Polluting smoke or fragrant fumes: The dilemma of a Chinese rural kitchen

In today’s blog Rune Svarverud, whose articleVentilation for the Nation: Fresh Air, Sunshine, and the Warfare on Germs in China’s National Quest for Hygienic Modernity, 1849–1949′ has just been published ‘online first’ in Environment and History (subscription access / paywall ), zooms in on the micro-level, exploring questions, problems and perceptions of air quality in traditional Chinese kitchens.

When entering a traditional, modestly equipped, kitchen in rural or suburban China as a foreign researcher, one is often struck by the care invested in the layout and arrangement of furniture, pots, utensils and other kitchen paraphernalia in the room. Large windows, usually open in all seasons, let sun and fresh air into the tidy kitchen. A powerful exhaust fan is commonly installed above the stove to ensure the venting of smoke and fumes from cooking. Stoves are fuelled by twigs, wood, dried dung or other organic materials on family festive days, so cooking often entails emission into the kitchen (smoke from the burning stove and fumes from stir-frying greens and meat) in spite of the continual flow of air created by the open window and the exhaust fan.


A modestly equipped and well ventilated kitchen in rural Zhejiang, China. Photo by the author.

A team of researchers analysing the human dimensions of air pollution in China, of which I am a part, has for some years engaged with people’s perceptions of air quality, the adverse health effects of polluted air and negative environmental consequences caused by, for instance, basic cooking and heating facilities in rural China. We ask questions like: Are home cooks in rural China, mostly women, exposed to hazardous levels of household air pollution? Are these women aware of the risks and consequences of cooking in these conditions? Recent research informs us that concentrations of soot and particulates, in particular the smallest particles referred to as PM2.5, in indoor air during cooking reach health threatening levels[1] Furthermore, this research also shows that people in rural China are frequently more concerned with ambient air pollution emitted from local industry than with the air quality in their homes. If these home cooks are not particularly concerned with indoor air pollution, then what is their take on home and kitchen air quality?

We can safely surmise that key ideas about the relationship between air quality and health introduced into China as elements of hygienic modernity from Western literature in the early twentieth century, as part of the young Chinese nation-state’s strategies to bolster the health of the population and build a strong nation, still prevail in many people’s minds today. During the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s the young generation in China, through school textbooks and edifying articles in children’s magazines, learned about the importance of breathing fresh air, exposing oneself to sunshine, avoiding dust and germs and, last but not least, ensuring the effective ventilation of vitiated indoor environments. (See my current article in Environment and History.) As a foreigner in China today, one is still often surprised by the extent to which people, in particular in rural areas, prefer to keep windows open – in homes, offices, public buildings, work spaces and on public transportation – to ensure fresh indoor air. Rather than being concerned with low temperatures on cold days, many seem attracted to the idea that spending time in well-ventilated indoor environments is good for their health. This has, however, not always been the case. Such perspectives on the importance of ventilation of homes and buildings came into vogue in the first half of the twentieth century with hygienic modernity from the West. Previously, smoke and fumes in the kitchen were considered a blessing, if we are to ascribe prominence to perceptions of human spiritual and material gains inscribed in traditional folk beliefs.

To this day in rural homes, it is common to find an image of the Kitchen God, or Stove God as he is called in Chinese (Zaowang 灶王, often also referred to as Dongtang siming 東堂司命, or Dongchu siming 東廚司命), hanging in a central position on the kitchen wall. On the poster displayed in this particular kitchen in rural Zhejiang province, we read the following couplet:

The sun shines on the golden vessel bestowing auspicious energy (日照金瓯呈瑞气).

Smoke encapsulates the jade vessel providing additional fragrance [to the food] (烟浮玉鼎有余香).

The Kitchen God blessing sunshine, smoke and fumes to ensure a fragrant and tasty meal. Photograph by the author.

The role of this traditional deity, who blesses the smoke and fumes in the kitchen as beneficial to the inhabitants of the house and guests, contradicts the ideas about air quality and smoke as harmful found in the principles of hygienic modernity. Quite understandably, betwixt and between prevailing traditional ideas about nutrition, health and sense of taste, and ideas about air quality espoused by hygienic modernity, the cook in rural China is at loss as to how to best deal with the stove smoke and the cooking fumes. Should windows be opened? Should the exhaust fan be turned on? Or should the cook let the fragrant cooking fumes fill the air and entice guests? These choices of taste, health and risk – unfortunately – become questions of gender, class and socio-political status in rural China even more pronouncedly today than in previous decades, it seems.

[1] Kristin Aunan, Qiao Ma, Marianne T. Lund, and Shuxiao Wang. 2018. ‘Population-weighted exposure to PM2.5 pollution in China: An integrated approach’. Environment International 120: 111–120; Anna L. Ahlers and Mette Halskov Hansen. 2017. ‘Air Pollution: How Will China Win Its Self-Declared War against It?’ In Routledge Handbook of China’s Environmental Policy, ed. Eva Sternfeld, pp. 83–96. London: Routledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s