist philosophers of the early 20th century (Scalapino and Yu 1961).  The boat people had never heard of Kropotkin or Emma Goldman, but Mencius was quite enough.  Surely, few people in human history were so uncompromisingly against all hierarchy, all top-down control, and all interference with personal liberty.  This was not the American “libertarian” philosophy, which opposes big government but idealizes big business, including government support thereof.  The boat people opposed big business, big government, and anything else above the grassroots level, with equal fierceness.

A long history of free-trading, smuggling, and outright piracy lay behind all this, but it was primarily the result of the needs of the fishery.  A boat had to be a little republic.  People had to be self-sufficient, self-reliant, and self-determining.  They had to be able to fish where they wanted, and to control their own fleets.  They had to be able to defend themselves against pirates and rivals, without waiting for distant and sluggish government agents to do it.

Almost equally important, in the minds of the boat people, was the eternal and inevitable dominance of government by land-dwellers.  Even those boat people who did not hate and fear the land people were most unenthusiastic about this dominance.  The land people had always used their position of authority to impose unfair terms, and the boat people thus wished to escape land-based control as much as possible.

However, no human community can really function or survive without a leadership structure.  Consistency thus could go only so far, and stated principles that sounded anarchic had to be qualified strongly in the real world.  The boat people made use of government when it suited them, as in the cases of the cooperatives and the government fish market.  Increasingly, they came to rely on government schools, government harbor and channel controls, and other infrastructure services.

Most of the fishermen at Castle Peak had come as refugees from Communist China.  Almost all came for economic, not political, reasons.  They described rations of two pieces of cloth a year and a catty of rice a day; neither were remotely close to adequate for a fisher’s life.  They continued to fish in Chinese waters, under license, paying a small tax.  However, in late 1965, just as we moved onto our boat, the Communist government closed all waters.  The fishermen thought is was largely an attempt to make them come home.  They did not; they simply poached.  Rolex and other imported watches began to appear, and the following dialogue took place between myself and one fisherman:  “Oh, nice new watch.”  “Yes, it’s for the cadre.”  “But I thought there was no bribery in Communist China…?”  “Oh, yes, but this is only a little gift.”  So fishing went on.  “But doesn’t this mean money is more important than government policy?”  “Of course, what else?”  The cadres did insist on the boats having Chinese licenses.

The boat people were neutral about the political philosophies of Communists, British imperialists, Americans, and others; they disliked all governments and liked all people.  In spite of the years of anti-American propaganda, we had little difficulty with the refugee community.  Only those who maintained active Chinese Communist party membership and organizing enterprise saw us as dubiously desirable.

The boat people viewed Hong Kong’s marine police with fear and loathing.  These police interfered with smuggling, collected the high license and harbor fees required by Hong Kong, and had to enforce the countless minor maritime laws adapted for bigger and more demanding vessels:  laws requiring formally trained personnel, special equipment, etc., to be on board.  The boat people accepted gladly an increasing range of government services, however:  typhoon signals, typhoon shelters, land-based police who maintained order and stopped gangsters from abusing boat women on shore, public health measures, public education, and other trappings of the modern state.              More important than these, at least in 1965-66, was the actual leadership within the boat community.  (By 1974-75, boat life was in decline and government power on the rise.)  Needless to say, boat community leadership could not be formalized, or even overtly recognized.  It was none the less real.  People recognized certain fishermen as leaders, using the terms a yat, “number one,” or taai yan, “big man.”  Marshall Sahlins, theorist of the “Big Man” (Sahlins 1972), would have been pleased.  Sahlins used the term exactly the way the boat people did:  for a man who waxed large in the social picture through his own efforts.  (Sahlins further noted that such a man was often literally big, thanks to many a feast.  The boat people, hard workers that they were, almost never got fat, even when socially considerable.)  Such terms were more often used for powerful land people, and with no friendly implication, but the boat people admitted that they too had their big men.  I found it sometimes difficult to get them to admit this, even when no one had the slightest question that the phenomenon was real.

Many women had real political and social power, but all recognized leaders were men, and the public sphere was a male realm.  On the other hand, everyone knew which women had power, and everyone knew that the wives of male leaders were often full or nearly-full partners in much of the leaders’ decision-making.

The path of a boat leader was of a strictly grassroots order.  A successful boat captain—that is, male head of family—would find himself sought out by relatives and neighbors for help.  If he succeeded in solving their problems, he gained a reputation, which could spread.  Most such grassroots leaders remained known only to close friends and immediate kin, but some rose higher.

The boat community of Ma Wan Island, a small, isolated island a few miles from Castle Peak, recognized as leader and spokesman the dynamic young Yip Yautaai.  He had begun as a particularly caring and attentive solver of neighbors’ problems.  He soon found himself spokesman for the community—a very poor and remote one, poorly served in all respects—in its attempts to improve.  He organized a coop and a Better Living Society that involved all the fishermen.  He got government services and assistance.  He then succeeded in finding nongovernmental charitable organizations that would help with housing and livelihood.  Soon the fishermen moved from their boats into well-built apartments on shore, built with the help of Canadian and other charitable associations.  Throughout all this, Yip remained modest, friendly, and unassuming. Yip’s leadership and ability in all this made him known and respected throughout the boat communities of the western New Territories.  He was widely held up as a living model of a boat leader.

Yip’s achievements were unusual, but effective leaders could be found in many ports.  Castle Peak remained somewhat unorganized; there were many small leaders but no powerful ones.  This had much to do with the divisions of the fleet and the lack of major community-wide problems to solve.  There were many boat types and many sub-communities.  Leaders rose to the level of representing 20 or 30 boats, but rarely could find much scope to move higher, or much competitive advantage over other leaders.  Of course, it also had much to do with the fact that a leader of 20 or more boats attracted many attempts to cut him down to size!

A leader had to deal with issues of face (min, Putonghua mian).  This Chinese term has developed a quite wrong connotation in English.  English-speakers have adopted the word to refer to purely superficial, often hypocritical, social slickness and prestige.  This is not how the term is used in Chinese, or at least in Cantonese (see Moore 1981).  For Cantonese, the term refers to social reputation based on actual skill at negotiating with fairness, honesty, and competence.  To be sure, a well-to-do individual with competence, honor, and connections can have face and still be a shady operator.

However, a boat person—lacking wealth, important connections, and chances to develop suaveness—could only rely on native honesty, reliability, and social skills.  He also had to have considerable courage.  He had to be level-headed, thoughtful, and judicious.  The risks—social and even physical—were not inconsiderable.  A man who blew his cool would never be a leader; he would be more apt to lose his boat.  Also, a leader had to be a good listener, since he had to deal with all sorts of people from all social spheres.  The boat world had its shady dealers and people who cut moral corners, but they had little face.  Many feared them, but few respected them.

In so far as “face” implied a slick surface as well as an integrity beneath, the term lin (lian) was pressed into service, to refer more specifically to the latter (see Moore 1981, 1988).  Face was a social quality, lin a more personal one.

Face comes from successfully navigating the difficult and slippery world of social interactions and transactions.  It is a quality that emerges from those.

To gain face, a leader had to resolve social dealings, conflicts, and disputes in such manner that others also gained face.  The typical case was a conflict among the leader’s followers, or between a follower and an outsider to the circle.  If the leader could resolve such a conflict to everyone’s satisfaction, leaving no one feeling wronged and embittered, all parties—especially the leader himself—gained face.  If the leader left the parties unsatisfied and angry, he lost face.  Negotiating non-conflict situations, such as marriage negotiations, government dealings, and organizing for festivals, also involved the opportunity to gain or lose face.

Losing face also came from any public shame, especially being discovered in a dishonorable or compromising action.  Deadly, also, was being played for a fool—wan pan chat, “played for a stupid prick,” in the blunt language of the waterfront.  A pan chat was one who had tried to pull off a social deal, but had been outsmarted because of his own stupidity.  This was even worse if he had tried to cut moral corners in the process.  Even trivial matters like not being able to respond cleverly to an insult, or being cheated in a minor transaction that anyone should have handled, made one a bit of a pan chat.

Being a running dog (informer), cheat, or deadbeat were also sure ways to lose all face in short order.  Being chou, “coarse,” here meaning “socially insensitive,” was costly to a leader, though not necessarily face-losing to an ordinary person.  A leader had to have sensitivity and polish, and had to keep calm and balanced.  General bias and uncontrolled anger were disliked in everyone and fatal to a leader’s position.  By contrast, bias in favor of one’s clients and carefully stage-managed anger in defense of them were desirable.  (It gave one face to display obviously stage-managed anger, but genuinely losing it and getting seriously angry was a face-losing proposition.  Few facts give more insight into waterfront sociability than this one.)

Crumbling under pressure was always fatal to leadership.

Honesty and fidelity to one’s followers was obviously desirable, but honesty in land-based terms was not necessary.  Yip Yautaai and many other leaders were model citizens by any standards, but many leaders were, or had once been, smugglers, pirates, and the like.  Such men were feared and not always trusted, but they were often leaders all the same; land-people’s standards of good behavior did not necessary mean anything one way or another.

Finally, a boat leader had to have something not at all related to face:  he had to be a distinctive “character.”  An ordinary, conformist, pleasant sort would never be a leader.  A leader had to have a reputation for something distinctive:  pungent wit, great knowledge of and insight into people, great knowledge of folk songs and stories, hard drinking, bonhomous feastmanship, or the like.  He had to stand out as an exciting, interesting person, revelling in life and in originality.

In short, a leader was subject to countless democratic pressures.  He had to be successful and yet not proud or haughty.  The boat people took delight in cutting down to size anyone who overreached himself.

Someone who could successfully deal with such issues soon became the spokesman for his group in dealings with outsiders, be they other boat people, government workers, businessmen, or wandering anthropologists.

A small-time leader tended to be trapped by the size of his operation; he could do only so much with his resources.  Yip, a less than affluent member of a modest community, was exceptional in being able to parlay sheer personal skill into a great deal of improvement for his people.

Leaders developed regular patterns of morning tea-drinking, so that they could be found by anyone needing their help.  A leader would have regular hours at a particular table in a particular restaurant.  Morning was the time for this, because the leader would usually have to go out to fish, or else would be taken up with social and political dealings later in the afternoon.  Part of the responsibility of a leader was attending weddings, religious festivals, and other rituals involving group members, so he had a busy life after morning teatime.  Certain tea shops and restaurants attracted leaders, others did not.  The attractive ones were those that were large, open almost all the time, and welcoming to boat people.  Boat leaders knew the restaurants to visit in Yuen Long and Kowloon as well as in all the western New Territories ports.

The exigencies of a world of highly independent people, who valued their agency and took no orders from anyone, inevitably and necessarily elevated such negotiation-experts to leadership positions.  The situation created a specific morality:  one valuing conflict resolution above almost all other things.  Independence and autarky guaranteed that conflicts would be frequent.  The needs of mutual aid and mutual dependence, and of harmony, guaranteed that solutions to those conflicts would have to be found.  This in turn guaranteed that good problem-solvers would be the pillars of the community, and their social skills would be highly valued.  The boat people were quite aware that an independent community of independent people needs more, not less, self-conscious harmony-maintenance than a community of policed conformists.   The dangers of a Hobbesian meltdown were obvious.

Thus, the boat communities of Hong Kong were amazingly orderly; of course, the efficient colonial government was also responsible, but the boat communities were largely self-regulating.  However, without the police and other trappings of modernity, leadership might not have had such beneficent consequences.  Antony (2003) describes the rise of several pirate leaders in the South China Sea who seem to have risen by similar means—in addition to ruthlessness and predatory savagery.

Other ethnographies of China have described somewhat similar processes.  In particular, the excellent, sensitive accounts in Kipnis (1997) and Yan (1996) relieve me of the necessity of giving a complete account of networking in Chinese communities.  However, in more ordered, hierarchic communities the focus shifts to drawing on “connections” (see below) and manipulating hierarchical relationships and formal political rules.  This was true of land-dwelling communities in Hong Kong as well as in Kipnis’ and other communities.  This gives a very different flavor to the process.  At best, it is more tightly bound to formal political and social rules (see Kipnis’ account).  At worst, it becomes corruption and manipulation (Yang 1994).  As in other cases, one can see the boat people of Castle Peak Bay as set within a continuum:  from accommodation to formal political rule, with corruption and favoritism as the pathological extreme, to complete grassroots autonomy, with piracy as the pathological extreme.

Leaders, of whatever sort, had to build up networks of friendship and acquaintanceship (pang yau), obligation (Putonghua guanxi, a word rare in its Cantonese form), and mutual good feeling (kamching, Putonghua ganqing).  These were the common coin of interaction.  A leader would throw feasts, invite friends and other leaders to dinner, help with religious rituals, provide charity, help in construction or engine repair, and otherwise share.  Most critical were feasts—celebratory dinners, often in restaurants.  (See Sahlins 1972 on the worldwide importance of special food in such matters.  Ordinary dinners would not count.)  More directly useful to clients were such matters as bringing a problem to the attention of the proper powers, and using one’s authority to make sure they attended to it.  An ordinary person could not get a permit to build a shack on shore, for instance, but a leader might.  A leader had to be able to travel to Yuen Long and elsewhere to represent clients too poor or occupied to travel far.  Dealing with the authorities in Yuen Long was frightening to the boat people.  I have seen veteran leaders shake and turn pale in a Yuen Long office.

A boat leader thus had to have some money, but surprisingly poor people got very far.  Yip Yautaai started with little more than a tiny boat and a change of rather worn clothes.  Our sample of leaders disclosed no correlation with wealth.  Better-off boat people had usually accumulated enough enemies to offset the advantages of money.

Perhaps commonest of all, though most unobtrusive, was providing information.  A leader was a node in the vast communication network that linked the whole boat world, from Guangzhou to Aberdeen and Macau, into one great linkage.  Clients expected their leader to be the main source of valuable information about the wider world.  Other leaders expected him to be the source of new and important items that his client network had discovered.  This could be anything from new fishing grounds to an impending marriage or a threatened government crackdown.

Sometimes leadership was courted, sometimes shunned.  In neither case was success automatic.  Leadership was negotiated with the potential clients.  They would not put up with an unskilled social dealer.  Conversely, they would force a consummately skilled man into the role, whether or not he wanted the rather onerous responsibilities.

Leaders we knew varied from people who were simply outgoing, friendly, and cheerful to people who were quietly competent—people who could talk a suspicious official into giving an honest, sympathetic hearing to problems that would have normally been beneath notice.

A trivial and thoroughly typical case exemplifies leadership at work.  A trawler from Castle Peak accidentally ran over the nets of a gill-netter from Ma Wan, ruining them.  They argued over payment; it was a clear accident, but the nets were a major loss.  The trawler was a friend of a minor Castle Peak leader, Leung Taai; the gill-netter was part of Yip Yautaai’s community.  Thus, the conflict went right to those two men.  For days they became more and more edgy, seeming to look for trouble with each other while dreading the possibility of finding it.  Both these leaders were good friends of my field assistant and myself, so we arranged a feast and invited them.  Over drinks (and they could drink as only sailors can), they worked out a compromise deal, “to give you [my field assistant and I] face.”  They were helping us become leaders too, by letting us provide the excuse for them to settle their grievance.

Grassroots leadership of this sort was successful at reducing trouble, and the local police (land-dwellers) told us that the boat people gave them less trouble than the land people did.  But grassroots leadership proved totally helpless in the face of overfishing.  The fishermen told us explicitly that they knew the fish were disappearing, but simply could not stand to put themselves under the control necessary to stop overfishing.  Unlike so many grassroots communities round the world (Anderson 1996; Berkes 1999), the fishermen could not agree on limiting their fishing.  It was a suicidal liberty.  Within a generation the fishery was destroyed, and the boat world was gone forever.



All this brings up the question of moral behavior.  Since that has been treated in great detail elsewhere (Anderson et al. 2000), I will be brief here.

A good person (hou yan) had the characteristics given above for a leader, but did not need to have—and did not normally have—so much social skill or personal courage.  He or she was responsible, first of all:  a good fisher, good family man or woman, good participant in the endless small exchanges of mutual aid that held the waterfront together.  A good person incurred obligations and discharged them faithfully.  Intelligence got praise, but more praise went to the person who thought carefully and judiciously through problems, listened to others’ opinions, and came to a sensible conclusion.  Respect of others, especially one’s elders, was absolutely essential.  On the other hand, the boat people only modestly favored the Confucian virtue of filial piety.  Deferring to elders in the family was assumed; blind obedience or excessive deference to them brought no praise (see previous chapter).  A good person was not somebody who did anything blindly.  Goodness lay in actively, thoughtfully helping others.

Goodness also involved tolerance.  People lived at close quarters.  They had to tolerate a sometimes overwhelming amount of noise, smoke, and other human annoyances.  They had to have firm rules for dealing with behavior that was completely out of line; everyone would intervene in cases of real danger, but everyone would leave everyone else alone otherwise.  This meant not noticing a most impressive range of human behaviors.  Not only defecation, but also sex, frequently could not be hidden on rocking boats or in thin-walled, close-packed houses.  The hou yan was imperturbable and tactful.

A bad person was an m hou yan, “not good person.”  People carefully avoided using words that literally meant “bad” and “evil.”  Such words were too insulting, but, also, using them could call up dangerous supernatural evil forces.  If the politely circumspect “not good” was inadequate—i.e., if the speaker were truly angry—the villain in question became a “rat,” “dog,” “devil” (kuai), or other nonhuman.  Only truly evil deeds (not persons or things) were “evil.”

“Not good” people were aggressive and tactless, but above all irresponsible, untrustworthy, and unhelpful.  They did not play their part in the endless round of incurring and discharging obligations.  Perhaps the ultimate badness was to fail of an obligation.  Any dishonesty, faithlessness, laziness, and violently aggressive behavior attracted extreme negative judgement.  Acts of this sort became known to the entire waterfront within hours of taking place, a fact which certainly had a major effect on social order.

A different kind of badness was “ignorance” (mou man “lacking culture,” or equivalent words).  An ignorant person was rude, disrespectful, and mean.  He or she was openly intolerant, insulting, or shameful.  He or she carried gossip, said stupidly tactless things, and hurt others’ feelings for no reason.  This, of course, loses face.  At first I wondered at the term “ignorant”—what did education have to do with it?  I learned that mou man refers not to schoolbook education, but to learning proper social behavior.

Illegal behavior did not necessarily make one bad.  Smoking opium and other criminal behavior led eventually to ostracism, though a bit of such was tolerated in some quarters.  Running snakes (smuggling refugees out of China), however, could make one a good person, not a bad one, though it was a crime; everyone believed boat people in China were suffering and needed any help they could get.

Heavy drinking received no censure.  It went with the sailor’s life, and people put away incredible quantities of alcohol at feasts.  (At other times, alcohol on the boats was  rare.)  An alcoholic would have been censured, but we literally never heard of or saw an alcoholic among the boat people, and we knew over a thousand people.  We knew one alcoholic shore-dweller very well; in 1965-66 he was seriously alcoholic, but just before we returned in 1974, his doctor told him to stop, and he stopped—just like that.  We knew, barely, a few other alcoholics, but the number was incredibly small for such a large community.

The secret of this low incidence of alcoholism in a hard-drinking town was simple; it lay in a set of rules that were enforced by unanimous and condignly enforced social opinion.  Drinking was absolutely confined to adults.  Heavy drinking was confined to senior adults.  Drinking, beyond an occasional beer with dinner or peg of raw alcohol on a cold morning, was confined to feasts, and these had to be for a serious occasion (religious or personal).  Drinking had to be with a large amount of fairly oily food, and both the drinking and the eating had to be spaced out over several hours.  These rules sufficed.

Far more serious was sorcery.  Everyone feared it above almost all things.  It was correspondingly rare. We knew two people seriously accused of it.  Both of them gladly admitted to the charge (see following chapter).   They were clearly mentally deranged, but people called them m hou yan rather than song (“crazy”), because their sorcery defined them.

Cynical proverbs, recited when someone let someone down, may be a good way to show values in action.  “Feelings are thinner than paper,” said one.  “Cantonese have no pity” occurs in a song.  Conversely, “even thieves have morals” reminds us that even bad people can be good; the Mencian idea that everyone was good deep inside, however much education they needed to bring it out, was the most widely known, widely cited, and widely held of Mencius’ teachings.  Even those who were unclear about his name knew that the sages held that “people are good.”

All this is very Confucian, but it is not the Confucianism of modern elite discourse.  It is, in fact, a quite different construction of the morality discussed in Confucius, Mencius, and other classic Confucian writers.  Since the days of Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the great Neo-Confucian philosopher who did much to define Chinese moral culture, elites have often interpreted Confucianism to mean obedience of inferiors to superiors.  Yet, the classics spent at least as much time discussing fairness, justice, mutual aid, community spirit, civic culture, and integrity.  They also couch deference in terms of mutual support and good (virtuous) order, not in terms of blind obedience to any and every order.  As in matters of family, the boat people had a perfectly valid, thoroughly Confucian, and thoroughly Chinese way of being good—but it is, once again, very far from the stereotypes promulgated in certain books, both Chinese and western, in recent decades.



In recent decades, ethnicity has been as overwhelmingly central a topic for ethnography in China as kinship was in the 1960s and 1970s.  Especially important has been study of the differences between the highly formal and often arbitrary “minority” codings and discourse of China’s Communist government and the far more fluid, diverse, complex relationships that the ethnographers find on the ground.  This issue has led to the production of an enormous literature (e.g.—and this is only scratching the surface—Blum 2001; Brown 1996; Constable 1996; Gladney 1991, 1998; Harrell 1995, 2001; Litzinger 2000; Mueggler 2001; Schein 2000).  These studies have been important far beyond the boundaries of China, because they provide, collectively, such a superb picture of the ways an arbitrary top-down bureaucracy makes a simplified, authoritarian grid from a rich and intricate net of actual relationships.

Ethnic relations in waterfront communities in old Hong Kong were characterized by great fluidity.  It is no accident that the modern performative, anti-essentialist concept of ethnicity was pioneered by Fred Blake in his brilliant and pathbreaking studies of ethnic relations in Hong Kong (Blake 1981).  Blake’s pioneer work came well before the “postmodernists” and their ilk “discovered” this notion, and deserves more recognition than it has received.  Blake, in his studies of a Hakka town and its relations with Cantonese and other Hong Kong groups, found that individuals could and did “pass” as members of various different ethnic groups by manipulating symbols:  clothing, food, accent, association, and so on.  Often, ethnicity was a role like a role in a play, to be assumed when strategically useful.

In general, the findings of all these scholars fit with the views of James Scott (1998) and George Orwell: the power state simplifies not only for ease and convenience, but also to maintain control through a type of mental brutality.  All the authors see ethnicity as emerging from interactive practice, not as some sort of essentialist bred-in-the-bone reality.  Most see the Communists as using ethnicity for control, and being highly arbitrary in their application of ethnic labels.  For instance, the same people may be classified in two totally different ethnic groups when divided by a state line; it may literally happen that brother is set against brother, officially.  Native Americans may recognize parallels along the US-Canada border.

In China, as elsewhere, “ethnicity” is a political thing, not a cultural reality.  Ethnic groups are defined by politics.  Usually there is some cultural basis.  In China, most “minorities” and Han Chinese groups are linguistically defined, or are supposedly so.  Obviously, speakers of the same language who are classed separately on different sides of a province boundary may have something to say about that.  At least China seems free of such monstrosities as the American ethnic group “Asian-Pacific Islander,” which lacks any cultural, linguistic, political, or genetic unity, and was established purely for convenience by the U. S. Census Bureau.

The boat people are, of course, an “ethnic group”—not recognized as a minority—defined by residence and subculture.  One is reminded of the “gypsies” or “traveling folk” of the British Isles; the ethnic labels include not only Roma but other, quite unrelated, traveling groups.  Only the mobile lifestyle provides a unity.

Within the recent literature on Chinese minorities and ethnicity, there is a range of opinions.  Some scholars, such as Harrell, have a general sense that ethnicity is real, but much more complex and linked to real-world practice than the Communists allow.   Other scholars appear to see ethnic labeling as inevitably arbitrary, a reductionist classification that may or may not have any basis at all.  Certainly, languages, costumes, and other cultural markers differ, but they may not covary, and they may not go with locally recognized ethnic labels.

Many, perhaps most, are critical, explicitly or implicitly, of the zoo-like exhibitions of “minority culture” that the Communists have long favored.  On the other hand, these shows may at least having some value in keeping cultural arts and expressive means alive, and even allowing survival of minorities that might otherwise be suppressed.

I have little to add to these excellent studies, partly because I have not done much research in Communist-controlled China.  I have already touched on the nature of boat people ethnicity, and on relations with other ethnic groups, and with governments (see above; also Anderson 1967, 1970b).  Suffice it to say that the boat people are among the least marked and most arbitrarily defined of ethnic groups, and that the classification of them as a “tribe,” the “Tan,” with a long “history,” is a particularly extreme case of ethnic essentialization and the invention of an “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson 1991).

Studies of such groups, defined by geography, ecology, village, or other identities, are much rarer than studies of ethnic groups marked by truly different culture.  An excellent comparative volume edited by Tao Tao Liu and David Faure (1996) does consider occupational and geographic subcultures along with “minorities.”   Also relevant are Dru Gladney’s studies of Chinese Muslims (Gladney 1991, 1998).  These have no linguistic, social, political, or cultural unity.  They are not even necessarily Muslims, since those who have fallen away from the faith may still count, for an uncertain number of generations.  Yet they are properly bureaucratized as the “Hui Minority,” with all the appropriate formalization.  Gladney supplies much detail on the inevitable problems that arise as the government tries to deal with this amorphous group, while the Hui try to revitalize their Islamic faith and society.

Chinese essentialization of ethnicity began long before the Communist government.  Labeling and arbitrary bureaucratic classification of ethnic groups has a tradition thousands of years long in China, going back to the Zhou and Han Dynasties’ attempts to label the “Rong barbarians,” “Hundred Yue,” and so forth.  It has gotten more rigid over time, the Qing Dynasty being a watershed period for ethnic sclerotization.  (A masterful, but alas unpublished, manuscript by Jeffrey Barlow on the Zhuang makes this point particularly well.)  The Communists merely continued an age-old tradition, adding Stalinist “nationality”-classification methods to the pool.

In general, it is probably safe to say that one labels people in order to deal with them in batches.  They become nameless, faceless exemplars of their ethnicities, and can thus be consigned to particular places, roles, castes, statuses, or other assigned seats.  Ethnic labeling in China always went with a certain degree of hierarchic thinking.  The old imperial system referred to minorities as “barbarians,” who could be “raw” (least like Chinese) or “cooked” (closer to, ideally assimilating to, Chinese).  The Communists substituted a Marxist-Leninist-Morganian rhetoric of stages in cultural evolution.  In practice, it seems to be little different from the old classification system.  The Han defined themselves as the highest on the Marxian evolutionary scale, so “raw” morphed into “backward.”

One therefore expects, and finds, that labeling sailors, fishermen, and longshore folk as “Tan” or “boat people” would have much to do with administrative and social convenience.  Indeed, it allowed land people, especially governments, to deal with the boat people as a separate, specific, unified population, one that could be dealt with as a unit.  It allowed the whole floating population to be held down, forced into one uniform low-status category.

This, of course, led to resistance, and thus to constant tension between land and sea.

Relations with the land-dwelling Cantonese—the Punti—continued hostile until the boat people disappeared as an identifiable group.  All boat people old enough to talk to us remembered a time when women and children were not safe on shore.  They would be beaten or even carried off and raped or sold.  (This was rare in Hong Kong, but said to be routine in pre-Communist China.)   In 1965, most women and children still refused, out of fear, to come on shore, except to walk in broad daylight along the most fisher-frequented parts of the immediate waterfront.  Almost none dared a trip into San Hui town.  In 1965-66, land children (of the sort described as mou man—this is, in fact, how I learned the phrase) still yelled taan ka lou (“Tanka guys”) after boat people, and sometimes threw pebbles or small sticks at them.  (The same bad children acted the same to foreigners, in which case the cry was faan kuai lou.  Literally “foreign ghost fellow,” this is the phrase translated as “foreign devil” in the older literature.  The phrase may refer more to ghost-like pallor and wide pale eyes than to demonic behavior.)

By all accounts, the situation by 1965 was already better than it had been a few years previously.  The change from 1965 to 1975 was dramatic.  However, even in 1975 boat women still stayed close to their menfolk or to a group of other women.  In spite of the waning of extreme tension, hostility between land and boat people—and other ethnic groups as well—was obtrusive, and warped behavior along the waterfront.  Otherwise gentle and kind people, of all ethnicities, became tense, irritable, and verbally aggressive when walking the narrow line of the beach.

The land people held the boat people to be coarse (chou), holding up their sailors’ language and hard drinking as proof, as well as the rather free and easy sexuality of the floating world.

A point of more historic significance was that the boat people lacked fixed addresses, lineages, or other marks of proper order.  Not only boat people throughout China, but also other Chinese groups, received prejudice and discrimination if they had no fixed address and no lineage base.  Strolling actors, muleteers, migrant laborers, and even wandering holy ascetics all came in for their share.   All such people had been subjected to discrimination in early Imperial Chinese times, being forbidden to take the imperial examinations, marry proper citizens with fixed addresses, go to government schools, or hold official posts; they were a true caste in those days.  Such discrimination was already waning long before the Qing Dynasty fell, but it survived locally into the mid-20th century.

Finally, the boat people suffered prejudice and discrimination because of poverty and lack of education, as well as a history of wandering and piracy.

The boat people’s corresponding negative stereotype of the land people was that they were mean, money-grubbing, snobbish, and out to take the boat people for anything they had.  Friendship between land and boat people was correspondingly rare, but it did happen, because there was clear and inescapable economic dependence; the land economy depended on the fishery as much as the boat people depended on the land for rice, oil, and incense.  The boat people had to sell their fish through land people, and the land people had to buy those fish and hire boat people to handle it.  The religious life of the community depended on harmony and cooperation between the groups.

Tai O had much better relations between boat and land people than Castle Peak; in fact, it was hard to see any tension at all, though some existed.  Conversely, relations were worse in some eastern New Territories ports we knew.  We visited ports in which we saw boat men (let alone women) attacked verbally and threatened physically.  This very rarely happened at Castle Peak, where mutual dependence, legal protection, and the presence of a very large number of very tough boat people inhibited such behavior.

Relations with Hakka and Hoklou were tense and distant, but those groups had few representatives around the bay.  A number of Teochiu lived in the area, but they spoke Cantonese as well as Teochiu, and the boat people did not see them as a separate group.  The Teochiu (called Chiuchau in Cantonese, Chaozhou in Putonghua) came from the hinterland behind Shantou in northeastern Guangdong province.  They had a reputation like that of the Scots in the British Empire: rough highlanders, fond of emigrating to make their fortune through hard work and extreme thrift.  Their music was high-pitched and played on small instruments, which caused the Cantonese to say that it sounded like tsi kei kau tsi kei—“each one for himself.”  Thus, asking for separate checks in a restaurant—a rare phenomenon in Cantonese society—was called “Teochiu music.”  Needless to say, this stereotype was no more true than others.


The land people differed among themselves more than the boat people did; land society had much greater extremes of wealth and poverty, conservatism and liberalism, education and illiteracy, openness and intolerance.  Many land people showed absolutely no prejudice against boat people or anyone else.  Certainly, few if any were as harsh and greedy as the boat people’s stereotype.  In many ways, the land people of Castle Peak Bay differed only in degree from the boat-dwellers.  Like the boat people, they were an independent, friendly, cheerful, sociable lot, with a society based on mutual aid, and with an amused cynicism about government.  They were, on average, closer to the Neo-Confucian ideal of order, law-abidingness, and patriarchal family relations than the boat people were, but even here one saw considerable overlap, and very little indeed that was close to the extreme conservative ideal.  Most of the land-dwelling Cantonese of the Castle Peak area lived far from lineage villages or other conservative centers.  Correspondingly, Castle Peak was a very open place, on land as on water.

I observed this continually as boat people and Teochiu “passed” with success and aplomb, thinking nothing of the matter.  The ones I knew in the 1960s were perfectly clear about their root ethnicity, but by the 1970s many were not so sure.  Young people growing up did not know whether they were more Teochiu or Cantonese, more boat or Punti—and many, probably most, of them did not care.  They were content to be members—not necessarily very focal or typical members—of two or more ethnic groups.  Younger boat people who had moved on shore in the 1960s, as children, often thought of themselves as ordinary Cantonese.  Older Teochiu who maintained their ethnicity with some militance found that their older children were saying “well, I’m really Teochiu, but I have become pretty much Cantonese,” while their younger children were not even that sure of their roots.  This was disconcerting to the old, but they adjusted.  Similar processes slowly dissolved the Shanghainese and other groups in Hong Kong, and have gone a long way toward dissolving the various mainlander groups in Taiwan[7].

As previously noted, Teochiu reaffirmed their identity by getting together to eat traditional Teochiu food.  The boat people had no such resort.  Their foods were either widely shared or impossible to get without catching them oneself.  In any case, they had no incentive to maintain an ethnic identity once they were on shore working land jobs, so they gradually merged into the Cantonese mainstream.










Adaptation to a floating life has profoundly shaped the maritime subcultures of East Asia.  None has become more distinctive or more marine-adapted than the south Chinese boat-dwellers.  Whether we examine food, clothing, kinship, or social relations, all the differences between boat and land people seem clearly due to immediate ecological factors.  One need not invoke mythical tribal origins.

One could, in fact, predict, or at least explain, all of boat life by considering how traditional Cantonese society—a family-oriented, rural, tough, self-reliant Chinese social order—had to adapt to accommodate long-range traveling and fishing in a highly mobile world where people had to shift, frequently and irregularly, from port to port.  As such, the floating world provides a sort of limiting case of Chinese society.  It reinterpreted Confucianism, and to some extent Taoism, Buddhism, and the broader Chinese folk religious ground from which those grow.  It managed without land or buildings.  It was self-governing, even to the neat rows in which the boats moored every night, without duly constituted authority of any kind.  It created its own songs and peddlers’ cries and children’s rhymes.

The boat subculture was basically defined by residence and occupation—by cultural ecology.  Power relationships—political ecology—took over in making the boat people into underdogs.  Chinese prejudice always cut against anyone of no fixed address:  anyone who drifted, who did not have a proper lineage hall or residence.  The boat people tended to be less educated, more rough, more vocal and violent than “proper” land people.  Thus, they became a despised minority, and suffered accordingly.

They resisted, in all the ways described by James Scott (1985, 1998).  They developed their own world and ways.  They developed an ideology of independence and self-reliance.  This, however, could not be maintained when they had to deal with the world of fish dealers, police, and other land powers.  Thus, their self-image was of “dragons on water, worms on shore.”

Thus, from them, we learn yet another sad lesson in the endless story of human intolerance and inequality.  Yet, we also learn a more hopeful—if far from totally hopeful—lesson of resistance to those most evil of all human evils.

The Cantonese boat subculture provided real ethnic identity.  As in other ethnic cases, no one could put a boundary around the ethnic group in question, or say for sure where it began and ended.  The subculture had its own structure and principles, but these were flexible and were constantly modified by practice.

As we know from the vast literature on ethnicity and identity in China, ethnic groups are politically defined, and are defined in and by opposition to other ethnic groups.  The boat people’s structural opposite was the land Cantonese (“puntei”) cultural group.  The boat people were also situated in a wider grid, where they contrasted not only with their immediate structural opposite, but also with Teochiu, Hoklo, Hakka, British, Portuguese, and other Hong Kong groups recognized in popular speech and popular cultural awareness.

On the other hand, the boat people were not merely the figment of some bureaucrat’s imagination.  Their culturally distinctive ways were real, important, and salient.  Most were, in fact, matters of life and death:  knowledge of fishing and boatcraft, knowledge of seafaring and swimming, knowledge of community dynamics in a community lacking formal leadership.  Other cultural ways were not so obviously vital, but certainly had a major adaptive function; the worship of Tin Hau, for instance, was essential to hold the community together.  To regard the boat people’s cultural distinctiveness as mere political discourse would be to deny the boat people their record of stunning success at adapting to a terribly difficult and demanding world.  Their modern definition and status may indeed have been due to bureaucrats asserting power, but their wider worldview and behavior were not.

The same may be said for all China’s ethnic groups; those who analyze their definition and existence solely in terms of modern politics deny them a history and a record of accomplishment.  Minority people are not merely names or bureaucratic categories; they are living people, and they do have distinctive ways of living.  These groups have a long, complex record of achievement, and it should not be trivialized—whether by governmental reduction to tourist amusement or by anthropological reduction to mere “discourse.”

The boat subculture thus provides a powerful argument for culture as adaptation, and against cultural irrationalism, especially the postmodern form that sees everything as arbitrary “cultural construction” formulated without feedback from a real world-out-there.  People make decisions, and the boat subculture is the result of thousands or millions of choices; but the choices are not made by airy intellectuals in a dream-world.  They are made by people trying to make a living in a highly demanding environment.

The nature of ethnographic generalizations then concerns us.  I attempted in my previous works on the boat people to give a set of rules that would allow an outsider to anticipate appropriately (Frake 1980) what he or she might see—to know the general rules everyone was more or less expected to follow, and to understand, in a minimal way, what the boat people were thinking when they invoked those rules—why they saw the rules as appropriate in general and in the specific situation.

In the present book, I have tried to summarize, from those earlier works, some conclusions of possible interest.  Such generalizations are, broadly, true—they describe the life of most boat people, and the life of the community.  They do not take into account such matters as variation by income, boat type, personality, and, above all, gender.  I have, at least, been able to say something about that last, and about male-female relations in a world very different from that of the stereotypes of  “China.”  Male-female relations were complex among the boat people, but, broadly, more egalitarian than in any other traditional Chinese community I know through experience or description (though the Hakka studied by Fred Blake come close).  No could mistake the boat people for feminists—the patriarchal family was alive and well—but women had a great deal of independent power and agency, and men had to take women’s ideas, views, and independent behavior into account.  Children, too, started with rights equivalent to their duties, and continued to acquire both together as they grew.

The boat people, and for that matter the Cantonese, put all generalizations about China to the test.  Social historians and cultural psychologists need to consider individual and subcultural variation in their own models.

I have thus made several kinds of generalizations.

Some are universally true for all boat people, and more or less distinguish them, such as the lack of lineages.  The boat people are only one of many Chinese groups that lack lineages.  The extensive literature on Chinese kinship has focused largely on lineage dynamics.  Historians have studied the rise of lineages in the medieval period, and the sudden and rather dramatic way that lineages took their final form in the Song Dynasty (see Mote 1999).  Ethnologists have written vast tomes on the lineage.  A brief flurry of excitement arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Chinese subcultures without lineages led scholars to consider why lineages might arise and disappear, fairly rapidly, because of economic and ecological circumstances (Anderson 1972; Cohen 1976; Pasternak 1972).  This solved some major questions, but the wider issue awaits treatment by contemporary theorists, who can draw on advances in the study of cognition and practice.

Others are statements about typical or modal behavior, and in this case I have tried to indicate that many boat people did not conform; for instance, I can say that children were generally very obedient to parents, but there were families where this was most conspicuously not the case.  Their quarrels were impossible to miss on the crowded waterfront.

Other generalizations are statements of what the boat people themselves said—their discourse, in Foucauldian terms.  Such statements might or might not reflect objectively verifiable behavior.  A case in point is the personal independence that has been a theme of this book.  The boat people and land people all agreed that this truly distinguished the boat world from the land world.  The boat people stressed it in discourse.  Visible reality was a more qualified, nuanced situation—not an open-and-shut difference, but a continuum, with broad overlapping.  Certainly, many boat people not only were independent and nonconformist, but openly revelled in acting that way, sometimes with the explicit goal of shocking the land people!  These swallows may not have made a summer.  Many boat people were as sober and deferential as any land Cantonese, and were not particularly independent.   Psychological research, however, did confirm the general claim (Anderson 1992, 1998).

Barbara Ward saw the boat people in terms of cultural models (Ward 1965, 1966).  Again, one may question the generalization involved in defining a “cultural model.”  Each person has a loose network of rules, defaults, more or less organized facts, and, in general, guiding principles for action.  How much these are systematized into a model—one that could be formalized in mathematical statements—may be doubted, and, indeed, Barbara Ward saw models as rather rough-and-ready affairs.

The boat people certainly had their conscious models, as Ward reported.  Observers—ethnographer, land-dweller, government agents—had other models, often very different from each other.  And one could, with Lévi-Strauss, contrast statistical models with structural ones of all sorts.  All such models are generalizations, and, as we know, “all generalizations are false.” In short, cultural models do not exist in external reality.  They exist as conscious models in the heads of the culture-bearers or the ethnographer.

Each individual has a loose collection of more or less structured lore in his or her head, and this lore includes cultural knowledge, more or less systematized.  However, this “model” may be rather different from the model held by a next-door neighbor, and still more different from the model held by a spouse (of different gender) or teenage child.  The external observer’s model is yet more distinct.

One can make statements that are well supported and well documented, and that are beyond reasonable debate.  These never make up a cultural model, however; we have to resort to tentative formulations.  I have tried to keep these to a minimum in this book, with the result that I can stand confidently behind each statement.  It also means I cannot sell my work as an example of insightful, exciting, or brilliant interpretation or insight.  However, in documenting a way of life that has vanished, one is well advised to stick to clearly accurate data.  No one can check claims (except with the few other published sources that are actually based on ethnographic study).

Discourse—what people say to each other—may or may not reflect real basic values.  Ethnographic questioning and observation can go a long way to finding the differences, and understanding what values really animate behavior, but can never completely resolve the differences.  Conflicting values—Confucian morality, immediate wealth maximization, divine protection, community welfare, and many more concerns—are variably and contextually expressed in behavior.  In the end, the ethnographer can only record what people say and how well that predicts what they do.

Boat society fits perfectly into Anthony Giddens’ view of structuration (Giddens 1984).  Individuals make choices.  They make these with constant attention to their environment, both natural and human.  Class, caste, gender relations, historical contingency, and other social facts influence—and often determine—their choices.  Society changes according to how those choices are made.  Structure emerges, but it is a dynamic system.  It may stay very fluid. If it crystallizes into a frozen array, it may recrystallize in a very different pattern in a few years.

One can describe a social system, or a subculture, at one point in time:  Castle Peak Bay from 1965 to 1975, for example.  But this short passage is not the story.  The story is a longer one, a long tale that goes back at least 3500 years, to the sites on Cheung Jau and other islands.  One part of the story ended in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Castle Peak Bay was filled, ending forever its floating world.  But boat people still endure, along more remote coasts and rivers of China.


The ideology expressed by almost all boat people at Castle Peak was one of independence, but also of mutual aid, mutual reliance, and mutual support, growing from a dense and continual webwork of interactions, but all done without compulsion.  Kinship and spatial relations structured most of these interactions, but one attempted to maintain the widest network possible, especially if one had aspirations to leadership.  One needed to interact with land people of all sorts as well as with other fishers.  However, everyone strongly opposed the fell hand of authority.  People should do all this on their own.

We watched this ideology change in the face of reality.  The cooperatives were beginning to achieve acceptable status in 1965.  By 1975, cooperatives, schools, the government fish market, public health clinics, and other facilities had transformed waterfront views of government.  No longer was government an unqualified evil.  In fact, people admitted that they needed it.  The ideology of independence and self-reliance persisted, but in qualified form.

We might have foreseen, in this, the end of the boat world.  Perhaps it could not survive once it admitted that land-based organizations could be powerful forces for good.  In any case, almost immediately after the boat people came to depend on government economic and social arrangements, they moved on shore, blended into the Cantonese mainstream, and disappeared as an identifiable group.  Fishermen persist as a separate group at Tai O and elsewhere, but may assimilate in the near future.

A theory of society lay behind the older view.  Obviously, to summarize it and generalize it is to do violence to it, because it was based so much on individualism and individual interpretation.  Yet, discourse on the waterfront had common themes and common agreements.  Everyone took as true a few well-known claims, and followed similar paths in deducing the rest of the theory from these.

First, humans were held to be preeminently social.  The extreme form of American individualism—the self-made man alone against the world—would not have been widely accepted; the boat people knew such individuals, but did not like or respect them greatly, seeing them as too antisocial.  People loved to be around each other.  Life’s greatest joy lay in relaxing, drinking, feasting, celebrating, or just talking over tea, with one’s friends and fellows.  The love of humans for ordinary casual socializing seemed self-evident.  No one would think of denying it.  The loneliness, isolation, and monotony of life on a small boat was enough to drive some people mad—literally—and few indeed were the people who enjoyed that.  When—as often happened—mutual aid began to shade off into exploitation and using, moral alarm bells rang, and waterfront gossip dealt with the issue as best it could.

Second, people depended on each other, quite apart from joy in company.  On the water, every man’s or woman’s life depended on instant, caring, thoughtful, responsible action by others.  It is really difficult, at this remove, to provide the reader a sense of just how fast a tranquil fishing day could turn into a desperately dangerous situation.  Small boats, rather round-bottomed to increase maneuverability, were at immediate and total risk if a storm came up suddenly.  Storms on the South China Sea were sudden, unpredictable, and violent.

Thus, reliability and responsibility were the keys to all virtues, the basis of ongoing human interaction.  One could, and did, celebrate at New Year with anyone and everyone, but one’s everyday life had to be spent with people one could implicitly and absolutely trust.  This fact alone made a command-based society impossible to envision. When a typhoon hit, or when pirates attacked, no one could wait around for government mandates.  No one could rely on people without a long-standing claim of friendship and relationship.  Even the slower emergency created by a run of bad luck—several days of bad weather, a broken engine, a mast swept away—required prompt, responsible, cooperative action.  One had to rely on family and friends for loans and support.

Third, given that, people had to have tremendous autonomy and agency.  They had to be free agents.  A leader, especially, had to achieve a reputation for being a bit unpedictable, even a bit crazy.  If he were too predictable, he would seem like a dull stick.  Worse, others would soon figure out how to take advantage of him.  If they never quite knew what he would do, they never quite dared to risk a bad encounter.

On the other hand, independence had its very strict limits.  For one thing, the boat world enforced a type of surface conformity by ecological necessity.  Everyone had to dress pretty much alike, because there was, in traditional times, only one best way to dress; loose black heavy-cotton clothes and straw eye-shading hat were so superior to anything else that no one really had much option.  Everyone had to eat about the same, run a boat in similar ways, and talk the same dialect.  Thus, to stand out, one had to be self-conscious about cultivating idiosyncracy.

For another, independence could not extend to life within the boat household.  There, the senior man had to be able to command, and everyone had to know his or her station.  On the other hand, the extreme value on individual agency made it unthinkable for a senior man to command in an arbitrary fashion, without consultation.  Still less would he be able to make people do what was not in their station.  Tradition governed the roles of each person.  Seniority and gender defined these, and led to a smooth order that worked well and could not reasonably (let alone arbitrarily) be challenged.

In short, independence and firm order both derived from a deeper principle:  Life depended on reliability, responsibility, and mutual respect.  It also depended on a certain amount of grassroots solidarity, since people had to unite to deal with emergencies and to oppose the land people.  (Tension with the land people was a fading memory by 1974, but not entirely gone.)

Thus, as we have seen, the boat people adopted a form of Chinese traditional culture that fit their needs.  In doing so, they created a thoughtful alternative to many Confucian and other ideas.  They followed Confucianism in seeing basic human “goodness”—eusociality—and in a political philosophy of personal integrity and of rebellion against tyranny.  They followed Daoism in their awareness of the inevitability of change, and their flexible, sometimes fatalistic, but always creative way of dealing with it.  They followed Buddhism in seeing a need to build merit with beings beyond human and visible realms.  They failed to control overfishing, defeat poverty, or to build stable communities; they succeeded in creating a flexible, consciously planned social order that enabled them to survive.

The extreme individualist morality that follows from rational choice theory and its relatives would thus not have been acceptable.  It would not have worked.  People sometimes asked us how American society could hold together with its constant shootings, divorces, and sexual peccadilloes.  The view of American society here implied was derived entirely from Hollywood movies, so it bore little resemblance to reality; the point is that genuinely anarchic personal relationships seemed completely beyond the pale.

And, in fact, I cannot see how theories of “rational self-interest” can stand up under the test of explaining life on the boats.  Individual competition of the sort postulated as panhuman by the more extreme sociobiologists (e.g. Ridley 1996; Dawkins 1976) would have made the boat world quite impossible.  Evolutionary ecologists who study fishing have learned to accommodate cooperation in their models; Michael Alvard and David Nolin, for instance, provided a superb account of just how far rational choice and evolutionary psychology can take one in explaining cooperation in a fishery (Alvard and Nolin 2002; Aswani 1999.)  Alvard’s observations provide what seems to be a perfect simple model of how a complex network of undirected cooperation could become established in a fishery.  Aswani shows that highly competitive people can still figure out how to control and regulate their fishery.

Ironically, the boat people of south China never had the opportunity to regulate their fishery; they had to make do with creating a complex, intricate adjustment to the reality of multi-stock fishing without hope of rational management.  Other Chinese fishermen (e.g. in Malaya; Anderson and Anderson 1978) were luckier, and could invoke sea tenure, privatization of beds or lagoons, and regulation of offtake.  Once again, adaptation to local political and ecological circumstances was the rule.  Instead of broad generalizations about behavior, we can generalize here only about the vectors and motives that lie behind, and modify, behavior.

Conversely, the boat people’s social theory, like their social reality, was far from the extreme communitarianism of Leslie White (1949), Talcott Parsons, or others who see Culture or Society as a glorious, perfect, beautifully structured machine that reduces individuals to mere moving parts.  The boat people rejected—vocally—the more extreme forms of Neo-Confucianism.  Many shore-dwellers strongly advocated the family in which a wife was utterly subservient to her husband, a son to his father, and a younger brother to an older.  As common in the area, and as strongly advocated, were the communitarian ideologies of Maoism, Chinese nationalism, and the like.  The vast majority of boat people had no use for any of these moralities.  They were willing to tolerate such ideas, so long as no one tried to impose them on boat households, but they were not converted.  Even the few Communist boat people were a notably independent group, and we were not the only ones who wondered how they would fare under an actual Communist government[8].  Suffice it to say that all of them had fled from China.  Perhaps those left behind were more communitarian.


Today, Chinese traditional society, even the relatively loose manifestation of it seen in the boat world, seems oppressively patriarchal to many people in the western world and in modern China itself.  Indeed, it often was oppressive even by the standards of its own practitioners.  People told stories of model households in which everyone worked together in harmony without friction or oppression.  The reality was almost never so smooth.  And things had been worse in the past, when female infanticide or sale occurred (only under desperate circumstances, however, according to all our sources).  Hong Kong today has rejected the more stern variants of the Confucian order; the boat people blend in partly because society has come to meet them, and even passed them, in its move to a more liberal order.

The boat world was also subject to evils that followed from autarky:  overfishing, piracy, lack of services, lack of any certainty to life.  The boat people realized that these were the costs of autonomy, but fatalistically bore them, regarding the benefits of autonomy as more than offsetting.  Yet, given the conditions of China in the early and mid-20th century, torn by famine, war, and government rampages such as the Great Cultural Revolution, the costs seemed high indeed.

In short, the boat life was not without enormous problems and costs.  Romanticising it is a temptation, at this late date, but one that must be resisted.

Yet, the possibility of learning from the floating world, and benefiting from its achievements in everything from maritime technology to song, is certainly clear.  The world has benefited greatly from fore-and-aft rigging, watertight compartments in the holds, and the compass—all inventions of Chinese sailors.  We can now learn from the boat view of society and from its useful practical corollaries in such areas as child-rearing and dealing with close crowding[9].

They followed their own way in creating a social order, a folk song tradition, an aesthetically exquisite world of polished wood and carefully arranged tackle, a cuisine that used common ingredients to produce the best food I have ever tasted.  It was a beautiful, valid, exciting, rich, full way of life.

Without that richness, they might not have survived.  The mysteries of why we need beauty and song are locked in unexplored regions of the brain.  Perhaps, when these are unlocked, we will learn that the salt water songs and the careful arrangement of dark wood and earthenware tones on the foredeck were as necessary to life as the mutual aid and respect that they facilitated.

Through it all, the boat people of south China remained their own persons—brave in the face of constant danger, tough in the face of incredible hardships, friendly and open in the face of endless war and oppression.  A bluff, cheerful man would tell me soberly of watching people starve and of fleeing under fire from the Japanese.  A poised, gentle, centered woman would break into hysterical sobs as she talked of watching her children starve to death one by one until she finally gave up and let someone abandon the latest baby on a deserted island.  Somehow, people survived, and created from centuries of terror and suffering a valid, beautiful, indomitable lifeway.

All that is gone now, and a new and less adaptable world must face the unimaginable horrors of the future.  Population growth coupled with resource waste has destroyed the fishery.  These same forces now doom the vast majority of humanity to the conditions the boat people faced in the mid-20th century.

Perhaps the example the boat people set will not be totally lost.  Perhaps their creativity and thoughtfulness in the face of adversity will give some meaning and some inspiration in the hard years.  In the end, the human spirit endures.











I recorded several traditional songs (Anderson 1972).  Especially important were the “salt water songs,” the traditional folksongs unique to the boat people.  These contrasted with several other song types:  classical poems, funeral laments, children’s songs, popular songs, and so on.  I published the Chinese texts and literal translations of my collection, with detailed commentaries, in Chinoperl News (5:8-114, 1975; see also Anderson 1972 for further detail, including some translations of songs recorded by Chinese investigators in the 1930s).  I have retranslated a few of the songs—less literally, more idiomatically than in 1975—for this book.  Many songs turn on tedious dissection of characters, or were badly sung, or were formless dialogues, and have been left out of this selection.

Most lines ended with a long-drawn-out aaaa, not indicated here.

The words give little indication of the beauty of these songs as sung on a quiet night on the still bay, with huge stars overhead and almost no other light.  Fung Sam-Jau in particular had a beautiful singing voice.  The experiences were unforgettable.

Most of the songs were recorded from Fung Sam-Tsau and Cheung Ngau-Tsai.  These were highly intelligent, paradoxical men.  Both were proud, independent, and difficult—standard boat characteristics, but ones they they took to extremes.  Both loved to display their knowledge of the old songs, but also demanded more and more money for less and less singing.  Both were unreliable about times and amounts of work.  Many boat people had a very flexible sense of obligation to set appointments, since they often found it necessary to race to another port because of a fish run or a family emergency; they might not return for days.  But Fung and Cheung were exceptionally hard to pin down.  In the end, they loved their songs, and we heard their repertoire.

We heard many women singing, and women were traditionally the main bearers of the tradition, but, tragically, women refused to record.

No one else seems ever to have recorded salt water songs, and my few tapes, miserably recorded on a cheap reel-to-reel tape recorder, are now all we have of a vanished tradition.  My original tapes are deposited in the Hong Kong Museum.  I understand that boat folk songs still exist in remote parts of south China, but, if other Chinese folk material gives any guide, the songs have probably been vastly changed by Communist policies, radio and TV singing, and other external influences.

One stray line, from an otherwise hopelessly untranslatable song, is too good to miss:  “A man of roads and villages can’t claim the sand and dust.”  A wanderer can’t be too proud; he owns not even the dust he treads.  This beautiful saying, which harks back to classical poetry, may stand as a final word on the boat people’s world and its poetry.


The Vegetable Song

Sung by Fung Sam-Tsau and Ng Kam


The hollow-hearted water spinach grows on the water.

The falling eggplant splits like a mouth breaking into a smile.

The water caltrop is solid as a fool’s block head.

Watercress and spinach cool the heart.

An onion has a head without a tail;

With a head but no tail, how can a man be called a hero?

Mustard and collards are both greens;

Avoid wrong, don’t gamble, don’t fight.

Celery and celery shoots:  Work hard and win,

Work diligently and then rely on your sons.

Ivy-like bitter melon doesn’t climb beanpoles.

After it’s picked, the vine remains.

Get pork when fresh; get a girl when she’s young.

If you want her, take her this year.

Like onions chopped on a block, you won’t last long.

Water to voyage on, none to drink;

But in the cabin, the lovely girl is a barrel of fresh water.

The foreign month is four weeks;

People without money are never mentioned.

Take a water chestnut, skin it, leave the stem,

Cantonese people have no human feelings.


The hollow stems of the water spinach symbolize an open mind here, in contrast to the stuffed-up mind of the blockhead.  Watercress and spinach are cooling in humoral medicine, and remind us to keep cool in trouble.  “A dragon’s head, a snake’s tail” is another variant of the next couplet; it means that one starts bravely on an enterprise, but peters out.  The next couplets turn on puns:  kaai “greens” and kaai “avoid,” kan “celery” and kan “hard.”  (The tones do not match, but tones are not sung in salt water songs.)  The bitter melon is self-reliant.  The foreign month and water chestnut seem to be used only to make up a rhyming line.  “Cantonese” here means “people in general,” though it is also a bit of a slap at the land people.



Fragment of a Courting Song

Sung by Cheung Fuk-Luk


Because I have no money I’ll float to another place;

The poor always have to drift and wander.

Because I have no money, I have to struggle all night for a living,

Yes, through the night, because I am poor.

Corn has layers of silk, you can’t see its face.

A Buddha-image has a mouth but speaks no words.

It’s an old saying:  Without money, you suffer wind and sun.

I am too poor for us to unite.

My hat is full of holes; I put it on.

My clothes are dirty and ragged, but I make do.

Take a cross, add a hook, join a left stroke,

If I had many helpers, I’d get wealth and property.

Yesterday I made a friend and we talked together;

Even a thousand gold won’t buy a real friend on the boat.


The cross, hook and left stroke write the character for “wealth.”  This song would be sung by a man courting a woman, wishing he could have her as a “real friend” on his boat.  She would sing an answer, either rejecting him or saying money is mere dung and she loves him too much to give him up.



Salt Water Song

Sung by Fung Sam-Tsau


Once more I ask the girl to go with me;

When she’s ready, she rows the boat here.

A new abacus and you pinch the wood;

You’re a sweet girl but you’re counting wrong.

“Up the bay to buy a carp, down the bay to steam it,

Steam it with bean paste and bean sauce, give me money too, I still won’t love you.”

The dried oyster opens as wide as Tai O channel.

If you want to “fire the gun,” row your boat here.

Step up and cut flowers, the boy over here,

But if he’s broke, the girl stays on her own side.

I start out to fish, see great waves,

The waves strike and sink the boat.

People have to grab the boat rail.

I buy a bowl of chicken soup for the girl,

As long as I live I will not forget.

The north star faces south.

The moon darkens, dark clouds cover silence.

The Sky God says “Open”!  Through the dark clouds we can see the sky.

Row with the sweet, pull the hand lines!  No good working too hard;

The dragon boats are tied, but we will soon know who loses and who wins.


An “abacus-pincher” is a penny-pincher; the girl—a professional entertainer in this song, not a prospective wife—cares only for his money.  The quoted lines are supposedly sung by the girl; she would reject even his best cooking attempts.  The dried oyster is her vagina, not at all flatteringly described; “firing the gun” and “cutting the flowers” are phrases for sexual intercourse, the violence of which makes the great waves.  The opening sky refers to hope that the courtship will lead to something.  Dragon boats race on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month; till then they remain tied up.  The implication here is that the girl has many competing suitors, and we will soon know who wins her.



Salt Water Song

Sung by Tam A-Kau and Fung Sam-Tsau


The girl has sea snails in her boat.

Her lover goes there, attracted.

He likes the sound of her voice;

All through the night he doesn’t interrupt her.

Buy salt-hay to tie big crabs;

If they escape, the hay’s wasted.

Little sister, go to the temple to cast lots.

The lot tells you to go with me.

It says you are still strong.

A new bamboo pole, seventeen or eighteen feet long:

First test the water, then see the girl’s heart.

I buy good pork but can’t afford two pieces,

And my little Castle Peak boat has no engine.

Miss Kam Tai goes out to fish, gets seasick and throws up—

Drop her off at Castle Peak with me to look after the house.


The lot in question is a stick that stands up, phallically, when several sticks are shaken together; the symbolism is obvious.  The pole for pushing the boat along is also a phallic symbol, so obvious that boat songs have used it for centuries.  Classical Chinese poets immortalized several examples.



Fish Name Song

Sung by Fung Sam-Tsau and Cheung Fuk-Luk


The flounder has eyes on only one side.

The mud flathead’s body wriggles.

The goldenthread has a red body and white belly.

The long-tube fish swims backwards or upside down.

The hairtail comes up all rubbed with white powder.

The yellow croaker’s head wears silver and gold.

The anchovy becomes extremely large.

The sawfish becomes king.

The white-rice fish and silver fish, cut open, have no blood.

The stonefish, salted, gets its scales and head cut off.

The barracuda leaps out like an arrow.

The flying fish is a flying boat on the sea.

The purse-seiner catches minnows near shore.

Shad and ginkgo-fish swim in open sea.

Sea mullets, gray mullets, stay near shore,

Little croakers come up from stony duck-mud.


Just fun—few double meanings here.  The fish are well described.  The sawfish, a sacred fish, is the most powerful of all sea creatures.  The huge anchovy is probably a joke—an ironic “fish story.”


Ten Women Floating on the River

Sung by Fung Sam-Tsau


The first old girl floats up to Hang Mei,

The water dries up slowly, and she asks a young man to push.

The second good woman floats to the fast current,

The fast current breaks her water jar.

On the water she uses her hand to hold it,

On the bank a cook uses his bamboo pole to carry it.

The third woman floats to San Kei,

The water dries out where the bottom is stony.

The fourth floats to San Sa,

Where some go to sea and others sstay home.

The sixth old girl floats to the First Channel,

Where some houses are on stone piles and some on wood stakes.

Of course behind the shops is a stream.

The seventh floats to Tai O pier,

Where once Miss Twenty would really give you something!

She’d ferry you at any hour, no matter how late.

The eighth floats to Tai O mooring,

Where a ferry poles to and fro.


The places are in or near Tai O, famous for its singing girls.  The obscene double-entendres should be obvious enough.  The drying water is the lubrication on the woman’s vagina, and so the song begins.  The “fast current” that “breaks the water jar” means just what Freud would have said it meant.  And so on.  Unfortunately, Fung could not remember all the song.

The word used for the women literally means “elder brother’s wife,” a somewhat respectful but very colloquial term for older women.



The Seasons

Sung by Cheung Ngau-Tsai


In spring, soon, people get married.

Spring color, flower scent, spread far off.

Spring wandering on fragrant grass is delightful.

“Spring Girl” teaches her son clearly and rightly.

The spring swallow in the roofbeams builds its nest.

In a spring hut, beadwork grows like jade fruit.

In the Spring and Autumn Period, countries fought with spears.

Spring love achieves happiness, but you pay for it later.

In the spring curtains and decorations the bridegroom meets the lovely lady.


Summer potted-plant leaves droop and doze,

On the summer mountain hay dries in heaps.

The Xia Dynasty’s Emperor Yu made channels and stopped floods.

Summer is very hot, people take their clothes off.

Sume days are long.  In the house

Summer makes one go as slowly as possible to the kitchen!

Summer lotuses grow, all flowers open.


Fall tangerines fill their branches.

Fall night rain is just the right time.

Fall colors come once a year.

The fall wind blows, stirring up clothing.

Fall exams come; people tell stories

Of “Fall Fragrance” and other famous things.

Fall moon rays shine, rain can still fall.

Fall sorrow: a stranger on the road—but he might still meet a friend.

In fall, girls smile as they walk, thinking secret thoughts.    The fall chrysanthemum grows with no thorns.


In winter, potted chrysanthemums look to the clear moon.

Winter makes all fresh and bright.

The East Mountain is red, its top purple and firm.

Winter cold freezes hardest in Beijing.

The eastern household lays out its lineage graves, small tower, and wall.

From winter solstice it’s 106 days to the spring festival.

Winter fruit, at the New Year, stands piled high.

In winter sun the apricots flower proud in snow and ice.

Winter-mushrooms are soft and smooth, everyone likes them;

Here’s joyful wine hidden till winter—Show what you can do with it!
Every line here starts with the season’s name, or a homonym (Xia for summer, east for winter).  The plants and animals are auspicious and thoroughly conventional.  This song is notably more refined than the preceding ones; Cheung Ngau-Tsai knew some classical poetry and preferred fairly literate diction.  But sexual references are far from absent.  Cantonese maintain that fall rain is an ideal time for lovemaking.  The colors (“color” can mean “sex”) and wind-lifted clothing drive the image.



Teasing the Bride

Sung by Fung Sam-Tsau


He new bride, veiled, makes bridal tea very hot,

Her left hand holds the cup, her right hand pours.

The first cup for her father-in-law to drink,

The second for her mother-in-law.

The third is for her husband’s elder brother,

The fourth for his elder brother’s wife.

The fifth and sixth are for the husband’s younger brother and his wife.

The seventh for friends and relatives.

The eighth is for her husband—

On the bed very good, mandarin ducks rose one.

The new bride makes tea with Tai O river water

and offers cakes for her father-in-law.

When mother-in-law instructs you, don’t answer back.

As for your husband, if you don’t care about him, whom will you care about?


The italicized words were sung in English.  This song is a straight instruction to the girl on how to serve—until the last lines.  Mandarin ducks are a symbol of wedded bliss.



The Bridal Feast

Sung by Fung Sam-Tsau

A pair of chopsticks iin the middle;

Next year when you have a son, invite me to eat ginger.

Pure sweet crisp meat on the bones of a fat chicken.

If you know what I mean we’ll all eat together.

The girl is pretty and good, a worthy match for the gentleman,

A properly raised girl with all the virtues.

Four sweet oranges grow on one branch,

The wife picks them and the husband peels them.

He gives them to her,

They eat and drink without separation.

If they mention separation, their parents are sad at heart.

The kite has sons, but they desert him;

When full-grown they fly off to the sky.


A feast with ginger celebrates a son’s birth; ginger is stimulating and healthy for a new mother.  The kite (the predatory bird is meant here, not the paper imitation thereof) is, of course, a contrast to the faithful pair.  Kites were an abundant pest in the harbors of Hong Kong.



Wine and Vegetable Song (another wedding feast song)

Sung by Fung Sam-Tsau


The mushrooms are delicious, sweet in the bowl.

The good-hearted Jen Gui went and conquered the east.

Di Qing had only three arrows left;

With them he shot three heroes. Fried dry shrimp look like gold tidbits.

Take up the bowls and stir all together.

This truly is the work of a master chef;

When people eat this, they cannot worry.

The whole duck is delicious in the bowl.

The wholly pure phoenix marries the gold dragon.

They will have sons, educate them, make them valuable men.

The whole household eats; all will be heroes.

In fall the tangerines are green and tender,

In fall comes the night rain; sons are made easily.

In fall fine scenery appears:  range after range of mountains.

In fall come the tangerines, and more babies will be born.

In summer the little tangerine grows buds;

In summer comes the dragon boat festival, and flowers open.

In summer days the wind comes, pearls fall in showers.

Next year there will be tangerines, and also clear tea.


A description of the feast segues into a short version of the following song.  The tangerines and tea in the last line are thank offerings for a son’s birth.  The sexist preference for “sons” is all too clear in this song, and all too typical.  Other wedding songs, not translated here, express the Cantonese ideal of “five sons, two daughters.”  (At least, a few daughters are desirable.)  Indeed, completed families in our sample did have seven children.



The Tangerine Song

A praise poem for a girl.  Sung by Cheung Ngau-Tsai.  (Mistranslated “orange” in Anderson 1967 and 1975, foolishly following Hawkes’ 1959 mistranslation; at least Anderson 1975:47 supplied a corrective note, thanks to editorial help.)


In spring the little tangerine tree’s roots grow below ground.

Spring comes with moderate rain.

In spring warmth, last fall’s branches bloom like brocade.

The spring tangerine flowers out like a phoenix lute.


In summer the little tangerine grows shoots. On Dragon Boat Day it puts out flowers.

The summer moon shines, the wind comes, branches and leaves sway—

Next year the little tangerine will need supporting stakes.


In fall the little tangerine has green fruit.

In fall in the night rain the seed should put forth shoots.

In fall after wind, the moon shines lovely on the hills.

When fall comes again, the tangerine will again grow larger.


In winter the little tangerine’s fruit is perfectly red.

At winter’s end, rain comes with festivals.

Winter months are cold; the flowering-apricot needs special care;

In winter the tangerines fill the whole orchard with red.


The tangerine is so auspicious that its colloquial name is “lucky fruit” in Cantonese.  Its red color is the perfect color of life, love, good fortune, and all wonderful things.  The tree is considered so exquisitely beautiful that people try to grow them in pots in the house.  This is why “orange” is a sorry mistake; the orange does not have these strong associations, though oranges too are auspicious.  Here, the tree is a metaphor for a young girl, marrying, making passionate love, and getting pregnant; see the “fall night rain” above.  The tree needs supporting stakes because of its heavy fruit—a lovely image for a pregnant woman.  “Flowering apricot” is a homonym for “little sister,” a pet or colloquial term for any young woman.  The flowering apricot flowers in midwinter, and needs protection from extreme cold.  Here, the special care implies care for a woman giving birth.

A famous poem in the Songs of the South, from around the time of the Han Dynasty, praises a young man using the tangerine tree as an image (Hawkes 1959:76-77).  The present poem is strikingly close to that one in imagery and rhetoric.  Since the boat people frequently learned classical poetry, via educated patrons of boat singing-girls, this is not as surprising as it might seem.  Cheung Ngau-Tsai, in fact, knew and could chant poems by Li Bai and other classic poets.







These life histories (except for #3, which I collected, in English) were collected by Choi Kwok-tai, with or without my assistance.  Mr. Choi worked with the fishermen and was a trusted friend to most of them.  Mr. Choi, Chow Hung-fai and I translated them.  Mr. Choi put them in third person, because he shortened them somewhat in recording, but they were almost word-for-word.  We all edited them slightly for the initial, almost verbatim translations in Anderson 1970b.  I have now re-edited considerably, to shorten them and disguise identities, but I have tried to keep the narrators’ turns of phrase, such as “fac[ing] the challenge of sexual desire.”  All names are pseudonyms.  All the participants must now be long deceased, or, if not, impossible to trace.


  1. The Nouveau Riche


Yat was a native of Po On [a county just north of Hong Kong].  His family has been fishing at least four generations.  His father ran a gill netter, and he lived happily under his parents’ care.  He gradually came to work more and more with his father.  His father employed a private tutor, teaching the four children on the boat, when Yat was 14 years old.  He had only a few months of study, because his father decided to retire early, being sick of fishing.  Yat took over the boat when he was 15.   His parents arranged his marriage the following year.  He then built a shrimp trawler, with some money borrowed from a fish dealer.  The family fished at Po On, Tung Kun, Macau, the Pearl River, and elsewhere, and especially they came to fish the yellow croaker runs at Tai O.

At that time Tai O had a great yellow croaker fishery.   When the fishermen came ashore, they could enjoy themselves.  The restuarants were crowded, and plenty of singing girls were there.  Yat was strong and well off, so he faced the challenge of sexual desire.  It was difficult for him to resist.  Fishermen in port would form groups, wandering among singing establishments, enjoying whatever happened.  His wife became worried, and got a concubine for him, but he still visits his old friends in Tai O when there on business.  Fortunately, he could keep his business up and work hard.

Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese in 1941.  Seeing that war had broken out, thieves and robbers appeared like forests [as thick as trees in a forest].  It was hard to survive.  Yat, with his family, went to Tung Kun and hid in a small channel.  In two months he returned, and fished successfully in spite of pirates, which he discouraged by means of guns and cannons.

After the Japanese surrendered, the British government organized the Fish Marketing Organization.  Yat supported this and helped develop a unit at Tai O, but the unit went bankrupt.  In 1958, he mechanized his boat.  He then handed over his fishing business to his second brother and came to Castle Peak to buy a wooden hut and set up business on shore.  He sold rice, groceries, and salt fish, but went bankrupt soon because of lack of capital and experience.  But he had made contacts, so switched to selling diesel oil.  He started selling only a few drums of oil; lacking capital, he did badly, but he built up trust.  He could borrow some money.  More and more boats were mechanizing.  In the 1960s and 1970s, he and his family sold diesel, water, kerosene, and related products.  He became rather well off, and eventually moved to more urban parts of Hong Kong to retire in modest comfort.


  1. The Child Buyer


Yi was born in Tai O to a Po On family.  Of his three sons and one daughter, two sons were bought.  In traditional times, if a couple had no son after three to five years, people would ridicule them.  There was a saying:  Thirty no wife, forty no son—alone half your life!  So when Yi’s wife had no son after three years of marriage, he bought two sons.  The price of a baby boy at that time [mid-1940s] was very high.  Sons came from poor families who had more children than they could support, or from gamblers or opium addicts.  Intermediaries obtained a commission for selling these sons.  Another source was women whose husbands were away for long periods, leaving their wives, who were sometimes tempted.  They would escape to distant areas, and sell their illegitimate children.

Yi’s father ran a large sailing trawler.  The family fished around the Pearl River, catching croakers, shrimp, and the like.  Living was not too good, but he enjoyed his childhood.  He went to school for five years, from 11 to 16.

One cold night when he was a young man, the Japanese attacked.  Bombs and shots were everywhere, making the whole fishing port a battle scene.  The fishermen were living peacefully and did not know what was going on, since they did not read newspapers from one year to the next and knew nothing of the outside world.  They thought the war was a punishment from the Sky.  They had to flee for their lives, many being separated from their families.  Luckily, Yi was not asleep. He raised anchor and fled under the shots.  He passed a night on a deserted island, then fled to Tai O.  Japan occupied south China; the ports and markets were closed to him.  Killing, shooting, and robbing went on and on.  The fishermen could survive in Hong Kong Colony, fishing south of the main islands.  But soon the Japanese took Hong Kong.  The family moved to Castle Peak.  His father got him to marry, in spite of the war, because he was of age.  The boat was too large to opearte safely, so they bought a gill-netter and fished pomfret, goldenthread, and croaker.  Fish were common, prices low.  Once the Japanese police caught him, assuming he was a secret agent.  Only the lucky appearance of an interpreter allowed him to explain himself.

After the Japanese surrender, Yi’s mother got cholera.  At that time the fishermen did not understand this disease.  Cholera was thought to be a stomach ailment, and was treated by Chinese doctors.  With the help of the Sky, his mother survived.  She was so weak that other sicknesses came, and she lay in bed for ten months.  He had to stop fishing and pay medical fees.  His living was very bad. He went into debt and could not mechanize.  Eventually he got a mechanized boat on a loan, but repairs ruined him.  He stopped fishing and worked for a live fish dealer.  His wife and daughters-in-law made nets.  Eventually, with hard work, savings, and a network of loans from extended fammily members, they saved enough to get a bouat and get back into fishing.


  1. The Educated Man


Saam was from Cheung Chau; the family believes it came from Toisan five or six generations ago.  His mother had some education and insisted on living on land to send Sam to school.  His mother died in 1942.  The family did not do well, and turned to the land about 1950.  His father stayed at Aberdeen, while the children were raised at Cheung Chau.  From 1952 to 1955, when his grandfather died, Saam studied in Hong Kong.  Scholarship, encouragement, and a lack of opportunities for the uneducated kept him in.  He began to read enormously, for “escapism, amusement, and necessity.”  In 1955 he became the support of his family, thanks to a small scholarship.  He got tuberculosis but recovered, went through the university, and earned a BA and diploma in Education in 1961.  He then went to teach in Yun Long.  In 1964 he was able to go to England and study for a year at the University of London.  Returning, he got a post training teachers in Kowloon, which he was still doing in 1966 [I did not find him in 1974].

Saam thought that he and a lawyer of whom he knew were the only boat people to graduate from university.  He thought Chinese “overprotect” children and do not expose them to emotional conflicts, but that the carrying belt gives the children emotional satisfaction and thus helps prevent juvenile delinquency.  England convinced him that shouting at and frightening children can harm them permanently.


  1. The Fish Seller


Sei was local born.  He was the eldest of eight.  His grandfather fished and also carried fish for Macau and Hong Kong dealers.  He took to running a small ferry.  When Sei’s father was grown, small motor-powered boats took over the industry.  His father could not carry on the ferry business, and returned to fishing.  At that time [1910s-1920s], boats were few, so fishing was not bad.  At Castle Peak Pier, fish dealers and shops were scattered around the area.  Sei’s father was cheated and oppressed by his dealer, so switched to another, and eventually wnet into dealing for himself.  He and his brothers and cousins knew only the first ten numbers, so they had to draw pictures of the fish when they wanted to list fish.  Eventually, at 12, he got to school.  Schools taught by rote and were oppressive, so he tried to escape, but his father needed business help and made him stay.  Eventually the fish dealership began to pay, and the family moved on shore.

The Japanese then occupied the colony.  Pirates and rascals took the opportunity to rob and raid.  Lives and properties were in danger.  Their dealership failed.  The Japanese destroyed the pirates, but “spies” for the Japanese could raid and murder.  The family went to isolated islands to fish for a living from  small hand-liners.  They barely survived.  They lived on rice gruel and sweet-potato meal [the most despised of foods].

Finally, the Japanese surrendered; everyone rejoiced.  Sei’s father became a fish dealer on the far side of the bay.  Sei’s younger brother—the second son in the family—became a seaman; his third worked in a shop in Yun Long.  Sei and his unmarried elder sister carried on the father’s old business.  The seaman came home and joined in.  They succeeded, and threw a celebration that “set a record” for local display.

In 1947, the smuggling business was very active.  It increased steadily.  Sei started a live fish business for the smugglers.  He got capital, and began to loan it out.  He used crooked scales.  His income was “like a waterfall.”  He became creditor on more than a hundred boats.  They celebrated many weddings and feasts.

[He took to gambling and other shady pursuits, got a disease—tuberculosis or sexually transmitted disease—and came to a sad end.]


  1. Misfortune


Ng was a native of Po On.  He had a younger brother and five sisters.  Around 1960, the brother was arrested in China and jailed for interfering with economic policy.  He died in prison two years ago.

Ng had eight sons and two daughters, and fished with a motorized trawler.

Ng’s father’s business had not been good.  Ng went to school for a short time, but the boat was short of hands.  His lack of schooling made him feel the pain of ignorance, so he was sending his sons to school in the 1960s and 1970s.  The family worked hard, but their boat was wrecked in bad weather.  They joined an informal savings-and-loan group and got their boat back to functional state.

They were out fishing one day when they saw an ordinary-looking hand trawler.  They came near it.  Suddenly gangsters from it leaped onto their boat and stole all their money and equipment.  Once more they were penniless.  Relatives loaned them money and they set up again.

Before they could get ahead of debt, the boat wore out.  At this time Japan conquered China.  Ng borrowed money from arms-runners and ran arms from Hong Kong to loyalists fighting the Japanese in Guangdong.  As soon as he got enough money, he stopped this dangerous business, married, and went back to fishing.

Then the Japanese took Hong Kong.  The Japanese controlled the land and knew that spies and arms had to come by sea, so they terrorized the boat people, stopping boats to search, rob, and in suspect cases kill families and burn the boats.  Sometimes they would stop a boat, rape the young women, tie everyone with barbed wire, and set the boat afire.  The fishermen were “as frightened as birds scared by arrows, and could only sit and wait for death.”  When the fishermen saw Japanese boats, they would cut their nets and flee.

Once Ng was at a small island.  The Japanese came up suddenly.  The fishermen had no time to escape.  The Japanese charged with rifle and bayonet.  Ng had been asleep.  He was wakened by the noise.  He forgot his own life and fired a pistol.  The Japense—two soldiers—jumped into a sampan and fled for shore.  The fishermen could not follow them into the shallows.  The Japanese fired a machine gun. Ng and his family swam for shore and hid in a paddy field.

The family mended the boat once again—it was full of bullet holes—and went to Macau.  They did not know the waters.  They lived on bare rations.  Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered before Ng and his family starved to death.  They had no equipment left for fishing; they lived by carrying rice.

China closed its waters to unlicensed boats in 1957.  Ng mechanized, but his engine was constantly going out of order, so poverty came again.  A fish dealer loaned him money.  “The bad fate was the will of the Sky, but at least the spirits stretched out a hand to me”:  In the third lunar month [just before I met him] he caught a school of whte croakers worth $30,000 Hong Kong dollars.

But misfortune was not finished.  In 1965 he was secretly reported to the Chinese government as having poached on their waters.  He was caught in China, taken before a people’s court, and told to confess the amount of fish he had “stolen.”  He refused, and was jailed for a month and fined ten barrels of diesel fuel.  But he went back to fishing, did well, paid off his debts, and married off a son.  Finally, after being despised for poverty, he was respected.  [Mr. Choi here quoted one of the Chinese proverbs he loved so much: “The success is called king, the loser is called thief.”]


  1. The Orphan


Luk came from Pun Yu near Guangzhou.  His father was a very poor fisherman who could never succeed, so shipped out as a crewman.  Luk was one of three sons; the other two died of hunger and disease.  His mother died of starvation when Luk was ten.  His father could no longer fish, so Luk was taken as a boat hand by an uncle.  He was thus completely alone; he got no care or attention, and was laughed at by the other boys.  He had no one.  He saw his father only at a few festivals; when they met they would embrace and cry loudly, expressing their emotions.  His uncle then came into difficulties.  Sick and unable to support his own family, he sent Luk on to another uncle.  At 13, Luk began to serve this man; his wages were a silver dollar a month.  He sorted fish, swabbed decks, and mended equipment, working up to 18 hours a day.  After two years his wages went up to two silver dollars, then three.  Finally, another relative hired him at a good wage. He married at 23 and kept working.  Eventually, he saved enough to buy a boat, fish, carry rice, and otherwise work his way up.  His father grew sick and died; Luk spent all his savings for treatment and then for the funeral.  After that, he came down to Caastle Peak and mechanized his boat.


  1. The Shady Dealer


Chat came from Chungshan.  His father was a poor farmer and foodseller. When he was eight months old, Chat was adopted out to a childless boat family.  At 17 he married and took over the business.

The Japanese came, and he shifted to Castle Peak.  Illegal gangs terrorized fishermen.  But Chat associated with them and became friendly so was not bothered.  In the war, he set himself up running arms.  The Japanese cracked down, but Chat’s underworld contacts informed him and he escaped to Tung Kun.  He anchored at a different place every day, returning to Castle Peak after the war.  He went into dynamite fishing, another shady occupation.  When the Communists took over China, once again arms-running was profitable, and Chat smuggled arms from Hong Kong to rich merchants and mobsters.  He moved on land, built a wood hut, and sold firewood, rice, and groceries, but went bankrupt.  He fell back on carpentery, building illegal squatter structures.  Eventually he got his old shop back, and turned it into a café.  He then started to make dubiously valid identity cards, and otherwise deal less than legally.  He was made a representative for the local fishermen and for the Nationalists (on Taiwan).

His wife worked the café while he worked construction. He drank heavily and took a concubine.  His wife objected, and just at this point he lost his money in a bank failure.  [Chat was one of the least stable and most “hard” boat person I knew—a strange, troubled, dark personality.  When we interviewed him, he was living in poverty in a small room, spending much of his time dreaming of the past.]



  1. The Leader


Pat was a Po On man who lived most of his life at Tai O and Castle Peak.  When Pat was eight, his father died.  At 16, Pat took a job as boat hand.  He took part in the great seamen’s strike of 1925.  After that, he borrowed money and fished the Pearl estuary.  At this time he married.

By then he was already respected among fishermen, and served as local representative.  When the Japanese came, his fishing was ended.  Loyal to China, he was hounded by the Japanese and reduced to starvation.  For six years he and his family lived on sweet potato stems, rice husks, and rarely some sweet potatoes or thin rice.  His wife and two of his three daughters starved to death.

After the war, he remarried, and carried grass for mats from Chinese areas to Hong Kong, returning with salt or sugar, not bothering with minor formalities such as customs duties.  The Comm