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Focusing the familiar in Ang Lee's Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.

The Master said, "Focusing the familiar affairs of the day is a task of the highest order. It is rare among the common people to be able to sustain it for long."

Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman a 1994 movie about a contemporary Taiwanese family s struggle to maintain itself and its traditions in a modern Asia rapidly moving toward Westernization. Tao Chu is a master chef at a large hotel restaurant in Taipei. He is widely recognized as one of the finest chefs in Taiwan and according to an associate is considered a national treasure. He is the widowed father of three grown daughters. The eldest daughter, Jia-Jen, is a mid-thirties Chemistry teacher at a high school. She is a devout Christian. She longs for a romantic relationship and constantly endures snide comments about the fact that she is unmarried and without any prospects. Jia-Chien, the middle daughter is a successful executive with a Taiwanese Airline Company. She has a conflicted relationship with her father. She longs to be out of the house, out from under his influence and on her own. Yet at the same time, she fondly longs for the close relationship they had when she was young and helped him in the kitchen. She showed considerable talent as a chef, but her father forbade her from pursuing what he considered a male career and pushed her to get an education. He also banned her from his home kitchen. Her suppressed desire is to be a chef like her father. Jia-Ning is a twenty year old college student who is working at Wendy's.

Food is a central character in the film. From beginning to end the viewer is treated to lavish Chinese dishes painstakingly prepared on screen. Not only is it Chu's livelihood, it is the center of a key ritual in the family. Each Sunday evening the family gathers for an elaborate dinner prepared by the father. Through the eyes of the camera we move through the father's kitchen and catch a glimpse of the artistry, time and care that goes into the preparation of the huge feasts that are put on display at the weekly ritualized meal. There is a strong sense of order and balance here, and one that is ironically missing from his everyday life and his day to day interactions with his daughters.

In a conversation with a friend, Jia-Chien talks about this sense of order and balance as she describes a dish she has prepared. "This is 'Duck Oil Sauteed Pea Sprouts.' One duck--two dishes--two flavors. Hot and cold. A perflect balance. It's ancient philosophy. Food balanced with energy, flavor and nature." Her friend responds with "like mixing yin and yang."

We follow this family as it struggles, grows, and redefines itself. Chu is moving toward retirement, grappling with the loss of his sense of taste and trying to understand himself in changing world. In the course of the film all three of his daughters make rather abrupt life-altering decisions. Intriguingly we learn of these through announcements at the Sunday evening dinners. Jia-Ning falls in love with a young student, gets pregnant and moves out of the house. Jia-Jen falls in love with the high school volleyball coach and marries him immediately. Her justification to her bewildered sisters is that she is a Christian and thus can't have sex with him outside of marriage. Jia-Chien, is offered a Vice President's position with the airline company requiring her to move to Amsterdam. Chu comes forth with the biggest surprise of all. He announces at the Sunday dinner honoring the two, now married daughters that he will marry a neighbor who is the same age as his eldest daughter. Suddenly the family has radically changed and the nature and focus of the relationships have shifted. In one of the last scenes we see Chu with his new wife. She is pregnant with yet another daughter.

All of this is played out against the backdrop of change. The primary instigator of this change is the rapidly encroaching westernization. This threat appears in the film in a variety of ways. The opening shot of the film shows an intersection crowded with a multitude of cars and motor scooters. It looks like any western city. The younger daughter is working at an American fast food restaurant--Wendy's. The father laments the loss of the uniqueness and artistry of Chinese cooking in the new Taiwan. He complains that "people today don't appreciate the exquisite art of cooking. After forty years of Chinese food in Taiwan, the art is lost. Food from everywhere merges like rivers running into the sea. Everything tastes the same." Not only have the nature of the city and the nature of the food changes, so also has the role of women. Two of Chu's daughters are successful career women. In one scene we look out at a crowded Taipei street and see that the police person directing traffic is a woman. Women are visibly present in the film in new and strategic roles. The influx of the religious west is also apparent. Chu's older daughter is a Christian and begins each of the family dinners with a prayer given in the name of Jesus. She sings in the church choir and we frequently see her with headphones on listening to Christian music. It is a rapidly changing Taiwan faced with numerous cultural conflicts. It is an interesting aspect of the film that Chu does not lament the change, but accepts it and lives with it. He tries to hold onto the important cultural values while adapting to an amorphous culture.

Many reviewers of the film have commented on the universal themes of family, community and love in this film. In an effort to emphasize the film's appeal to a western audience they have played up the universal, human elements that transcend cultures. One online review called Need Coffee states, "This film is a really honest look at family life in the late 20th Century--and that's all families, the fact this one is in Taiwan is incidental."

Though there are certainly universal, human elements in this film, the film is grounded in a unique Asian cultural framework. The fact that .this film is Taiwanese is hardly incidental. The Confucian culture permeates the film. Thus, I want to look at the way this film embodies some of the key elements of a classic Confucian text, the Zhongyong. This text provides a lens through which to interpret and understand this film.

The Zhongyong

The Zhongyong is one of the Four Books of Confucianism. These four works are considered the canon of Confucian thought and practice. In a recent translation of this classic text, Roger Ames and David Hall translate the title as Focusing the Familiar. They translate the key word zhong as "focusing the familiar affairs of the day." Concerned that most translations of this work operate from a substantive understanding of reality that marks western Philosophical thought, they try to work from an Asian perspective stressing process, transaction and opposition. They opt for translating key terms with gerundive forms rather than with nouns. By doing this they hope to capture the authentic rhythm and unique philosophical voice of the Confucian text.

Confucianism emphasizes the importance of living well. An important grounding concept is relationships. The emphasis is not on a single, solitary unique individual, but on the person who finds himself always already in a series of relationships. It is these relationships that serve to define me and enable me to live in a noble fashion. These roles and relationships are manifold and not fixed. I am father, son, husband, brother, neighbor, teacher, friend, boss, master (to my dog!), colleague and presenter. Learning how to balance and tune these multiple roles is part and parcel of living well. Thus, living well is best accomplished within the context of an ordered society. By recognizing and following the time-honored traditions of the past a person is able to live well.

The Zhongyong can be interpreted as making the following fundamental claims.

1. The importance of the ordinary--or in Ames and Hall's terms, the familiar. The focus of the philosophical gaze is not on the nature of reality, on some supernatural principle or on some momentous concept or event, but on the ordinary world. This ordinary world is what the Zhongyong calls the "ten thousand things." The concern for Confucianism is on the normal events and occurrences that mark human life. It is these things that demand reflection, analysis and care. The ordinary becomes the primary philosophical subject and humans must express "a willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about" (Cavell, 9).

2. The exemplary person is the one who is able "to think undistractedly" on this ordinary world. The goal in Confucianism is to become a "junzi" or exemplary person. Passage #2 of the Isays, "Confucius said, 'Exemplary persons focus the familiar affairs of the day. Petty persons distort them. Exemplary persons are able to focus the affairs of the day because, being exemplary, they themselves constantly abide in equilibrium'" (Ames and Hall 2001, 91). The exemplary person is the one who is able to live in a harmonious manner. It is in the carrying out of the mundane, routine and commonplace aspects of one's existence that one finds the essential elements of living well. The exemplary person knows how to focus those ordinary moments so that they are fully grasped, fully experienced and fully transformed.

3. This process of becoming an exemplary person is a difficult task. Passage #3 states that "Focusing the familiar affairs of the day is a task of the highest order. It is rare among the common people to be able to sustain it for very long." In this regard, the Zhongyong is very similar to Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics. He says that "it is hard work to be excellent, since in each case it is hard to find the intermediate" (Aristotle, 51). Life is not neat and orderly. It is often very messy. It quickly gets out of hand and humans get swept along in the frenzy of everyday living. I used to have a saying on the wall of my office that said it is hard to remember that your purpose was to drain the swamp when you are up to your ass in alligators. The hecticness of everyday life, of raising a family, of earning a living, and of taking care of the myriad little details of getting by in the world make it difficult to keep our focus. The Zhongyong implores us to constantly be about the business of refocusing in order to living well.

4. The world is a place of interconnectivity. We live in a relational world--much like a web. Actions are not isolated but are intricately interwoven with other actions. This is evident in an interesting way in the grammar and sentence structure of the Zhongyong. One example will suffice, though there are countless similar passages with this progressive form in the text. In passage #20, we read, "Being fond of learning is close to acting wisely; advancing on the way with enthusiasm is close to acting authoritiatively, and having a sense of shame is close to acting with courage. Those who realize these three realize how to cultivate their persons; those who realize how to cultivate their persons realize how to bring order to others. Those who realize how to order others properly realize how to bring order to the world, the state, and the family" (Ames and Hall 2001, 102).

When I pay attention to one aspect of my life, it has an effect on other parts of my life. This is not an atomistic world of Leibnizean monads, blindly moving through the universe. Life is a web of relationships and when one area of the web is impacted, the tremors are felt throughout the web. This is a dialectical form of interconnectivity. When I cultivate myself, it in turn cultivates the family, which in turn cultivates me.

5. The Importance of the family. The word familiar shares the same root as the word family. The ways in which we focus the familiar are integrally connected to the ways we comport ourselves in our families. Ames and Hall state, "the family as an institution provides the model for the process of making one's way by allowing the persons who constitute it both to invest in and to get the most out of the human experience" (Ames and Hall 2001, 39). They go on to say that the family serves as "the radial locus for human growth" (Ames and Hall 2001, 39).

It is in the family that I learn how to relate, how to honor and how to engage myself in the world. It is in the family that I get my education in how to be a junzi and thus in how to focus the familiar affairs of the day.

6. The importance of creativity in ritual practice. The first section of the Zhongyong says, "What tian commands is called natural tendencies, drawing out those natural tendencies is called the proper way; improving upon this way is called education" (Ames and Hall 2001, 89). This implies that there are basic natural, social and cultural frameworks (Ames and Hall 2001, 27) that shape us as human beings. Rather than seeing these as deterministic, the Zhongyong underscores the creativity of the individual in shaping and particularizing these natural tendencies and the roles and rituals that draw these out. "The ritualization of human experience is particularistic in that ritual propriety by definition entails personalization as well as enculturation" (Ames and Hall 2001, 27).

Ames and Hall's interpretation of the active, creative human role is consistent with Robert Neville's analysis of the Zhongyong. He states that this:
 text provides the classical expression of the Confucian
 model of the self as a polar structure stretching between
 the inner heart of centered readiness to respond to all
 things according to their value and the ten thousand
 things of the world. All persons are identical with
 regard to the readiness to respond in the center, a point
 identified later in the tradition as universal principle, but
 each person is uniquely located in perspective on the ten
 thousand things, needing to respond differentially. The
 structures of psyche, knowledge, sensibilities, and skills
 connecting the two poles constitute the self. The
 Confucian lesson is that these need to be made sincere
 and subtly transparent so that the centered heart can see
 the ten thousand things without distortion and act upon
 them appropriately without perversion.
 (Neville, 5)

Application to the Film

How are these fundamental ideas of the Zhongyong at work in this film? In the first place, the film focuses on the ordinary aspects of everyday life. Some viewers and critics criticized the film for its lack of plot. In a way, they are right. There is a lack of plot. Plot is not the driving force of this film. The driving force of the film is the familiar. The film focuses on the everyday lives of these family members as they eat, work, interact, worry and care for the familiar affairs of the day. Its concern is how these characters respond to each other and how they long for authentic relationships. The film, like the Zhongyong, directs its attentive eye on the ordinary world--the world of the ten thousand things--and pays attention to how we comport ourselves in and toward that world.

The title of the film--Eat, Drink, Man, Woman--stresses the ordinary aspects of life. The essentials of life--nourishment and relationships--both sustain and enhance our lives. Food and love occupy the heart of this film. Whereas the ritual of food sustains the familial community, love enhances it. Three of the four central characters in the film fall in love and reestablish a new relational center during the course of the film.

Secondly, if exemplary persons focus on the familiar affairs of the day, then it is clear that throughout much of this film the various family members have lost their focus, thus revealing the difficulty of the task. Passage #4 states, "The Master said, "I know why this proper way is not traveled: The wise stray beyond it while the simple minded cannot reach it. I know why this proper way is not evident: Those of superior character stay beyond it while those who are unworthy cannot reach it. Everyone eats and drinks, but those with real discrimination are rare indeed" (Ames and Hall 2001, 90). All members of this family are smart, talented folk. They have strayed beyond the familiar. They are all looking for something other that what is familiar to satisfy them. They have isolated themselves from each other and have little real communication. They are all looking for something that they feel is missing from their lives. The familiar aspects of family life have been distorted. With the possible exception of the youngest daughter, all the members of the family seem unsettled and uncomfortable in the familiar confines of home. The important familial relationships are strained. It appears that each of them want to reach out and correct it, but none know how to do it. Time and time again, family members dance around each other in futile attempts to meaningfully engage each other and to reveal their inner heart. As the Zhongyong says, "but being driven forward they run headlong into nets, traps, and pitfalls without any of them knowing how to avoid them" (Ames and Hall 2001, 91). In the terms of the Zhongyong, they are petty persons, not exemplary persons.

This loss of focus is symbolized by Chu's gradual loss of his ability to taste. He, whose life centers around the creation of tasty morsels to satisfy the taste of others, has loss his sense of taste. He has to rely on his friend and fellow chef, Wen, to indicate to him by his facial expressions if the food is properly seasoned. Chu can no longer tell on his own. He has lost his ability to focus and differentiate the familiar affairs of his life. The familiar has lost its savor and as a result he is cut loose from the essential moorings of his life and is experiencing a loss of equilibrium. In a culture that places a centrality on roles in defining who we are, Chu has lost the standard of measure that enables him to discern his success as a person and a chef. He contemplates retirement because he feels he can no longer cook at the level he demands of himself.

In the third place, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is a story about filial piety. It examines the key relationships that mark human life--father/daughter, man/woman, friend/friend, elder/younger--and explores these relationships as they mature and grow. The film doesn't leave us in a distorted world in which the familiar is out of focus. It shows us how through the propriety of relationships this distortion is focused and clarity in our lives and roles are achieved.

One example of this involves the relationship between the elder Chu and his young neighbor, Rachel. Although we don't discover the relationship till the end of the film, Chu has fallen in love with Rachel's mother, Jen-Rong. Jen-Rong is a terrible cook and Rachel is condemned to eating burnt food, buying fast-food lunches and eating packaged foods while waiting for the bus. Chu, whose life rotates around the centrality of food, is concerned for her and starts preparing her lunches. If her mother makes her a lunch, he trades Rachel his wonderful assortment of delicious dishes for her barely edible fare. The lunches draw the attention of her fellow classmates and soon Chu, the master chef, is preparing lunches for Rachel and her fellow classmates. At the end of each lunch period she takes orders from her friends and Chu prepares the requested dishes. In his attention to this ordinary aspect of life--a child's lunch--he establishes a bond with Rachel. A relationship of caring and respect is forged.

In the fourth place, this film reflects the Zhongyong's view of ritual and the role of human creativity in the expression of that ritual. Though ritual has certainly been altered in the modernization of Taiwanese culture, the ritual is an important part of the life of the Chu family.

A common comment in reviews of this film is that it demonstrates the emptiness of ritual from the mindless bowing in the schools to the Sunday dinner ritual of the Chu family. They cite Jia Chieu's reference to this event as the "Sunday torture ritual." I think this is too easy a judgment and one that does not catch the complexity of the film. In Zhongyong 19 there is a stress on the importance of ritual propriety as the means of finding one's way in the world. The rites of society, particularly those of the family, are the ways in which order is rightfully maintained. We tend to see these rites as prescribed events that we must perform. Ames and Hall want to redefine these rites as habits.

To use the word "habits" to characterize li might seem initially somewhat disenchanting, reducing intense and elegant ritualized experience to the ordinary and the routine. But the Confucian claim is precisely that it is not in the ephemeral "momentous" events that the profound meanings of life are to be realized. It is through the routine and ordinary that life becomes enchanted. And, properly understood, habits are essential to this process of enchantment.

As stated earlier, the Zhongyong wants to emphasize the importance of creativity in the performance of those habitual events that give structure, order and meaning to life. Passage #25 says, "Creativity is self-consummating, and the way is self-directing. Creativity is a process taken from its beginning to its end, and without this creativity, there are no events. It is thus that, for exemplary persons, it is creativity that is prized. But creativity is not simply the self-consummating of one's own person. It is what consummates events" (Ames and Hall 2001, 106). In this passage, the term events can be taken as those ritual events, like the Sunday family dinner. Both the event and the way we as individuals perform the event is important.

With the Zhongyong's stress on creativity, it is clear that the agent must bring something of herself to the ritual. When the habitual action is done in the right way with the right attitude, then the ritual is imbued with meaning. If the ritual is mere repetition of an oft performed event, then it is devoid of meaning. The problem, however, is not in the ritual, but with the way in which the ritual is carried out. Passage #14 gives this analogy, "As in archery, so in the conduct of the exemplary person. In failing to hit the bull's-eye, look for the reason within oneself" (Ames and Hall 2001, 95). The ritual loses its meaning and becomes empty and sterile when creativity is not present. When creativity is present, the habitual rite becomes transformative. In the film, even though the ritual is seen as empty and even a torture, it continues. Its endurance is still a connecting link for the family. In its enduring, habitual presence there is the possibility for the return of vitality and uniqueness to the ritualized act. It is the constant that always there in the life of the family.

This is clearly seen in the last scene of the film. Jia Chieu has been given the responsibility of preparing the Sunday dinner. She labors at it with much the same intensity as her father, but she brings her own creativity to the ritual meal. The demands of their new families keep everyone from attending except Chu. He sits down with his daughter and shares in the feast. Something is different about this feast. Both characters exhibit a sense of peace and joy that were not present earlier. There is a level of involvement and interaction that was not present in the previous dinners. He comments that the soup has too much Ginger in it. They squabble about the amount of ginger that is necessary in the dish and then simultaneously it hits them. Chu can taste. He asks for more soup and savors the return of his taste buds. They look at each other and grab hands. He calls her daughter and she calls him father. Here the ritual has been transformative. In the habitual meal and in the genuine communication that takes place in the sharing of that meal the structures of familial order are restored and the roles are duly recognized in love. Passage #1 of the Zhongyong says, "This notion of equilibrium and focus is the great root of the world; harmony then is the advancing of the proper way in the world. When equilibrium and focus are sustained and harmony is fully realized, the heavens and earth maintain their proper place and all things flourish in the world" (Ames and Hall 2001, 89-90). In the merging of ritual, human creativity in the way the ritual is expressed and in the focusing of the familiar, human life regains its balance and once again flourishes.

In summary, this delightful film reveals the dynamic change in Asian culture, the effects of this change on family structures, the resiliency of the traditions in adapting to this change and the creative, pragmatic ways of observing these habits in the modern world. In passage #20 we read, "Thus, exemplary persons cannot but cultivate their persons. In cultivating their persons they cannot but serve their kin. In serving their kin, they cannot but realize human conduct. And in realizing human conduct, they cannot but realize 'tian.'" In the end, the father and his three daughters have cultivated their "persons." They have paid attention to the strengthening of the relational webs that mark them as-persons. In so doing, they have revitalized and refocused the bonds with each other, have reestablished the closeness of the family and have thus realized themselves.


Ames, Roger T. and David L. Hall. 2001. Focusing the Familiar: A Translation and Philosophical Interpretation of the Zhongyong. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
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Author:Awalt, H. Mike
Publication:East-West Connections
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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