Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Central Fungus Commission

In northwestern China, a fungus called facai (Flagelliform nostoc) grows on the roots of grass. In Putonghua and Cantonese, its name is a homonym for the phrase "get rich." Thanks to a semiotically daunting variant of the Doctrine of Signatures, this makes it a particularly auspicious - and expensive - dish in Hong Kong.

To get the facai, harvesters uproot the grass, which apparently takes about ten years to regrow. In the meantime, the earth where the grass formerly grew is exposed to the wind. Harvesting a pound of facai destroys roughly four acres of land. The result has been accelerated desertification, and horrendous sandstorms as far away as Beijing.

It's been illegal to harvest facai for the past six years, but starving people are nothing if not resourceful:

Groups of impoverished facai pickers, nicknamed "the central fungus commission" in a bitter word play on the all-powerful Central Military Commission in Beijing...take the bundles home to pick out the black strands and sell them on to traders.
The Western doctrine of Signatura Rerum claimed that the divinely ordained appearance of plants gave clues to their uses: a plant that looked like an ear would help with earaches.

By contrast, Chinese homonyms create an allegorical connection between things with no obvious visual or conceptual resemblance to one another. Which I suppose one could view as an example of what Walter Benjamin called “the translation of the language of things into that of man.”

But I digress. Here we have a superstition that is quite literally laying waste to the earth. The funny thing, though, is that it's primarily a superstition of the rich and educated, for whom it's essentially a luxury.

Many of the people who harvest facai live in caves or hovels; while the black market facai trade may bring in enough money to fend off starvation, it certainly hasn't made the harvesters rich. Furthermore, it's earned them the emnity of local farmers who have a very personal interest in slowing down desertification, and are willing to kill to keep what little grass remains from being uprooted.

All in all, the notion that facai is an auspicious dish is surely not widespread among harvesters. The cult of facai flourishes mainly in big cities, where it promises redundant wealth, and - more important - demonstrates it.


prairieoyster said...

Really interesting!

Reminds me of Justin Brashares' slew of articles posing a correlation between mammal declines and over-fishing in West Africa. European demand for fish off the African coast depletes the amount of fish available for wealthy, meat-hungry city dwellers which then drives a demand for bushmeat from the forests.

Here's the article in Science, "Bushmeat Hunting, Wildlife Declines, and Fish Supply in West Africa".

Phila said...

Very interesting - and grim - stuff, PO...thanks for the link!

WHT said...

You mean the facai doesn't even taste good? You'd think we can at least turn them on to the powers of bee pollen.

Phila said...

You mean the facai doesn't even taste good?

Well, they claim it's a delicacy. But all the recipes that feature it seem to involve lots of ingredients that have actual flavors.