Pride and Ambivalence: Food Heritage and Rural Identities among Young Generations in Estonia and China

Theme: The Cultural Significance of Rural Identity to the Upcoming Generations

by Ms. Siyun Wu
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Beijing, China and lives in Leiden, Netherlands
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
PhD candidate in the Music Heritage and Citizenship in Estonia, Leiden University



Drawing from the author’s ethnographic fieldwork in two small places, Kihnu – a heritage Island in Estonia and Xin-ye – a historical village in China, and looking into how people recognize rural traditional food. This paper compares the different perceptions on rural lives and rural belongings among the young generations. Drawing from the differences that were emerged as a result of people comparing between the rural and the urban, the traditional and the modern life. Thus, this paper tries to look into how the pride and ambivalence in rural identities are constructed in the complex environment of powers and hierarchy of values.

Food, Heritage and Identities

Understanding heritage beyond merely a thing (Smith, 2006) and what is labelled as “(world/national) heritage”, heritage can also be defined, as many scholars suggest, as the cultural transmission of a material or a symbolic estate (a set of myth, rights, ownership, stories or persona) (Graburn, 2001), a resource for identity formation and expression at both personal and communal levels (Dicks, 2004; Harvey, 2008; Graham & Howard, 2008). Food, then, as one of the most essential parts of our daily life, is such an indicator that reflects, asserts, shapes, and aspires the transmitting and growing of identities. The connection between food and socio-cultural identities has long been an important research theme in anthropology.

Our eating and food making, what, where, when, how, are all connected to who we are and our imagination of who we were and who we want to be. Besides the creation of self, food also creates social boundaries, reflecting how groups of people position themselves and how people think they are being positioned in relations to “the others”. Moreover, the differentiation of food also comes with judgement and division of the better and the worse, which arise from the relative power and value in various cultures and given historical contexts.

In the volume of Edible Identities (Brulotte & Giovine, 2014), scholars have inspiringly further achieved on situating food consumption within the emerging and quickly expanding context of heritage-making, urging us to investigate food heritage as fluid and unfixed social constructs, and a powerful avenue where identities are complexly transmitted and formed, and are strategically articulated and negotiated. As Baumann (1999) puts it: “All identities are identifications” What is chosen to be food heritage, how people talk about it, how people make judgement and preferences on it, are part of the process of heritage-production in as much as of identification, what identities people are embracing and trying to forget, how people are taking on certain positive or negative past, how people are seeing themselves and their relationships with others and with the societies.

Following the discussion on relationships of food, heritage and identities, in this paper, I look into the food consumption and people’s ideas about rural and traditional food as food heritage ethnographically in two small places: Kihnu Island in Estonia and Xin-ye Village in China. Both communities have close ties with heritage activities, with Kihnu being a UNESCO world heritage site since 2008 and Xin-ye a listed heritage site in China since 2000. The cultural tourism and local heritage productions-based heritage preservation and local development are having profound impacts on both Kihnu and Xin-ye and their local communities among many other influences in the local contexts. In a comparative perspective, the author takes a specific focus on the young generations [1] and, through the lens of food, exploring their identities as well as their aspirations and concerns on future and its connections environmentally, culturally and socially with ‘the rural’.

Kihnu Island and Xin-Ye Village

Despite their geographical distance and difference, as Kihnu being an island surrounded by sea in Estonia while Xin-ye village in the middle of mountains in eastern China, Kihnu and Xin-ye share many similar backgrounds and features, as particularly well-preserved heritage in rural settings. These similarities, in relevant to rural heritage, open up the possibility to compare people’s perceptions of ‘the rural’ and how people recognize their rural origin and identities in the two countries.

To start with, Kihnu and Xin-ye become heritage under the contraction to the progressive development towards modern societies, which have been happening rapidly in their countries. Although one in Europe and one in Asia, Estonia and China can both be seen as countries of agricultural culture in history and these two countries, after becoming independent nations again (Estonia in 1991, China in 1949), have strong discourses on “catching up” with “the developed west” and booming the development projects on building themselves into modern countries.

Kihnu and Xin-ye, in a way sheltered by their geographical remoteness and natural landscape, have got relatively untouched from the modernization process and remain ‘rural’, one as a traditional island and one as a historical village. In such background of not yet catching up with the development process and becoming ‘the modern’ and ‘the urban’, Kihnu and Xin-ye become known as heritage with their picturesque nature and agricultural landscape, as well as their rich cultural traditions in different forms (from food and music to festival and ritual practices) and traditional communal lifestyles, which represent the rural origins of both countries and of many Estonian and Chinese people.

Kihnu Island in 2019 ©author, 2019
Kihnu Island in 2019 ©author, 2019
Xin-ye Village in 2016 ©author, 2016
Xin-ye Village in 2016 ©author, 2016

With the titles of heritage, although going in different pathways, tourism has developed rapidly and brought many changes to both communities. Visitors with needs on facilities and customer services bring improvements on infrastructure and create economic opportunities for the local people, from employed jobs at the visitor centre to entrepreneurship: shops, catering, accommodations, touring services and so on. In both places, different from the mainstream tendency in both countries, young generations start to move back to their rural hometown, finding jobs, helping or creating family business, while also making changes to the local life with new or advanced ideas and things they find ‘outside’.

The relatively exclusive communities over time also become open under the tourist gaze (Urry & Larsen, 2011). Based on my observations and descriptions from the local residents, visitors to Kihnu and Xin-ye are usually from the cities or “more developed area”, and, besides the scenery and fresh air, people are attracted by the overall rural life experiences, which they usually admire as idyllic and tranquil and as a living memory of their own past. In both places, the daily farming lives local residents still leading are moved into local museums and become exhibitions and special activities for visitors. “The past” (Lowenthal, 1985) provided by the communities, to some extent, becomes the lost paradise in the eyes of visitors. More than the gaze, tourism in Kihnu and Xin-ye, which with particular interest on experiences of the ‘rural past’ and rural life also leads to the opening and sharing of all possible aspects of everyday, and even personal life of the locals. Both in Kihnu and Xin-ye, many locals open their own home as restaurants and homestay. Everything, from what people eat and drink to wear and use, in history and in the present, all in turns become local specialty and local heritage.

In Kihnu and Xin-ye’s processes of becoming rural heritage and tourist destinations, the communities and people’s daily life are put into active encounters and comparisons with the ‘others’ and, ‘the urban and modern’ life model. Looking into how the rural heritage and rural identity are being recognized by the local young generations in Kihnu and Xin-ye, despite the similarities discussed above, I increasingly see differentiation. And one of the very outstanding mirrors of different understandings on ‘the rural’, is how people connect with the local ‘rural’ food.

From “the Rural” Food to Rural Identities: Kihnu Leib vs Xin-ye Migao

Looking and asking how Kihnu and Xin-ye people consume and think of the food they daily eat and now known and sold as local heritage, while Kihnu people usually introduce and describe to me with a strong sense of pride and preference, Xin-ye people show a more ambivalent tendency. Take the homemade dark bread Kihnu Leib and rice cake Xin-Ye Migao for example. One Kihnu girl coming back to the island from the university city in summer, spending time with her grandmother and taking a part-time job at a local farm selling their Kihnu Leib said to me:

“Some family take two days to make it. Some take three days. My grandma makes our own Leib at home. … I like it (dark bread made in the Kihnu way) much better than the other Leib. Leib here is special and different. You can’t find it from supermarket and you can’t find it in other places.” [2]

Many Kihnu people, like in elsewhere in Estonia, also buy commercial bread nowadays. Although it’s more convenient to buy and more options are available, Kihnu people still prefer their seemingly simple Leib and making their own ones. Some even start from making their own rye flour. When I ask about how to eat Kihnu leib, another girl with origin from Kihnu said to me:

“It’s simple but the fresh Leib here is so good. Just take a bit of butter on the slice. The taste of it is unbeatable. I always miss it when I am not on the island. … Like everything else in Kihnu. It’s different from anywhere in Estonia. It’s special. It’s in my heart.” [3]

Even for the younger generations, Kihnu bread is still made and eaten by the locals as one of their favorites. In Xin-ye, the traditional rice cake suggests a very different picture of what position food heritage can stand in local people’s hearts. Although like Kihnu, people still make and eat the rice cake at home, introduce and sell it proudly as something from Xin-ye, people, particularly the younger generation, see the rice cake as something they know from their hometown and something they do eat and are used to eat, yet, in comparison with other things, it is not something they really prefer and think particularly nice.

“The city folk are interested in it. They don’t have this kind of old stuff anymore. It’s new and refreshing for them now. Different. It’s the feeling they are eating now. I eat it too sometimes and when it’s freshly out of the steam pot, very nice. But it’s nothing fancy. It’s village food after all. It’s not as good and special like those soft and tasty buns with many different flavors in those bakeries in town.”[4]

Like how a Xin-ye young man working in city described to me, for many Xin-ye people I had contact with, although the rice cake does speak to their memory and suit their daily taste, it’s not as special and as preferred like how Leib is like for Kihnu people.

With more time I am staying in Kihnu, I increasingly see that such different perceptions and levels of preference from local people on Kihnu Leib and Xin-ye Mi-gao are in connection with people’s understanding and evaluation on many other aspects of rural life, from the house, facilities, life activities to social circles. And, to put it in a broader picture, such different ideas towards rural food also resonates with people’s views on their identities and on their positions as someone with a rural background in societies.

The homemade dark bread and beer consumed and made by Kihnu people on a daily basis become known as special “Kihnu Leib” and “Kihnu Õlu”. ©author, 2019.
Homemade rice cake and yellow wine commonly found in every local household in Xin-ye sold with labels of “Xin-ye Migao” and “Xin-ye Jiu”. ©author, 2016.
Homemade rice cake and yellow wine commonly found in every local household in Xin-ye sold with labels of “Xin-ye Migao” and “Xin-ye Jiu”. ©author, 2016.

‘The Rural’ in Different Understanding

“The rural” has taken on very different meanings in Kihnu and Xin-ye. In Xin-ye, snack food and dishes for visitors are what locals will also make for themselves at home and according to the season, materials are usually taken from people’s own farm, pool and garden freshly. For urban visitors who usually “eat out” and buy food from markets or different kinds of catering and need to concern about food security and sanitary, food from Xin-ye is a worry-free, fresh and homey treat like “eating at grandma’s in the old times”. However, for local Xin-ye people, instead of one occasional nostalgic and long-lost choice out of many they can have in the city, this is what they have and only have every day and year-round.

Sometimes people will have to keep having one same dish, bamboo shoots with pork for example, for one week because this is what they have and have to finish before another round of harvest and slaughter. Otherwise, food will be wasted. For the local youths, particularly for those who are studying or working in town or city, some particular descriptions I often hear from many of them are: “It’s nice but it’s plain and simple. It’s not like in the restaurant. Not suitable for the big table [4]”; “It’s boring to have the same taste, same thing all the time.”; “After work, I don’t want to clean, cut, cook every day so that I can eat. In the city, I can order or just buy food. Easy. But in the countryside, there is nothing.” “The rural” is often associated with the lack of options, demand on hard work, and seen as boring, out-of-fashion and undesirable in Xin-ye.

A Xin-ye home meal in spring time with fried small river fish, fresh vegetable fried with garlic, pool-raised carp cooked with soy sauce, and bamboo shoot soup bowl with pork. ©author, 2016.

Although there are also hardship and inconvenience still, eating, going to and living in the countryside usually sound more like an ideal dream in Kihnu, and the affection is no less from the locals than visitors. Many people living in Kihnu take much enjoyment working in their fields, gardens or greenhouses, finding mushroom, picking berries, fishing and hunting in nature. When they introduce, share, and talk about food with me, like how the two girls describe Kihnu Leib fondly and proudly, what they always adore the sense of nature and are proud of obtaining food out of their own hands. Once when I had dinners with a Kihnu friend when she came back to the island and visit her family, she introduced what she made to me joyfully:

“It’s a very simple tomato salad. I just make it with some mozzarella. I picked the tomato with my mom in the garden earlier. They are very fresh!

And this (a dish made with boiled potato, slightly salty pork meat, carrot and cabbage) is a very typical meal we have in Kihnu. We don’t have many things to make food in the old days so very often we just mix everything we have, particularly in the wintertime. But I really like this dish, particularly the potato in this season. … (Meanwhile she took some extra potato and added some butter and salt,) we eat potatoes all the time but I can’t live without it, and now I can have potato in my favorite way because they are fresh now. We don’t need to peel the potato at all. The skin makes a particular taste from the earth. Add a bit of butter and salt. It’s the best way I like to have it. I always miss this when I am abroad.

(She laughed seeing me taking photos again on the plum cake she made,) mom gets a lot of plum in her garden so I use them. It’s simple but it’s better than those cakes from the shops. I put less sugar so it’s healthier. I always make those myself for the children.”[6]

Kihnu home dishes in summer time with potatoes boiled with meat and vegetables and cake baked with fresh fruit. ©author, 2019

The simplicity and repetition of the limited food materials don’t seem to stop Kihnu people from loving their food and expressing that love without denial or doubt. It’s nothing special while at the same time very special in their own hearts. In particular contrast with the association with a village farming life as being lasted for generations in Xin-ye, in the eyes of young Kihnu people, fishing and farming are not so much the survival means like it was for their ancestors but their life hobbies and ways of relaxation and entertainment in nature. Being in the rural here is more like going back to home in the wild nature and having a free and peaceful, adventure-filled and fun, natural and independent life.

Staying, Leaving or Returning

When I ask about the future, people’s perceptions and recognition on “the rural” get more practical and in details with concerns on all different aspects of “managing a life in reality”, school and job, the elders and the children, house and medicine, social life and activities, judgement on one-selves and comments from others. The general tendencies I find are that, although there are some developments in their village and building a future in the cities are “definitely harder”, Xin-ye youths would love to leave the village if they could, while that in Kihnu, many young people would love to keep staying or come back living on the island, but they will need to find some ways to manage to make a living. In the context of Xin-ye, staying or returning to the village could mean being easier to have their own houses and having the family’s support with looking after the children, but “in the cities life is better and more successful” with more opportunities and things they want: decent and well-paid jobs, better education for children, convenient and colorful modern life. Leaving the village is hard but is a more hopeful and promising step-up of life. In Kihnu, although it is increasingly possible and there are growing examples with the tourist development on the island, going away from the busy, noisy, crowed, clock-ticking city life and staying or returning to the heart-comforting island and the free and natural rural life is also still hard. The tourist season, job opportunities and accesses to various substantial material are limited and it is still hard to manage and to get through particularly the long, cold and dark winter.

While Estonia and China being on their rapid ways of developing from agricultural countries to modern ones, as a part of the process of heritagization, the meanings and the ways of living as ‘the rural’ have both changed in Kihnu and Xin-ye. My investigations on rural food as heritage and identities of local youths in both cases are situated within my limited time and access to the communities, and there are many other factors that are complexly interwoven influencing the rural lives and rural identities. But what might be interesting and thought-provoking is that, rural heritage and ‘the rural’ can mean very differently and can be connected to people’s identities in very different positions accordingly. From the specific stories of Kihnu and Xin-ye, having more pride or more ambivalence on their rural identities, one thing in common is that there are big differences between the urban and rural areas in both countries, and the young generations are facing challenges to keep a rural life, to build the kind of connections they desire with the rural heritage, from food to environment, social states to life quality.


  • Baumann, G. (1999). The Multicultural Riddle Rethinking National, Ethnic, and Religious Identities. New York: Routledge.
  • Brulotte, R. L., & Giovine, M. A. (2014). Edible Identities: Food as Cultural Heritage. Farnham; Burlington: Ashgate.
  • Dicks, B. (2004). Culture on Display. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  • Graburn, N. (2001). Learning to Consume: What is Heritage and When is it Traditional? . In N. AlSayyad, Consuming Tradition, Manufacturing Heritage: Global Norms and Urban Forms in the Age of Tourism (pp. 68-89). New York: Routledge.
  • Graham, B., & Howard, P. (2008). The Ashgate Companion to Heritage and Identity. London: Ashgate.
  • Harvey, D. C. (2008). “The History of Heritage” The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Lowenthal, D. (1985). The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Urry, J., & Larsen, J. (2011). The Tourist Gaze 3.0. Los Angeles; London: SAGE.


[1] The young generations I refer to in this article are people from 18 to 35 years ago whom I have met and had contacts with during my fieldwork in different times from 2015 to the present. All names and personal information are anonymized for the protection of privacy.

[2] This is drawn from conversations I had with her to learn about Kihnu leib and its making procedure during my visit to Kihnu in August 2019.

[3] This is drawn from conversations took place in Kihnu in August 2019. At the time we met, she was also spending her summer holiday and working on the island.

[4] This is drawn from conversations I had with a local Xin-ye man in his 30s during my stay with his family in March 2016. He worked in the city and came back to the village during weekends when he could and on holidays.

[5] The big table also means decent, graceful and high-end settings.

[6] This is drawn from multiple conversations I had with her when I had dinners at her mother’s place in August 2019.

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