Inspired by Eric Wu and provoked by the recent drama based on Charles Dickens’ fat novel, David Copperfield, I decided to re-read it for the first time in many years. I was struck by how much the England of David Copperfield resembles the China of today. Here, for example, Copperfield’s aunt comes to London from her home in the country and eats very little. Why? She doesn’t trust the food.
Supper was comfortably served and hot, . . . and consisted of a roast fowl, a steak, and some vegetables, to all of which I did ample justice, and which were all excellent. But my aunt had her own ideas concerning London provision, and ate but little.
‘I suppose this unfortunate fowl was born and brought up in a cellar,’ said my aunt, ‘and never took the air except on a hackney coach-stand. I hope the steak may be beef, but I don’t believe it. Nothing’s genuine in the place, in my opinion, but the dirt.’
‘Don’t you think the fowl may have come out of the country, aunt?’ I hinted.
‘Certainly not,’ returned my aunt. ‘It would be no pleasure to a London tradesman to sell anything which was what he pretended it was.’
—from Chapter 23
Miss Trotwood’s suspicion that the food is adulterated, or fake, or otherwise unhealthy, certainly resembles fears about food purity and quality in China today, but there are other similarities as well. In Dickens’ novel we see a huge gap between rich and poor, and we see furthermore that the rich have a very interesting relationship with the poor. The two groups meet and speak with each other frequently, so that the rich on one hand feel completely superior to the poor, but on the other hand are familiar with them, understand their dialects, and interact with them on a daily basis. The poor are tradesmen and their employees, but also domestic servants, actually living in the homes of the rich and intimately familiar with their lives. These servants are sometimes mistrusted by the rich, who suspect them of stealing and cheating them, but at other times are loved almost like members of the family. These relationships reminded me, too, of the relations between rich whites and their African-American servants in the American South after the Civil War.